A DANDY DOMINICAN : Dodger Prospect Ramon Martinez Needs a Few More Calories, but That’s All

Times Staff Writer

Ramon Martinez, supposedly the next young Dodger pitching sensation to emerge from relative obscurity in Latin America, is the physical antithesis of Fernando Valenzuela, phenom emeritus.

He is 19, 6 feet 4 inches and 170 pounds. Somewhere within that thin frame--yes, he’s even skinnier than Orel Hershiser--Martinez has smuggled in from his native Dominican Republic an overpowering fastball and an impressive assortment of other pitches.

So highly regarded is Martinez, who probably will pitch for the Dodgers’ Double-A club in San Antonio this season, he drew almost as much interest from other teams as Bob Welch did during the winter meetings. That reinforced the Dodgers’ decision to keep Martinez, whose fastball has been likened to Dwight Gooden’s.


“I don’t like to talk about which players we’ve discussed with teams,” said Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president. “But, I think it’s safe to say that Ramon Martinez is one of the most well-thought of young prospects not only on the Dodgers, but in baseball.”

Martinez looks like something Pedro Guerrero might swing in the on-deck circle. You fear one stiff breeze might whisk him away.

All it takes, however, is one pitch to strengthen your opinion of Martinez. In his first batting practice assignment more than a week ago, Martinez and his 90 m.p.h. fastball impressed Dodger veterans. Manager Tom Lasorda watched from behind the batting cage and uttered “oohs” and “aahs,” superlatives he usually reserves for linguine. Much of the Dodgers’ excitement about Martinez stems from the fact that they have been uncommonly short on prospects in recent years. The preliminary expectations were supported by Martinez’s performance in Class A at Vero Beach last season, when he went 16-5, had a 2.17 earned-run average and was voted the top major league prospect by Florida State League managers.

Claire is understandably enamored with Martinez, yet he hesitates to overly tout him.

“He has all the pitches, outstanding velocity and an outstanding changeup, and the only thing he needs is time to pitch,” Claire said. “But let’s keep a realistic view. Two years ago in Bakersfield (Class A), he was 4-8 and had a high (4.75) ERA. He still needs time.”

The Dodgers apparently will give him time, but it seems Martinez is eager to pitch in Dodger Stadium, where he pitched as a 16-year-old as a member of the Dominican Republic Olympic team.

“It depends on how I do this year,” Martinez said through an interpreter. “But I always have confidence in myself and think positive. I feel fine and I think I’m pitching well. But I would like to put on more weight.”


Martinez’s major problem in recent years has been losing weight, not games. He normally loses 10 to 15 pounds.

“His first pro year in (Bradenton in 1985) he lost weight,” said Dodger scout Ralph Avila, who has been Martinez’s mentor since 1984. “One problem was that he didn’t know how to order food (in the United States). They eat a lot of rice, beans, potatoes (in the Dominican Republic), but it’s tough to find that type of food in restaurants here. Then, he pitched in Bakersfield (in 1986), and he got really skinny, about 150 pounds.

“So, that winter, when he came back to the Dominican, we put him on a special diet and didn’t let him touch a baseball or work out (at the Dodgers’ Dominican baseball academy). He sat in uniform and charted pitches.”

Martinez didn’t like being sedentary, but the unusual program apparently worked wonders. “When he first got back from Bakersfield that winter, his fastball was at 84 m.p.h.,” Avila said. “I left for spring training on Feb. 15, and I told my coaches at the academy to start him slowly on running and throwing. They called me and told me, ‘You aren’t going to believe this, but we (clocked) Martinez at 92 m.p.h.

“I couldn’t believe it. Jumping 8 m.p.h. is incredible. But he had gained weight--19 pounds--and was stronger.”

Martinez came to Vero Beach later that spring and showed Avila and others his rapid improvement. Coming off a mediocre season in Bakersfield, Martinez dominated the Florida State League. He had 16 wins, a Vero Beach Dodgers record, allowing just 3 home runs and 128 hits in 170 innings. He was second in the league in wins and ERA. Martinez had his best stretch between June 29 and Aug. 11, when he allowed only 10 earned runs in 64 innings.

The downside to Martinez’s season was that he lost 12 pounds during the summer and returned to Santo Domingo for another winter of fattening up.

Again, the Dodgers suggested that Martinez rest his arm and exercise his taste buds.

“He belongs to the Licey club (in the Dominican winter league), but we didn’t give him permission to play,” Avila said. “In December, he was very anxious to pitch and he had gained back a lot of weight, so we allowed him to work out after Christmas.

“Well, he was the only kid at the academy on Christmas Day, everybody else was home.”

An intense desire to play was what first drew Avila to Martinez.

“What I first liked wasn’t his body or velocity, because he didn’t have it,” Avila said. “It was his mental approach and his aptitude. He loved the game.”

Martinez was recommended to Avila by a mutual friend who lived in Martinez’s neighborhood.

“That was a good day because the guy also recommended Juan Guzman, who we traded to Toronto. It was incredible, both those guys lived on the same block. That happens some time in Santo Domingo.”

Pitchers such as Martinez don’t come along every day, however.

“When I first saw him work out, I had my doubts,” Avila said. “He was 6-2 and 132 pounds. But he showed good mechanics and a good breaking ball and good control. We figured if we put more weight on him, it would improve his breaking ball. He was just a baby then--barely 16 years old.”

Martinez, whose childhood idol is Dominican pitcher Mario Soto, turned out to be quite a prodigy. Avila, who also runs the country’s national team, included Martinez on the Olympic team. He pitched three scoreless innings against Taiwan in the 1984 Olympics at Dodger Stadium, the youngest player competing in baseball, a demonstration sport during the Games. The Dodgers signed Martinez shortly after the Olympics. He quit high school in Santo Domingo before his junior year.

“The Olympics were very impressive,” Martinez said. “When I stepped on the mound, I said to myself, ‘This is where I want to be pitching.’ ”

Could Martinez conceivably make the jump from Double A to the major leagues by the end of the season?

“I think that would be asking a lot,” Claire said. “But other people have done it. For example, Fernando made the jump from Double A and had no problem. Steve Howe did it. What’s important is that we not rush him.

Meanwhile, the thought of playing in the major leagues apparently doesn’t faze Martinez.

“You give him the ball now, and he thinks he can pitch in the big leagues,” Avila said. “He’s a good kid, a mature kid. He’s got a good head over his shoulders.”

He’s also got a good body below his shoulders, even if there isn’t much of it.

Dodger Notes

Pedro Guerrero arrived in camp at 9:54 p.m. Guerrero is expected to report for workouts today. Some Dodger players are already speculating, mostly off the record, about potential adverse effects of Guerrero in the same clubhouse with Mike Marshall and Kirk Gibson. But Steve Sax doesn’t believe there will be a problem. “I think it’ll be an interesting clubhouse, but that should be the least of our worries,” Sax said. “We are all grown up people, and if we can’t get along, let’s at least fake it, then.” . . . Pitcher Ken Howell, coming off shoulder surgery, faced live hitting for 15 minutes Wednesday and felt fine. But when he awoke Thursday, he had trouble lifting his arm arm over his shoulder. “It was really, really stiff,” Howell said. “But (Dodger trainers) told me it was normal and not to worry. I’ve got to bounce back faster. I can’t afford to lag behind or I won’t even have a chance to make (the starting rotation).” . . . Pitcher Jay Howell, who had missed the previous two days with the flu, returned Thursday but is on a “restricted program,” according to trainers. . . . Mickey Hatcher missed Thursday’s workout with a lower back strain. It happened a few nights ago, when Hatcher fell down the stairs of his rented house in Vero Beach. “The weird part was that my daughter had just fallen on the stairs, and I was heading down the stairs to tell her to always use the banister, and then I fell.”