Davey Martinez was on the bench in his first year as a big league manager when an injury to veteran outfielder Howie Kendrick led the Nationals to decide that it was time to bring Juan Soto up to the big leagues to make his debut as a 19-year-old.
Martinez was trusted with the handling of one of the top prospects in Washington’s system then, and he’s once again being trusted with a number of young players now.
Luis García, 20, is the youngest of them, and when Starlin Castro suffered a broken wrist in Friday’s game with the Orioles in Baltimore, the Nationals brought the top infield prospect up and told him he’d be playing second in the big leagues after he’d worked his way up to Double-A in the club’s organization in 2019.
“He’s a student of the game and he pays attention to everything that’s going on,” Martinez said before last night’s series finale with the Braves in Atlanta, Georgia’s Truist Park, which ended up being postponed by inclement weather.
“You watch him up there at the top step, just watching everything and learning, before he comes to — goes up to hit, he stands by me and he starts talking about the situation, and I always ask him, I say, ‘What are you going to look for, what are you thinking?’ And he’s on cue. He’s spot-on. It’s good to see a young player like that. I think that’s a testament to our development group down there.”
Martinez has the experience of guiding a talented young player on and off the field in the majors from the surprisingly smooth rise of Soto from little-known prospect (outside D.C. and the scouting world) to World Series champion and one of the faces of a new generation of MLB stars, and he also knows a little bit about breaking into the big leagues in your late-teens/early-20s, having made his own major league debut as a 21-year-old outfielder with the Chicago Cubs in June of 1986.
It was a different time, of course, with far less coverage and scrutiny, but Martinez had to learn how to fit in a big league clubhouse and navigate the world of professional baseball, so he has a unique insight into what it takes to fit in once you’re up. And he’s got stories.
Par exemple? How did he fit in when he came up at 21, in the first year of what ended up being a 16-year career (over which he put up a respectable .276/.341/.389 line. Respect, Skip).
“I tried to stay out of the way when I came up,” Martinez said. “I’ll tell you a funny story.”
“We had just signed, in ‘87, we had just signed Andre Dawson. I’d known Andre Dawson by watching him play, unbelievable player, and I got a chance to play with him, but when he first came over, they put his locker next to mine and I heard — just by looking at him, he’s a big guy, he looks intimidating, so during Spring Training I made sure that I was there at 6:30 in the morning just to get dressed and get out of his way and just go out to the field.
“So ... some of the other veteran players had told him that I was coming in early to get out of his way, so one day I came in and he was already there.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I sat there and I kind of was trying to wait for him to get dressed and get all his stuff.
“He calls me over and says, ‘What are you doing?’
“And I said, ‘Nothing. I’m just hanging out.’
“And he goes, ‘You don’t like me?’ He said, ‘You don’t like me? I heard you don’t like me?’
“I didn’t know what to do. Seriously, I was like, ‘Oh, boy this is not going to be good right now.’
“And I said, ‘No, Hawk, I love you.’
“And he said, ‘Then why don’t you ever get dressed next to me?’
“I said, ‘Hawk, seriously, I just wanted to give you space.’ I’m freaking out, then I looked around and all the guys are laughing.
“He started laughing. He said, ‘Hey, you don’t have to be afraid of me.’
“I said, ‘Just giving you your space, Hawk. That’s all I’m trying to do.’
“He goes, ‘Nah, we’re good.’ He said, ‘If you’re going to play next to me, you need to know me.’ He said, ‘We’re teammates.’ And after that we were good, I was always next to him.
“That’s just how sometimes — nowadays these guys they come right in. Like I said, we’ve seen Luis up here quite a bit since he was 17, 18. So, they know him, he fits in, but he knows his place just like all the other guys do, and the veterans — they treat him as such. So, it’s a good combination around here with these guys.”