Column: Celebrating the life of an L.A. sports fan who lost his battle with COVID-19
The Los Angeles sports world lost a powerful force to COVID-19 last weekend.
He was Paul Martinez, a fan.
Martinez, 70, died Saturday afternoon at Queen of the Valley Hospital in West Covina, where he had been admitted two weeks earlier with a cough and fever.
He leaves behind the legacy of a devoted husband and proud father. Also a weathered Dodgers cap, two dozen Dodgers bobblehead dolls, a Fearsome Foursome autographed jersey, and a framed photo of Kobe Bryant guarding LeBron James.
The last voicemail greeting he recorded on his phone was, “You have reached the No. 1 Rams fan.” The last time he was seen before entering the hospital, he was wearing a Rams cap. The last chair he sat on in his house was covered in a Rams blanket.
The last thing he watched on television at home was a Dodgers spring training game. The last conversation he had with one of his brothers was to grumble about how the Houston Astros cheated the Dodgers out of a championship.
He was the guy in a souvenir T-shirt while scorching in the sun with several members of his family at a Lakers championship parade. He was the guy huddled with his children, all wearing matching Dodger shirts, in the left-field pavilion on a cold April night at Dodger Stadium.
He never set foot on a field or court except when he came out of the stands for the Dodgers fireworks shows, yet his impact was felt at every game he attended. He never owned season tickets, but his investment was as rich as any sponsor.
You might not expect his obituary to be included among the COVID-19 deaths that will touch the sports landscape. But by spending a lifetime discussing and defending and cheering for the Los Angeles teams, from his childhood in South Gate to his last home in Baldwin Park, Paul Martinez was that landscape.
He was a fan, the best of fans, the kind that breathes strength into the teams he loves, and spreads power throughout the neighborhood, and shouldn’t there be a headline for that? Maybe you know someone like him?
His silence will be profound. His absence will be immeasurable.
”The local sports teams were in his bloodstream, they were his second family,” said Blas Griego Jr., his son-in-law. “It’s folks like him who keep those teams going, and if they don’t appreciate them, they should.”
Sports are about connection, and during his nearly three decades as a mail carrier in East Los Angeles, Martinez fostered connections. He would stop and talk to folks on his route about the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, about the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey Dodgers, and about how he loved the Rams even after they moved back to St. Louis.
He became such a touchstone that residents invited him to Saturday afternoon barbecues after he finished his route, and he would gladly show up in a Lakers T-shirt and Dodgers cap to talk more sports.
He was so enamored with the local teams that he even moonlighted as an usher at Dodger Stadium. It was then that he experienced one of his highlights, something that only a fan would truly understand.
Hayley Wickenheiser, the Hockey Hall of Fame player turned medical student, has organized drives to provide equipment for medical personnel.
“My father always told the story of how he shared an elevator with Vin Scully, yet never got nerve to talk to him,” said daughter Inez Griego.
Sports are about passion, and Martinez gave his heart to his teams. While attending the 1975 NFC Championship game at the Coliseum — in which the Rams were hammered by the hated Dallas Cowboys — Martinez grabbed a Cowboys banner away from taunting Dallas fans. More than 40 years later, while standing for the national anthem before the returning Rams’ first home playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons, he wept.
“He didn’t have a mean bone in his body, but if you talked bad about one of his L.A. teams, he would take up for them,” said younger brother Jerry. “He was all about supporting L.A. He was one of the ones who started smack talk.”
Sports is about family, and Martinez attended sports events surrounded by his, which included Helen, his wife of 50 years, two children, four grandchildren and eight siblings. For Dodgers games, he might bring one family member, he might bring 15. They usually sat in the pavilion, the only rule that everyone must eat a Dodger Dog.
Afterward, he would always call granddaughter Sara and give her the score.
“Every night in the summer we’d be watching the Dodgers on TV in the bedroom,” said Helen. “We’d be yelling, high-fiving, just the two of us.”
Lakers games were usually too expensive to attend, but for every Lakers Finals game, Martinez would host a celebration complete with purple and gold balloons, Lakers cookies and cake, and Lakers T-shirts for all the children. When the Lakers won, his family would run into the street and dance, using a phone to play the Lakers’ victory song.
“I love L.A.!” Martinez would shout.
“We love it!” everyone would shout back.
“He believed sports were a way of bringing family together,” said grandson Michael, whose younger brother Blas’ middle name is Kobe. “To this day, nothing brings us together like our love for those teams. He gave that to us.”
When you read about how Los Angeles sports fandom is special because it’s passed down through generations, Paul Martinez is how that happens. When you hear about how our glittering stadiums are filled with a love born in ordinary neighborhoods, that was Paul Martinez’s address.
”The love this city has for its teams, my grandfather encapsulated that,” said Michael. “This man was our city’s heart and soul.”
Sports is religion, and Martinez spread that gospel as a longtime usher at the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Baldwin Park. His daughter often reminded him to remove his Rams or Dodgers cap before entering church. Father Mike Gutierrez would glance at the back of church during the sermon and sometimes see Martinez arguing football with security guard Danny Gil.
“Paul was Rams, Danny was Saints, and they would be debating during the middle of Mass,” Gutierrez recalled with a laugh. “Paul represents the very best of an L.A. fan. He was a wonderful man who loved our teams.”
The cruelness of his departure did not do justice to that love. After spending his life cheering others, Martinez died in isolation. After spending 70 years surrounding his family with love, he could only listen to their goodbyes by phone. A man who should have been able to publicly show off his Dodgers cap one more time will not get that chance because his family won’t be allowed to hold a public funeral.
Gameday workers impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic will collectively receive $1.3 million in financial assistance from the Dodgers.
“He would always say that our teams were never out of it, he always believed we would come back,” said brother Jesse.
Yet he died from a horrific virus that never gave him a chance to fight.
”It’s so unreal, it’s like waking up from a bad dream that doesn’t end,” said Blas Griego. “He didn’t deserve this; nobody deserves this.”
On Saturday afternoon in Baldwin Park, his many neighbors and friends will nonetheless pay their respects. They are going to line up in their cars and drive past his house, waving signs and honking horns and cheering his memory.
It will be makeshift and odd and sad. For the great Paul Martinez, however, it will also be perfect.
A championship parade for the fan.
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