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Sparking interest

Jason Martinez's future appeared bleak one year ago.

In the summer of 1994, Martinez had just graduated from Tampa Catholic High School. But he had no job, and with a "C" average, no college offers. He even quit playing baseball for American Legion West Tampa Post 248. But he never lost his desire to succeed.

"When I didn't make the grades and didn't go to college, I was disappointed with myself," he said. "So I figured I needed to straighten up and do something with my life."

He didn't need to look far for a role model. His father, Denny, is a captain for the Hillsborough County Fire Department and has been a firefighter for 19 years. His maternal grandfather, Hector Castro, retired from HCFD after 24 years and now works for the county sheriff's office.

So the boy who didn't like school enrolled in the Hillsborough Community College Fire Academy, a grueling six-month training course for would-be firefighters.

"We didn't really encourage him (to become a third-generation firefighter)," Denny Martinez said. "I've got goose bumps over what he's done and how he's changed his life around."

Martinez already has earned certification as an emergency medical technician and in hazardous materials. On Wednesday, he took the written portion of his final exam to be a firefighter.

He had saved some money from working at his family's lawn service, but most of that went toward a new car. Because mature people don't mooch off their parents even while still living at home, he also got a 40-hour-a-week job as a clerk in the county public defender's office. And after a nine-month hiatus from baseball, he rejoined the Post 248 team last month.

Because the field training at the firefighters academy is on Sundays, Martinez has had to miss several baseball games for Post 248, which takes a 13-1 record into a game against Hillsborough Post 167 at 1 p.m. today at Hillsborough High.

A short (5 feet 7) but solid (200 pounds) first baseman, Martinez has started four games with six hits in 19 at bats (.316), and has shown extra-base power with two home runs and a double (a .684 slugging percentage) with five runs batted in and two game-winning hits. He went 2-for-3 against Seminole Post 111 in a 4-2 victory on Thursday.

"Jason could have played junior college baseball, but he chose to go another route," said Post 248 co-coach Pop Cuesta. "He's got some pop in his bat and the guys were happy to have him back."

The only player on the Post 248 roster who hasn't signed or isn't actively seeking a college baseball opportunity, Martinez realizes this year will probably be his last playing hardball.

"I'll be too old for Legion next year, but this team has such a great chance to win the state," he said. "With firefighting classes, a full-time job and a regular girlfriend, there's no pressure on me when I play ball."

Post 248, a collection of players mostly from Jesuit and Jefferson high schools, has almost its entire team back from last year, when it lost to eventual national champion Miami Post 346 in the state American Legion championship game.

On Sunday, Martinez will take the field portion of his firefighter's certification exam, which includes dragging hoses and raising ladders. "Easier than hitting a curveball," he quipped.

A state firefighter's certification exam follows in July. Martinez could be fighting fires before his 19th birthday in September, but more school _ he wants to learn paramedics and emergency room nursing _ may intervene.

"I love these jobs because after work you can come home at night and be a hero," he said. "You're saving lives, protecting people and property. I wanted to get ahead in life and that's what I'm doing."

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