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Jose Martinez's Incredible Journey Gets A Payoff

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Jose Martinez (Photo by Bill Mitchell) After 887 minor league games, Jose Martinez is finally a big leaguer (Photo by Bill Mitchell)[/caption] Do you wonder why baseball players don’t give up on their dream of becoming big leaguers? Because every now and then a story like Jose Martinez’s gets a happy ending. Most of the Jose Martinezes in baseball find an unhappy end to their pro careers. There are the releases out of spring training and the minor league free agents who find that they can’t get a team to answer their texts and phone calls. JJ-CooperBut then, a story like Martinez’s brings hope for many minor leaguers. Martinez made his big league debut on Tuesday night as he grounded out to third base as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning of the Cardinals’ win over the Pirates. Big league debuts are always special. But Martinez is much more than your average September roster addition. Until last year, Martinez’s best skill seemed to be survival. He’d kept getting jobs at ages where many of his ex-teammates and friends had been forced to leave the game. Play the game the right way, respect your teammates and your coaches and opportunities may keep popping up. Martinez was once a Top 10 prospect in the White Sox system, but that was way back in 2007, when Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen and Clayton Kershaw had yet to establish themselves as big leaguers. Martinez was still a long way from the majors when he tore ligaments in his knee the following season and missed much of next two years. The knee injury sapped some of his speed and largely derailed his progress. He made it to Double-A for the first time in 2011 as a 22-year-old. After two middling seasons in Birmingham, he became a six-year minor league free agent. Atlanta scooped him up, sent him back to the Southern League and watched him do what he’d done for Chicago. He was a right fielder with a great arm but lacking any carrying tool to get him to the big leagues. He made a good bit of contact, hit for a solid average but he didn’t have nearly the power teams want in a corner outfielder. After that 2013 season, Martinez was once again granted minor league free agency and this time no one called. Without a job in affiliated ball, Martinez headed to independent ball and the Frontier League’s Rockford Aviators. At this point, Martinez’s career should have been over. He was playing in indy ball as a 25-year-old with a decade of pro experience. He’d never hit 10 home runs or more in a season and he hadn’t stolen 10 bags in a year since his knee injury. But players who love playing baseball often have a hard time giving up on the dream. If there’s a chance, they’ll take it. And Martinez was given another chance. It wasn’t a great opportunity. After some injuries left the Braves with a need for help in Class A. Martinez would be playing with players in their first and second full seasons as pros. He was in his 10th year. But Atlanta needed a veteran presence in the middle of the club’s high Class A Lynchburg lineup. It was a path back to affiliated ball, but a 26-year-old in high Class A is not much closer to the big leagues than one playing in independent ball. To Martinez’s credit, he didn’t pout or complain about being sent back to a league he’d first set foot in four years before. By all accounts he was a positive presence in the clubhouse as a veteran who could help younger players learn how to be a pro. “Jose is a great person. He loves to play the game. He’s a hard worker. He just loves to play baseball,” said Ronnie Richardson, who was the Braves’ director of minor league baseball operations at the time. “He never once felt sorry for himself. That’s a mark of how he competes every year. Makeup matters. It matters a ton. Guys that you can trust, and guys who play the game the right way, you feel good when you give them an opportunity.” That next offseason, Martinez was again a minor league free agent. Richardson had left the Braves for the Royals. He vouched for Martinez and the Royals signed him as a minor league free agent. As a 26-year-old heading to spring training with high Class A most recently on his resume, simply making a team would be an accomplishment for “El Cafecito.” Instead, when Paulo Orlando was a surprise addition to the Royals’ big league club, Martinez was sent to Triple-A Omaha as a fill-in. He responded with a season for the ages; one that defied all expectations. Martinez got a hit in his season debut. And another hit the next night. Two more the next day. There was a four-hit game before long and many more multi-hit nights. At one point in August, Martinez had two or more hits in 13 of 15 games. Instead of being an extra bat off the bench, Martinez proved to be the best hitter in the Pacific Coast League. He hit .384/.461/.563 for the Storm Chasers, setting a modern-day Pacific Coast League batting record. Martinez had never hit better than .307 in a full season before. No one is ever truly a .384 hitter, but for the entire summer, Martinez seemed to square almost everything up and when he didn’t, his bloops seemed to find a hole. When the season was over, the Royals placed him on their 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. All of a sudden, the veteran minor leaguer who had to work every offseason just to find a job for next year was guaranteed a spot in big league spring training. And just like that, the magic disappeared. Once-in-a-lifetime seasons don't happen twice. The long-term scouting report on Martinez was still accurate–good hitter, good outfielder with a solid batting eye but little power. Martinez hit .298/.356/.433 for Omaha in his return trip this year. When Kansas City needed space on the 40-man roster this May, they traded him to the Cardinals for cash. With St. Louis, Martinez was once again the solid veteran presence he’s long been, but his .269/.326/.415 average is well off the otherworldly pace he set last year. But with the Cardinals looking for another hitter who could play some outfield and first base, they brought Martinez up on Tuesday. A little more than a decade after he signed his first contract with the White Sox, the lanky Venezuelan can say he’s a big leaguer. He’s played 887 minor league games with 11 different minor league teams to reach this point. There’s a  chance that this September’s stint in the big leagues could be the entirety of Martinez’s big league career. That’s what happened with John Lindsey. Lindsey survived eight years of Class A before he ever reached Double-A. He went through six stints of minor league free agency, a release and two years in indy ball before he put together the season his life as a 33-year-old in 2010. In what seemed like a karmic reward for a long career of perseverance, Lindsey hit .353/.400/.657 that year for Triple-A Albuquerque and was rewarded with a September in the big leagues. He hit .083 that September with the Dodgers and headed to the Mexican Leagues for the majority of the rest of his career. But for the rest of his life, he will be able to carry the well-earned title of John Lindsey, big leaguer.
Adolis Garcia Bracehemmelgarngetty

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Jose Martinez can proudly call himself a major leaguer as well. He’s earned it, whether his career ends with Tuesday’s ground out or with much more, he’s already given many minor leaguers a reminder of why it’s so hard to ever leave the game behind.

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