An exclusive interview with Tino Martinez
[mks_dropcap style=”squared”][/mks_dropcap]he Levis are a relaxed ﬁt and he looks comfy in the T-shirt, too. But he’s shuffling a weighty World Series ring from hand to hand. “I don’t really wear this,” he says. “Draws too much attention.” The rings, four of them, are buried treasure most of the time, locked away for safekeeping. But his forearms give away the former pro long before a ring would—no matter how sparkly. Wielding a bat helped build them, sure. But so did unloading bales of tobacco at the Villazon & Co. cigar factory in West Tampa.
His father, Rene, was the foreman. And Tino and his brothers would unload trucks full of fresh leaves from the time they were 12 years old. He hauled the responsibility of carrying a load to the majors where he was counted on for clutch hitting. In his last year as a Yankee in 2001, his batting average with the bases empty was .266. With the bases loaded, though, his average escalated to .400. He was more than good under pressure, filling the giant cleats of Don Mattingly in New York and then Mark McGwire in St. Louis. Throughout his 16-year tour, he was known for locker room leadership, contagious energy and infinite drive.He still pulls for the pinstripes, though these days he’s driving his boat instead of driving in runs.
Before he ever talks about boating, you can tell that he has water in his personality. There’s a fluid, easy smile and casual confidence—a sense that he’s at home here where the channel hugs the coast. And on the Davis Islands public ball fields, by a quiet marina, Tino Martinez sat down to share what it’s like to be a Yankee, a dad and a lifelong Tampa resident.
Tell me about working in the cigar factory.
The cigar factory was about a block from the house where I lived. And growing up, from the time I was 12 years old all the way through high school, my brothers and I would work there every summer, during Christmas breaks, any time we had a day off from school. My dad would make us go there and unload big semi trucks full of tobacco leaves. It was a great lesson for us to learn. Hard work. It taught us to go to school and get an education so we wouldn’t have to do that kind of work for the rest of our lives. It was a great lesson. But we also had a lot of fun doing it.
Who taught you how to play ball?
My dad put me in little league when I was 6 years old and asked if we wanted to play. He was my coach for quite a few years through little league. He got us involved and taught us the basics of the game.
So when did you know that baseball is what you wanted to do?
My senior year in high school, I had a very good year and I got drafted by the Boston Red Sox out of high school. And I knew then, even though I turned down that offer to go to college, that I had a chance [to go pro] if I worked hard in college and kept playing well. I worked hard in college, did well, got an opportunity and I took advantage of it. So, my senior year in high school, I knew it was possible. Then I got drafted after my junior year at UT.
So, who did you root for as a kid?
I rooted for the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees both. We didn’t have a professional team in Tampa growing up and the Cincinnati Reds had their spring training here and we would go to their games. And my parents were also good friends with Lou Pinella who played for the Yankees at the time. That’s why I rooted for the Yankees as well.
Any superstitions when you played?
I wouldn’t say I had superstitions, but I had a routine. Every day I’d try to more or less eat lunch at the same time. If I was playing well, I’d probably eat the same thing a few days in a row. I’d get dressed the same way everyday.
If you could play a game of catch with anyone in history, who would you choose?
Wow. I would probably say Babe Ruth. You read so much about him and he’s this larger-than-life figure in baseball. Just to have the opportunity to see him play would be a thrill as well.
Toughest pitcher you faced?
Oh, boy. Toughest pitcher I ever faced? I would have to say, probably, Randy Johnson.
Something about you that people would be surprised to know?
I’m pretty basic. People don’t know that I love watching The Weather Channel. And I’d really like to cover a hurricane.
How do you take your ballpark dog?
Ketchup and mustard only.
You won the home run derby, were named a member of All Star teams and won four World Series. You received a standing ovation at a visiting stadium. What was your proudest moment on the field?
Winning the world series four times—getting those last outs in a World Series is, as a player, one of the greatest things you can achieve. That and probably my first big league game—finally getting called into the big league and making it, calling my mom in the middle of the night—that was probably one of the best feelings.
Proudest moment off the field?
Off the field? Being a dad. Trying to be the best dad I can be to my kids.
Something about Steinbrenner that people may not know?
How much he does—how many good things he does for the community. For people not only in Tampa and New York, but all around the world. There are so many things that nobody knows about that he doesn’t want people knowing about. And it’s great. As great an owner as he is and as tough as he is, he does so many good things.
Most memorable fan encounter?
There’s so many different ways you can look at that. I’ve met awestruck people, I guess you could say. You also meet the kids who have cancer and you take a picture with them and sign an autograph. Then they come back, they write you a letter. And all of a sudden, they get through it, they get through chemo. This one girl in New York during my first year, she had cancer. I guess I was her favorite player. I met her, took pictures with her and she’d keep in touch with me. She’d write me letters, tell me how she was doing. And year after year she got better and better, and before you know it, this 7-year-old girl, late in my career, was 15. And to see her all grown up and healthy was a great, great feeling.
Your Starbucks® order of choice?
Pretty boring. I go every morning. I used to get lattes and different things, but now I’m just basic coffee: Grande coffee with two Splendas®. And nonfat milk.
TV show you can’t miss?
Right now it would be Grey’s Anatomy.
Anything you say as a dad that you swore you would never say?
(Laughing). Aw, man. Good question. Probably telling my daughter to have fun on a date. I never thought I’d say that.
Cigar of choice?
Every once in a while, my grandfather will give me a Punch cigar. I love those. And I’m really good friends with the Padron family in Miami, so they send me cigars as well.
Do you fish?
I’m a boater. We go to Sarasota a lot, Longboat Key. Last summer, we took our kids to the Bahamas and spent three weeks on our boat.
Favorite way to spend a day in Tampa?
I’d work out in the morning, first of all. Run and lift weights for about an hour and a half. Get on a boat with my wife, my kids and whoever else wants to come, friends wise. Take off all day on the boat. Go eat lunch somewhere. Enjoy the sea.
Favorite Tampa restaurant?
I can’t just pick one. Ivaroni’s, Café Paradiso, Bonefish, Tate Brothers Pizza and Malio’s
What’s the best song on the radio now?
That Kanye West song. Can’t remember the name of it. If it doesn’t kill me…
Finish these sentences:
a great game. Anyone can play. Tall, short, skinny. Everyone.
The first thing I do every morning is…
wake my kids up. I pretty much open the doors and start screaming. They hate it.
Right now, my fridge is stocked with…
Some Fiji® water, Gatorade®, any Anheuser Busch product beverages.
The best thing about living in Tampa is…
The weather, the water, the restaurants, there’s just enough to do.
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