By Jeff Jones
Twitter – @jmjones
CHICAGO — One of the most exciting things about coming to the ballpark everyday is the evergreen opportunity to see something rare. On Saturday, those in attendance got to see something genuinely unusual.
They got to see José Martínez get mad.
A disputed call of time in the ninth inning was followed by a quick pitch by Cubs reliever Pedro Strop that Martínez felt shouldn’t have been delivered. Though he stayed in the game, the ensuing argument dragged on for a few minutes. Long enough, at least, to have a lasting impact on the at-bat – Martínez struck out.
“After that you cannot get back to the plan, of course,” Martínez said on Saturday afternoon. “I mean, I wish I [could] actually go back. My manager told me, ‘I need you in the game,’ of course. My body [was] there, but not my mind.”
His body has been many places throughout a long career in baseball. Born in Venezuela, Martínez got his first taste of professional ball (outside of his father, Carlos’s, Major League career) in the Venezuelan Winter League. He was a teammate there of Chicago White Sox infielder Yolmer Sánchez, who eagerly praised Martínez on Sunday morning.
“If you’re around him you’re never gonna be sad or mad,” Sánchez said. “This is the kind of guy that you wanna be around all the time because he’s always happy. Doesn’t matter. He always is happy and all the time, when I see him on TV, he’s always smiling, playing around. He’s a good guy.”
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt had perhaps the best description of José – “Hosey’s a human Red Bull.”
“He’s exciting. He’s got great energy. He’s in a good mood, he’s got a beautiful smile, he loves and has got passion for the game. But that guy’s got fire. That guy’s got some serious fire.”
Shildt was careful to emphasize that fire. Martínez said on Sunday that he couldn’t remember the last time he was angry on a baseball field. Shildt said firmly that he could, but with a laugh, explained, “well if he can’t remember, I don’t remember either.”
That fire comes from a career that included stops in the minors for the White Sox and the Atlanta Braves – a brief period of release in independent ball – and then Kansas City before the Cardinals organization. Through all of that, Sánchez said, Martínez has remained the same guy.
“He’s been through…a lot of moments,” Sánchez said. “He got released, surgeries on his knee, and he played in independent league and then he signed with Kansas City.”
“He killed Triple-A and he [didn’t] get a chance to play in big leagues with Kansas City. So he’s been through a lot of things, but he always stays positive. He always keeps working hard, and look who he is right now.”
Sánchez, who first met Martínez in 2011 while playing winter ball for Martínez’s hometown Tiburones de La Guaira, said that he follows the Cardinals outfielder on social media. He was impressed by Martínez’s diversity of interests; charitable work in Venezuela, some brief stints as a DJ, and his Primos Cafecito coffee line.
Shildt’s most impressed by the competitor. He stressed Sunday that there are four characteristics which can help determine the success of an outfielder’s throws to bases. “How quickly they come get the ball, how quickly they get rid of it, how accurate they are, those are all three things you can control. And then your arm strength’s your arm strength.”
Martínez, long criticized for his uneven defensive play, flashed a strong throw on Saturday in delivering a strike to third base to throw out Kris Bryant to end the first inning. Shildt praised him for working during batting practice to refine his throws, Martínez praised work done by Willie McGee, and McGee shrugged and said, “I’m not doin’ nothin’.”
Martínez explained that while playing first base last year, his arm angle on throws tilted downward in order to accommodate the shorter distances. That sapped him of some strength. Now, back in the outfield, he’s over the top full time and delivering the ball as strong as ever.
“You always want to be good out there,” Martínez explained. “And [first base] was a new position. I’m not saying excuses. There [were] a lot of coaches that spent a lot of time with me practicing and ground balls and stuff, but of course I feel better [in the outfield].
“Instincts. That’s a big part of it.”
Martínez took a picture – posted on Instagram – with Alex Rodriguez on Saturday afternoon. Cafecito was back to his usual self on Sunday afternoon. He had teammates in hysterics as he gave a spirited interpretation of Atlanta pitcher Max Fried’s dive into home plate in Miami, which was playing on TV.
“La Bicicleta!” he yelled as he spun his arms. Spanish for “bicycle,” and the name of a 2017 reggaeton hit for Shakira and Carlos Vives that DJ Cafecito is, no doubt, aware of.
“You can argue [with umpires],” he explained, “but it’s not gonna change the call.”
Nor, says Sánchez, is it going to change Martínez.
“When I met Café [the] first time until today,” Sánchez said, “he stayed the same. Same person. Nothing changed on him.
“He’s crazy. He’s unbelievable.”