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Just Call Martinez Sultan of Soft-Shoe

Carmelo Martinez twirled the bat. Carmelo Martinez bounced the bat. Carmelo Martinez flipped the bat.

W.C. Fields could not have done it any better with oranges, cigar boxes or gin bottles.

Call him Magic Martinez. And--with apologies to Kurt Bevacqua--call him Twinkletoes as well.

After all, that was Carmelo Martinez doing a soft-shoe of sorts, a nimble tip-toe front-and-center while Tim Flannery, Tony Gwynn and Bevacqua himself did their own routines behind him--and probably stifled the urge to turn those smiles into laughter.

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You have seen Carmelo Martinez in that McDonald’s commercial? Dozens of times? You hum the tune in the shower, too?

“We are members of the Padre pack,” they croon, “and this is our home plate . . . “

Vaudeville may not be alive in any back-alley, smoke-filled theaters, but it certainly lives in television commercials. And Martinez, it would seem, is a fellow who was born too late. I suppose the next episode will find him pulling Big Macs out of empty Padre helmets or deftly juggling the ingredients to a Quarter-Pounder.

Carmelo Martinez could become to hamburgers what John Madden is to beer, Jim Palmer is to underwear and Mary Lou Retton is to everything else.

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And Martinez is a natural, at least at twirling the bat. That’s what I heard. Carmelo told me.

“I did it three times,” he said, “and didn’t drop it once.”

Yet it still took all day to tape the commercial. Maybe Martinez had trouble with the opening, where the players march in step onto the screen and then square around to bunt. That would be unfamiliar to Martinez because he had 807 major league plate appearances before Friday night’s game, and nary a sacrifice bunt.

However, he has had plenty of practice twirling the bat. He does it every day, along with batting practice and fielding practice and other chores more directly applicable to his primary field of endeavor.

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When he was in the minor leagues, in fact, he served a stint as designated hitter in the Texas League. With time on his hands, he took to twirling the bat. In between times at bat, he would take his bat down to the bullpen and entertain the slumbering pitchers.

Pitchers from other Texas League teams were not particularly amused by what Martinez could do with his bat. He spent two years with the Chicago Cubs’ Midland club and batted a composite .317 with 48 homers and 177 runs batted in. They would like to have seen him trade his twirling bat for a baton and go marching off with some parade. Any parade.

Fortunately for the Padres, the Cubbies were to ultimately decide he would never fit on their roster. They had him typecast--and miscast--as a bungler who would turn every batted or thrown baseball into an adventure. Since they didn’t think they had any place they could hide him, they did what they thought was the next best thing--they sent him to San Diego.

The Padres, of course, had a rather complex autocrat named Dick Williams running the show. This was a manager who believed so fervently in the so-called “book” that he took volumes of notes and kept files as complicated as a Racing Form. And this was the same manager who sent a rookie first baseman with no outfield experience to left field and told him the job was his.

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Skeptics shook their heads, and their eyebrows did “waves” across their foreheads. However, Martinez has proven to be, at worst, adequate and, at times, downright proficient in left field.

What’s more, he can do more than just twirl, bounce and flip a bat. He can also swing a bat.

If major league baseball had not already had Orlando Cepeda, Martinez could well have become known as the Baby Bull. He doesn’t exactly have the look of a Michelin man, but his powerfully built torso is softened by what might euphemistically be called remnants of baby pudge. He has a cherubic face and the eyes of a mischievous youngster who hopes the adults never find out why he is having such a good time.

Maybe he should be Baby Bull II. Maybe he could be a sequel to Cepeda.

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Martinez would quite likely add back flips and somersaults to his bag of tricks if anyone told him he was going to be as good as the original. However, he does not like to contemplate statistical achievements. He simply does not like to contemplate statistics.

Take, for example, the home run. Martinez looks like he should be strong enough to drive a basketball over the left-field fence, but home runs don’t come to him unless he plays hard to get. He has to coyly act like he isn’t interested.

When he found himself with 12 homers in July last year, he decided that maybe he was a home-run hitter. He went for it and fell on his perennially happy face. He did not hit another ball over the fence for the remainder of the year, getting one inside-the-park homer to give him a total of 13 home runs for the season.

“If I try to hit home runs,” he said, “it doesn’t work. I think of myself as a line drive hitter. If homers come, great. I’d rather get three hits and three RBIs in a game than one homer and one RBI. I guess what I recognize is the RBI.”

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So what did he do Friday night? He hit a home run to give the Padres a 3-2 lead--one RBI. When New York tied it, he eventually won it, 4-3, on a bunt hit--another RBI.

So he can’t sacrifice bunt, but he can bunt and get a base hit. So what if he can’t break dance, Carmelo Martinez obviously has to learn how get limber, to relax.

Trying too hard--it’s called pressing--has been the bane of many an athlete. Martinez concedes he succumbed to pressure during the postseason last year, when he had matching batting averages of .176 in the National League Championship Series and World Series. He did not have any extra-base hits.

“In the last game of the World Series,” he said. “I told myself to relax. It was just another game. I got a couple of hits. I hope I get another chance this year.”

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Anyone who has watched that McDonald’s commercial would probably find it hard to believe Carmelo Martinez is anything but relaxed.

I’ll tell you what I’d like to see him do. I’d like to see him do a little tap-dance from the on-deck circle, twirl and flip his bat a few times and then-- voila-- sashay into the batter’s box.

Forget Baby Bull II. Carmelo Martinez will be the Padres’ Sultan of Soft-Shoe.


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