At 1 p.m. Sunday, in a game between the Padres and their minor league all-stars, Project Third Base officially commenced for outfielder Carmelo Martinez. He ran to his new position, smoothed over the unfamiliar ground with his feet, patted his right hand into the unfamiliar tiny glove, and smiled as if wondering, Hey, what’s the worst that can happen?
Then the first batter bunted.
The seventh batter hit a sinking line drive to his left.
The ninth batter hit a grounder to his left.
The 14th batter hit a grounder deeper to his left.
But by the time the 20th batter had been retired and Martinez had packed up his gear and headed to the clubhouse, the smile was still there.
His line: Five innings, no runs, one hit, no errors.
For the worst, he still waits.
“Five innings gone and so far, I survive,” he said.
Whether the Padres will be ready to have Martinez as a third baseman come April--it mostly depends on a trade or injuries--he showed in Sunday’s 5-0 victory by the big leaguers that he will likely be ready for them.
The bunt had been fielded by the catcher, but Martinez was charging and ready. He had picked the line drive out of the dust. He had caught the first grounder and thrown out the runner despite nearly throwing it to second base on a sure-to-be-doomed force play.
The second grounder had gotten through for a single, but let’s get serious. This was the first game Martinez had played at third base in six years, longer than most of his teammates’ children have been alive. By his reckoning, he hasn’t played the position more than 25 times in his pro career, which has spanned 1,240 games over 10 years.
“I can get scary over there,” he said with a huge grin. “When I play the outfield, I used to say that the only trouble I have is with fly balls. Now at third base, I say the only trouble I have is with ground balls.”
Then he laughed, partially out of relief, and partially because he’s not sure what else to do. Nobody seems to be too certain about the seriousness of this postion change, except Manager Jack McKeon. And he’s certain only that it’s all very uncertain.
In one cigar puff Sunday, McKeon said, “He is an outfielder just breaking in at third base to give us versatility. We have to find out if he can play there in an emergency. That’s it.”
But in the other puff, McKeon said, “This can all change down the road. If we want to go whole hog with him at third, then we will go whole hog.”
Translated, it means that Martinez is working at third in case McKeon does not need him in the outfield. The only way that would happen is, if a power-hitting outfielder such as Atlanta’s Dale Murphy is picked up in a trade, or if a youngster such as Shawn Abner, who was impressive again Sunday, forces his way into the starting lineup.
So for now, Martinez will continue taking ground balls at third daily, and staying late to field bunts, and probably start there in another exhibition game or two. But Martinez will remain the starting left fielder, while the Padre third basemen will be Randy Ready--McKeon’s opening-day choice--and Tim Flannery.
Ironically, Martinez’s best position--first base--does not even fit into the equation. He has as much chance of starting the season there as Jack Clark has of getting traded.
“Right now, I don’t want to think about me playing third base, because I could work all spring at third base and then come opening day, I would see my name with a ‘7' (for left fielder) next to it,” Martinez said. “Things like this have happened too many times to me.
“I think if there is a big trade, I’m 90% sure I would be at third base. No trade, I’m in the outfield.”
But Martinez has another theory: “I know Jack likes to do different things. Who knows, maybe there is a trade for an outfielder and I still end up in the outfield, platooning with John Kruk again. I tell Kruk this year, we should always sign one contract, $1.8 million, and split it, that would be easier.”
“Easy” hasn’t been a word used often this spring by Martinez, who despite a reputation as a great fielding first baseman, has struggled at third with everything from his footwork (“My legs are so big, it is hard”) to his arm (“One difference in first and third. At third, you have to throw.”)
All of this was on his mind Sunday when he took the field and was immediately grabbed by the cries of infield coach Sandy Alomar.
“He was yelling that the first batter would bunt, and he did,” Martinez said of the attempt by outfielder Will Taylor. “I didn’t need to get it this time . . . but I know that when I’m playing, teams will be bunting.”
He learned another lesson six batters later on a line drive by catcher Dan Walters. He caught it off his shoelaces, but it wasn’t quite so simple.
“I thought it was going to be a grounder, that ball is really hard to see at third,” he said. “With all the shirts in the background and I’m standing so close . . . this time I’m lucky to put my glove out and get it. I don’t think it will be so bad during the season. “
He wasn’t so lucky later on a fourth-inning grounder by outfielder Charles Hillemann. It rolled weakly to his left and into the outfield for a single that should have been an out.
“I only saw the ball when it was halfway there, and by then it was too late,” he said. “It’s something I have to get used to.”
But nowhere was his discomfort more apparent than on a second-inning grounder by designated hitter Brian Span, with Hillemann on first and two outs. Before the play, second baseman Joey Cora shouted at Martinez to go to second base with a grounder. But this grounder was so slow, by the time Martinez had picked it up, Hillemann was nearing second and the proper play was to first.
“I turn to throw and I hear Cora yelling, ‘first, first, first,’ ” Martinez recalled.
In one motion, Martinez turned and whipped the ball to first. The throw was high and off the bag, with Rob Nelson barely grabbing it for the inning’s third out. It was a classic example of the real equation at work here. The Padres must take a man with ability and give him instinct.
“A regular third baseman makes that throw easily, without even looking at me first,” Cora said. “He hears me right away and throws it. Carmelo has the great hands to play third, he has the great fielding. He just must learn the other things.”
Right fielder Shawn Abner played all nine innings splendidly Sunday, making a diving catch, an over-the-shoulder catch, and a running cutoff of a grounder. But Manager Jack McKeon said Abner was not being showcased for Atlanta scouts checking out a possible deal for slugger Dale Murphy. In fact, McKeon wants all talk of the Murphy trade to stop. “I want to stop building up guys who think they are going to be traded, and other guys who think we are getting Murphy,” McKeon said. “I saw too much of that happen with the Tim Raines stuff (when the Padres nearly acquired Raines from Montreal in the spring of 1987). After we didn’t get Raines, everybody was deflated, and it hurt us. I don’t want this happening now. The next time we talk about Murphy--if there is a next time--it will be when we get him.” McKeon said he has stopped talking with the Braves, and is waiting for them to make the next move. “If they give me an idea of what it will take to get Murphy, fine, we’ll talk, but until then . . . I’m going with the club I got. If something happens, it happens.” . . . Combining on Sunday’s shutout of the minor leaguers were pitchers Greg Harris (three innings), Greg Booker (two innings), Terry Gilmore (two innings) and Rickey Bones (two innings). Together, they scattered nine hits. . . . The major league hitting stars were Jerald Clark and Joey Cora, both of whom tripled for the game’s only extra-base hits.