#CardCorner: 1996 Topps Dennis Martínez
Starting with a non-traditional youth baseball experience….then strike-abbreviated seasons….and a late-blooming mastery of the game. All of these made the career of the first-ever Nicaraguan major leaguer seem more difficult than it should have been.
What it was, however, was nothing short of brilliant.
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Martínez’s 1996 Topps card shows him in his second season with the Cleveland Indians. Already in his 40s in 1995, Martínez was unquestionably the ace of an Indians team that went 100-44 and hit the baseball world like a tornado.
Martínez started the first game of both the ALDS and the ALCS that year, and was the Game 2 starter in the World Series against the Atlanta Braves. In the deciding Game 6 thriller, Martínez worked 4.2 scoreless innings, but Cleveland lost 1-0 on a sixth-inning home run by David Justice off reliever Jim Poole.
But a no-decision could not erase a season – and a career – filled with success for the gutty right-hander.
Martínez was believed to be born on May 14, 1955, in Granada, Nicaragua, though some put his birthdate a year earlier. He played with balls made of socks until he was well into his teens and began to play organized ball around 1971. By 1972, he was starring in international tournaments for Nicaraguan teams.
The Baltimore Orioles signed Martínez in December of 1973, but even the most optimistic scout could not predict big league success for the 6-foot-1, 135-pound right-hander. At that point, there had never been a Nicaraguan who had made it to the majors.
He began his pro career in 1974 with Class A Miami, and Martínez turned heads by going 15-6 with a 2.06 ERA in 25 starts. He returned to Miami to start the 1975 season, but by the end of the year he had ascended through Double-A and onto Triple-A with the Rochester Red Wings.
After going 14-8 with a 2.50 ERA with Rochester in 1976, Martínez earned a promotion to the big leagues – and he made his Orioles debut on Sept. 14, working 5.2 innings of scoreless relief in a 9-7 win over the Tigers. On the next-to-the-last day of the season, Martínez pitched a complete game, allowing just one run in eight innings in a 1-0 loss to the Red Sox.
With the help of a couple fine defensive plays by Larry Walker – who was manning first base that day – Martínez entered the history books.
“This is big for me but also big for the team, for everyone who’s an Expo,” a teary-eyed Martínez told the Montreal Gazette following the game. “This was a team win. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Martínez signed a two-year, $9 million contract with the Indians following the 1993 season, and Martínez was 11-6 with a 3.52 ERA in 24 starts when the strike ended the season – and the hopes of the Indians to break their postseason drought. But in 1995, Cleveland was the toast of baseball – and Martínez was its ace. He went 12-5 with a 3.08 ERA over 187 innings, earning his fourth All-Star Game selection.
Age and an elbow injury slowed Martínez in 1996, though he won nine games for an Indians team that again advanced to the postseason. After becoming a free agent following the season, Martínez signed with the Mariners, but he went 1-5 with a 7.71 ERA in nine starts before being released on May 24.
He announced his retirement later that year, but came back in 1998 to pitch 53 games as a part-time starter and middle reliever for the Braves. With his third victory of the season, Martínez – who went 4-6 that year with a 4.45 ERA – passed Juan Marichal for first place on the list of wins by a Latin American pitcher.
He even appeared in four games in the NLCS that year, picking up a win in Game 4 of a series the Braves lost to the Padres 4-games-to-2.
Before the 1999 season started, Martínez again announced his retirement – this time for good.
He finished with a career record of 245-193, a 3.70 ERA and 2,149 strikeouts – and a nickname, El Presidente, that perfectly captured the status of a man who remains an icon in his home country and throughout much of the baseball world.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum