In the 1970s, as a kid growing up in the shadows of Manhattan, Martinez used a bat to imitate Roberto Clemente and dream. From 1986 to 2001, as a skinny outfielder with a strong arm, he used a bat to hang with nine teams across 16 major league seasons, bouncing from Chicago to Montreal, from Cincinnati to Texas, until his body caved. Then, from 2008 to 2017, he used a bat to coach, spraying grounders and flyballs — thousands of them — so his players could be better than he was.
Now, though, he doesn’t have much need for his bat. He soon will become the first manager to start a fourth season with the Nationals. His fourth spring training began this past week in West Palm Beach, Fla. He knows every inch of the facility, treats the staff like old friends, has a full handle on his message and how he wants to lead.
Most days, while watching morning workouts, he is prepared to jump in and run a drill. That’s what Martinez says the fungo bat is for. But in reality his job is much bigger. He’s more likely to stick the bat in the ground, cross his ankles and look from one possibility to the next. In September, near the end of a disappointing season, the Nationals extended his contract when they could have just picked up the last year of his existing deal. They decided their churn through managers would stop at Martinez, a 56-year-old who has sandwiched a World Series title with two mediocre finishes.
They allowed him to settle in. They chose continuity and will see what that brings.
“Everybody talks about a window, a window, a window,” Martinez said Saturday. “I don’t see that window here. I just see us continuing to grow together.”
Martinez was nervous ahead of his first full-team meeting in 2018. As any new manager would, he wanted to make an impression on Max Scherzer, on Bryce Harper, on players who could get cut in a week. No one was spared a handshake and a short conversation. He wanted everyone to like him. But he would acknowledge later that he might have tried too hard.
The golf-chipping contest came and went. The camels? That gimmick lingered. By bringing animals to camp and joking that the Nationals had to get over the hump, Martinez was being the same fun coach who thrived under Joe Maddon with Tampa Bay and the Chicago Cubs. Then those camels became an easy punchline for a team that missed the playoffs and was selling parts by mid-August.
The next year, the goal unchanged, Martinez adopted a back-to-the-basics approach. After minor mistakes, he shouted, “Do it again!” He stressed the “little things” and repeated those words during news conferences. There were questions about his ability to manage a bullpen and master the in-game strategy of the National League. He quieted those concerns by winning the World Series.
“Going back and thinking about the history of the Nationals up to that point and how often leadership had changed, we were the next wave of newness for the organization,” bench coach Tim Bogar told The Washington Post on Saturday while reflecting on the spring of 2018. “There was a little bit of uncertainty. We knew that we had to kind of get people’s trust and respect because, up to that point, everyone who had been there for a while, from the minor league side and front office, there hadn’t been any stability. That’s the first thing I remember.”
From the beginning, then, Martinez and his staff were shouldering the weight of constant change. They weren’t sure whether that would end with them sticking around. The theme of last spring, when their future was still shaky, was to forget the title and move on. But the theme of this spring is that there’s no theme at all. Perhaps that’s a sound illustration of Martinez’s evolution as a manager: He’s comfortable in his role, in himself, and letting that speak.
Bogar has watched Martinez climb every rung of the game. They played against each other in the ’90s. They were both on Maddon’s staff with Tampa Bay in 2008. When Washington hired Martinez, his first call was to bring Bogar aboard. Not two years later, Bogar was promoted to bench coach and stationed next to Martinez in the dugout.
So he has long seen Martinez’s positivity, an unbending belief that everything — a 19-31 start in 2019, a slog through the coronavirus pandemic last summer — will end up okay. Bogar waited for the players, staff and front office to see it, too.
“I knew that he is true and honest and that he’s not making it up,” Bogar said. “He shows up the same regardless of what is going on around him. But I guarantee that everyone thought: ‘Oh, this is just a persona. He’ll be able to do this in spring training, and when the season starts it will change.’ And I think seeing is believing with Davey. It took a little bit of time, but we got there.”
Scherzer, the Nationals’ ace, even stole a phrase from his manager to explain Martinez’s growth.
“You can’t let little things become big things, and he’s pretty good about identifying little things that go on in a baseball clubhouse that he knows how to address,” Scherzer said Friday. “He makes sure to get everybody in the middle.”
On Saturday, Martinez leaned on his bat and watched Austin Voth, Wander Suero, Dakota Bacus and Paolo Espino throw bullpen sessions. In February 2018, it could have been Gio González, Sean Doolittle, Tim Collins and Jimmy Cordero pitching in the exact same spots.
That’s how turnover works. It rips through the sport every winter. But Martinez can now look at top prospect Jackson Rutledge and imagine penciling him in for a start. He can set goals for Juan Soto and Trea Turner that reach beyond the life of his expiring contract. Without looking over his shoulder and without a ticking clock, his eyes are straight ahead.
“When you see me leaning on it,” Martinez said of his bat, “my brain’s going 100 miles an hour thinking about different things.”