Asking Carmelo Martinez to play left field is a bit like asking Van Cliburn to play the electric guitar, Chef Boyardee to prepare chop suey or an actor to run the country.
Obviously, we’re talking about not dealing to strength.
Certain folks have aptitudes for specific endeavors. A personable chap with a great gift for gab would be wasted sitting by himself in a think tank, whereas an introverted loner with a stutter would hardly be the person to direct community relations. You wouldn’t ask Rodney Dangerfield to play a romantic lead.
Martinez is a first baseman. That is the position he has always played, all through high school and college in Puerto Rico and on to a succession of minor league outposts in organized ball.
Until he came to the Padres in 1984.
Alas, the Padres already had one of what Martinez was. Not only did they have a first baseman, but they had a first baseman who might someday have a plaque in Cooperstown and a bust in Washington, D.C., at the same time. Carmelo played the same position as Steve Garvey, who treats missing a baseball game like a felony.
And so it came to pass that Carmelo Martinez became a left fielder. At least, that was what he was called. He had the right equipment, meaning a glove with fingers.
He would go out to the position and play hard, but he always felt like a ketchup stain on a white tuxedo or maybe a dandelion on the 18th green at Augusta.
Out of place.
And uncomfortable. You know how you feel when you break your zipper on your way to a party and you just know everyone is looking at the safety pin?
Carmelo Martinez had a downright joyous year in 1984, that most joyous of years for the Padres. He hit .250 in his first full year in the big leagues, and supplied some power with 13 homers and 66 RBIs. All of those numbers were better in 1985: .253, 21 and 72. This young man--all of 25 now--was obviously on his way to a successful career.
And it just did not seem that he was having that many problems with his defense.
“Oh yes, I did,” he said the other night. “I did. The thing was, I didn’t have anybody behind me to put the pressure on me. When Marvell Wynne came in, I knew he’d be in there if things didn’t go the right way. That’s part of the game.”
Things did not go right for Martinez for most of the first half of the season, including knee problems, so he came home Thursday night a bench warmer. Wynne was in center and Kevin McReynolds was in left.
I approached Martinez about three hours before the game, about an hour after he had arrived, and found him pounding an orange weight into a first baseman’s glove. He did not have time to visit.
“I’ve got to go now,” he said apologetically. “I’m an extra man now. I have to go shag flies for the pitchers.”
The poor man had become a caddy, but he had retained his good humor.
After the extra men, the reserves, had taken batting practice, I approached him again.
“Geez,” he said, “I can’t sit down yet. Man, I’ve gotta take grounders. It’s not like before.”
That’s right. Now he had to fetch while the starters did their thing. McReynolds and Garvey and Wynne hit, and others killed time until their turns. Graig Nettles played catch with one of his sons, Terry Kennedy fiddled with a pitching machine and Tony Gwynn did a radio show.
Carmelo Martinez and John Kruk, extra men, took turns fielding.
“I’m not in the lineup,” Martinez said, when at last he could sit down, “but I still have to come to the park and work hard. I come early every day, taking fly balls in the outfield and grounders at first base--just in case they ever need me over there. I have to learn to deal with this. I’m not giving up.”
Martinez seems to have had many more problems in the outfield this year than he has had in the past. His offensive production is also off, partially because he has come out of so many games for a defensive replacement and partially because maybe, just maybe, the defensive flaws prey on his mind.
“I try not to take my problems to the plate,” he said, “but maybe I make a mistake that hurts the ballclub on the last ball hit to me and then I come to bat with men on base. Maybe I try a little harder, and maybe it seems that I try too hard.”
Carmelo Martinez’s defensive (or offensive) problems are certainly not caused by a shortage of either hard work or effort. He is not demonstrably aggressive like Rich Gossage or peripatetically enthusiastic like Tim Flannery, but rather quietly intense. His blisters turn inward, and his basic good nature causes folks to think maybe they don’t exist.
Consequently, this man is booed.
Why? I don’t know. What causes one human to boo another who is simply doing the best he can at doing something he cannot naturally do?
Martinez doesn’t know, and he thinks about it more than he will admit.
“You do the best you can to not let it bother you,” he said, “but it’s tough. It gets to you. I just try to remember that fans have a right to boo you or cheer you.”
What must it be like for this marked man away from the stadium? Does he hear snickers from behind the stacks of canned soup in the market? Do service station attendants lace his gas tank with leaded regular? Does he have to wear a beard and dark glasses when he takes his family out to dinner?
“Usually,” he said, “no one will say anything, but once in a while someone will say, ‘Hang in there, big guy, everything’s going to be OK.’ ”
Carmelo Martinez laughed and gestured toward the stands.