I met Jose Martinez while on a freelance assignment at the Braves Dominican Academy in San Francisco de Marcoris. We rendezvoused at the airport in Santo Domingo, with our first stop coming a few miles down the road at a convenience “shack” to get a Presidente beer, the Budweiser of the Dominican. Before long Jose was regaling me with stories of a life in baseball, from his time as a reserve infielder with the Pirates in the late 1960s to stints as a coach with the Royals and Cubs.
Before finishing that first Presidente he was telling me about a night out on the town with Dock Ellis during Spring Training in Bradenton. Jose was hazy on the details but remembered waking up on the beach, in Ellis’ car. He was exactly what I had hoped he’d be: Funny, profane and eager to share.
Jose played with Clemente and Stargell, tried to restrain George Brett during the Pine Tar game and coached under Don Zimmer. For the last 20 years he worked for the Braves as a special assistant to the GM. You probably never heard of him but his importance to the franchise shouldn’t be underestimated.
Jose had an eye for talent — he was excited for me to watch 17-year-old Neftali Feliz throw. “Look at his hands — those are Pedro (Martinez) hands,” he said.
But as Mark Bowman wrote today, “Martinez’s greatest value came via his ability to relate and communicate with the Minor League players as they adjusted to life in professional baseball.” Jose’s job was to help acclimate the team’s Latin prospects to Major League Baseball and life in the U.S., and he was perfectly suited for it. We attended a Winter League game and visited both clubhouses. Jose seemed to know every player in there, from Pedro Feliz to Edwin Encarnacion. It was obvious they all liked, and respected, Jose.
Lucky for me, as I somehow got separated from Jose at the end of the game and had no ride back to the motel, a good 10 miles away. I hitched a ride with Tony Pena Jr. and Willy Mo Pena (talk about big hands). Luis Polonia’s daughter, a knockout, by the way, was there too. They didn’t know me, of course, but I knew Jose and that was good enough for them.
You couldn’t help but like the guy. I laughed a lot that week and learned a good deal about baseball. Jose loved the sport and those who played it — with a few notable exceptions. Discussing a certain relief pitcher who came to the Braves at the trading deadline the season before, only to cough up a huge lead in the deciding game of the NLDS against Houston, Jose said, “I knew that el cono would blow it.” I’ll let you look up el cono.
Jose, a native Cuban, was 72. I was lucky to spend a few days with him.