Standing atop the on-field stage after his Nationals swept their way into the World Series by dismissing the Cardinals last Tuesday, Davey Martinez sounded more like a poet than a manager describing the season.
“Often, bumpy roads lead to beautiful places,’’ he said. “And this is a beautiful place.”
And also like an historian.
Because Martinez’s path to this pinnacle was anything but paved.
After 16 years as a player (including a stint with the original Devil Rays), five off as a civilian playing dad to four kids, then a couple easing back in as a spring instructor and part-time coach for the Rays while living at home in north Pinellas, Martinez re-upped fulltime in 2008 as Joe Madden’s bench coach.
The wins, initially unexpected, started coming, and the times were good. After a few years on the job, expanding his duties and handling many of the tough conversations in the clubhouse, learning as he went from Maddon and others, Martinez felt ready, willing and able to manage on his own.
There was only one problem.
He couldn’t get a job.
Martinez interviewed in 2010 with the Blue Jays, who hired John Farrell. In 2012 with the Astros, who hired Bo Porter. In 2013 with the Cubs, who hired Rick Renteria. Also in 2013 with the very same Nationals, who hired Matt Williams. Martinez also talked, if not formally interviewed, with the White Sox and Indians, maybe a few others.
“He wanted to be a manager for a while,’’ said Tom Foley, his former teammate, Rays coaching colleague and car-pooler to the Trop. “The interviews came and went, he’d get second fiddle a couple times but didn’t get the job. Someone always beat him out. I remember looking at him and going, “What are you doing in these interviews, man?” ‘’
The rejection that stung the most came after the 2014 season, when Maddon left the Rays via an out clause in his contract.
Martinez seemed the obvious successor, given his contributions to the team’s success on the field and strong culture in the clubhouse. Maddon deemed him ready. Several high-profile players spoke out on his behalf.
Martinez was among the 10 original candidates, but didn’t make the cut to the final three, which included Kevin Cash, Raul Ibanez and Don Wakamatsu. Team president Matt Silverman said at the time they wanted “a new voice,’’ which they found in Cash, and, should be pointed out, has worked out pretty well.
Martinez followed Maddon to the Cubs, spent three more years as his bench coach there, then got another opportunity when then Nationals called again.
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That, too, has worked out.
“I interviewed quite a few times and finally got a job with the Nationals,’’ Martinez said. “And I greatly appreciate it.’’
“He felt it was something he could do, it was something he wanted to do, and got it and he did it,’’ Foley said. “He had to grow into the manager he was going to be, and how he was going to do it.’’
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said as much as the time, that Martinez in 2017 was much more comfortable with who he was, and focused on what he could do as the man in charge than the first time they talked.
Maddon expected Martinez to do well.
“The biggest hurdle, I thought, would just be the day to day media stuff,’’ Maddon said last week. “He is a very good coach, and he will have the difficult conversations. And he knows how to run a game.’’
Martinez still had some growing into the job to do.
When he opened his first spring training in 2018 by bringing in three camels so his Nats players would “embrace” the challenge of getting over the hump of past postseason failures, he was accused of channeling his inner Maddon.
“No," Martinez said. "That's me channeling me."
And then he set out to prove it.
The 2018 season went just okay, 82-80, including a potentially awkward June return to the Trop that Martinez handled well, saying, “Things took their course and now I'm happy to be where I'm at.’’
His tenure seemed in jeopardy with a 19-31 start to this season that sparked rumors he was close to getting fired. Martinez, 55, insists he never wavered nor worried (and Nats officials, naturally, say now he had no reason to), that he knew the team was talented enough to win once key players got healthy, and stuck to his mantras, to “go 1-0 each day” and to “stay in the fight.’’
The team rallied, eventually winning the top NL wild-card at 93-69. Though in mid-September Martinez had his own battle, chest pains during a game — “Scary, real scary” — that landed him in the hospital for a cardiac catheterization and orders to change his diet and sit more during games to reduce stress.
The season overall?
“It's been a little wild, but it's been a lot of fun,’’ Martinez said. “I believed in these guys. I never gave up on them. We've had a lot of fun together. I had some health issues. Thank God, I'm cleared of all that, and here we are.’’
Oh, and about those “bumpy roads" and “beautiful places”?
Turns out Martinez got that line from his mom.
Foley knew his old buddy had to have some help. “That was pretty good,’’ he said. “I didn’t know who gave that to him, but I don’t think I ever heard that coming out of him. That didn’t sound like him.
"But he had it ready, he threw it out there and it was perfect for the occasion.’’
Sounds kind of like the story of Martinez’s season.
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.