Tino Martinez met Ted Williams only once, a chance passing at Fenway Park in the early 1990s when Martinez was first establishing himself as a major-leaguer. Martinez, the quiet kid from Tampa, stumbled through a forgettable version of hello; Williams, the game's pre-eminent expert on hitting, replied with words as memorable now as that afternoon:
"You've got a great swing."
Martinez swung that way for most of 16 seasons, piling up strong numbers (a .271 average, 339 homers, 1,271 RBIs) and, most impressively, four World Series championships. And tonight, in a ceremony at Tropicana Field, Martinez will be inducted into the Ted Williams Hitters Hall of Fame.
"Obviously I'm not going to the major-league baseball Hall of Fame, but to be considered and have the criteria to get into the Ted Williams Hall is quite an honor," Martinez said. "I can't think of anything better, (other) than the major-league baseball Hall of Fame, than the Ted Williams Hall."
Martinez is 44 now, six-plus years into retirement, though he still looks as if he could handle himself in the batter's box. His greatest success came during seven seasons with the Yankees, and he has a job with a fancy title, a special assistant to general manager Brian Cashman, but spends most of his time in and around his native Tampa, he and his wife keeping tabs on three teenagers.
He pulls on a uniform during spring training, talks with minor-leaguers, offers his opinion on players when asked. He has also dabbled in TV.
Though without the legacy of the Yankees' core royalty — Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte — Martinez is treated as one of the most beloved during regular return visits to New York. Two dramatic World Series home runs — a grand slam in the 1998 opener, a tying blast in Game 4 in 2001 — certainly keep the volume turned up.
"When you play the game, you don't expect that type of stuff to happen," Martinez said. "To go back to a stadium like Yankee Stadium and get that kind of reaction every time, that people remember what you did as a player and what we did as a team, that's a great feeling."
And, he laughs, with some benefits in the big city: "I've never had a problem getting a reservation."
Martinez — who was drafted out of Jefferson High by the Red Sox but opted for the University of Tampa — had a broad experience in the majors and few complaints, marveling at the good fortune to play as well and as long as he did, as well as the good fortune (career earnings in excess of $50 million) he played for.
He came up as the Mariners rose to prominence and starred for the Yankees, then spent two years with the Cardinals, one at home with the Devil Rays and finished with a 2005 encore in New York. He played for, and learned from, three of the game's best managers: Lou Piniella (Seattle and Tampa Bay), Joe Torre (New York) and Tony La Russa (St. Louis). "They are all great, and I seemed to hit each at the right time," Martinez said.
He had the interesting experiences of replacing Don Mattingly in pinstripes and Mark McGwire in Cardinals red. And he won, making the playoffs nine times in his final 11 seasons.
Regrets? Actually, he has a few.
"I would like to have won a Gold Glove," Martinez said, and with cause. Especially in 1999, when Martinez had a .995 fielding percentage (seven errors in 158 games for the Yankees) and the award was voted to Baltimore's Rafael Palmeiro, who spent most of the season at DH, playing only 28 games at first.
A fifth World Series championship "would have been nice," as the Yankees — who led three games to two due in large part to Martinez's dramatic two-out, ninth-inning Game 4 homer — couldn't close out the Diamondbacks in 2001.
So, too, would have been an MVP award. Martinez hit .296 with 44 homers and 141 RBIs in 1997 but finished second to Seattle's Ken Griffey (.304/56/147).
And there was talk of catching on somewhere to get to 2,000 hits — he finished with 1,925, plus 83 in the postseason — but decided, "You don't stick around for the numbers."
Tonight will be something of a coronation for a career Martinez defines as "productive."
He will see many familiar faces in the crowd of 750-plus — presented by Yankees official Ray Negron and Julia Steinbrenner, granddaughter of George, who was a big Ted Williams fan himself — but not much family.
Daughter Victoria's Academy of the Holy Names basketball team is playing for the district championship in Tampa, and the rest of the clan will be there cheering her on.
"These days," Martinez said, "I'm down on the totem pole."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]