• Sal Maiorana

The fog of replacing Donnie Baseball begins to lift for Tino Martinez

NEW YORK (April 14, 1996) – No matter how much Tino Martinez tried to downplay the situation he was in, there was no escaping the fact that replacing a legend is one of the most unenviable things an athlete can be asked to do.

Coming to the Bronx brought an inherent pressure unto itself, one that just about every player feels once he pulls those pinstripes over his head.

But for Martinez, there was the incalculable burden of assuming the precious real estate at first base that had been Don Mattingly’s domain for 13 years.

Donnie Baseball, one of the most popular players in team history. That’s who Martinez was replacing, akin to a young rock band taking the stage after a Bruce Springsteen concert.

“Tino was the first person we considered when Donnie made it known he was not coming back,” owner George Steinbrenner said just before the start of the regular season. “He has always hurt us at Yankee Stadium. Now he can help us. And Tino doesn’t need to feel any extra pressure. He isn’t replacing Don Mattingly. He’s following him.”

Yeah, sure. No pressure, not at all. And Steinbrenner saying that turned up the heat even more because the inference was clear: Martinez was a young player on the rise while Mattingly’s body had broken down and he wasn’t nearly the same player he’d been, meaning Steinbrenner fully expected Martinez to not only replace Mattingly, but out-perform him.

“All I can do is go out and do what I’m capable of doing,” Martinez said early in spring training. “I think if I go out and play hard and put up some numbers and help the team win, if I just try to blend into the lineup and the defensive scheme and just try to keep it going and get the team to win, then I think the fans and the media will accept the team they have on the field now.”

He then added, “I’m not saying they’ll forget about the others. They’ll never forget about Don Mattingly, ever. But what I want to try to accomplish is to get them to believe that with me here on the team and in the lineup the team can still win.”

Not surprisingly, the bubbling cauldron of expectation crippled Martinez the first two weeks of his Yankee tenure. Through nine games, he was batting 3-for-34 (.088) and with no home runs, his slugging percentage was an anemic .118.

In a 10-6 loss to the Rangers on April 13, Martinez went 0-for-5, punctuated by a strikeout in the ninth, and along with the boos came the inevitable chant of “Donnie Baseball, Donnie Baseball, Donnie Baseball.”

“I’ve been brutal so I expect to be booed,” said Martinez. “I just try to tell myself not to get overanxious. Three hits all year is pretty pitiful. If I was hitting .230, .240 or .250 it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But this has been bad.”

It finally began to turn the next day as the Yankees blew out Texas 12-3. Martinez singled in the first, a bleeder back through the middle, and came around to score on a two-run single by Jim Leyritz.

“I needed to get a hit,” he said. “That was a big at-bat. I knew I didn’t get a hit the whole homestand. I needed to relax. I needed that one little cheap hit to get through. Didn’t hit it hard, but it found a hole.”

He hit the ball much harder his second at-bat, a line drive to left in the second that hung up just enough to be caught, but the result was a sacrifice fly to drive in New York’s third run of the inning which extended the lead to 5-1.

He then led off the fourth with a single and came around to score on Mariano Duncan’s two-run single, and finally, his bases-loaded grounder in the seventh plated a run that pushed the Yankee lead to 9-2.

Naturally, the question of replacing Mattingly was offered as an excuse for his start and he defused it quickly. “There is no Mattingly thing. It’s only myself starting slow, trying to do too much.”

In one 2-for-4 day his batting average rose 43 points and it would only rise from that point on. He would get at least one hit in nine of the next 10 games and by the end of April he was up to .244 and feeling like he’d survived his Yankee indoctrination.

NEXT post on April 6: Mariano Rivera's career begins to take shape.