ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Dave Martinez has returned to Tropicana Field many times since he followed Joe Maddon to Chicago in 2014. He is almost used to heading to the visitors’ clubhouse now. He checks in with everyone from the old days. And though the Rays’ roster is nearly unrecognizable from the ones he knew as bench coach here, the staff around the club has not turned over as much.
The difference when he returned Monday, however, is that everyone who needs him has to filter through the door of the visiting manager’s office. He has never been the man behind the desk before. The visiting clubhouse staff has never had to slide a picture of Martinez in an Expos uniform into the napkin holder in the corner before, which they did in tribute Monday.
“It’s a great feeling,” Martinez said. “I get to see my kids, which is nice. I get to see a lot of friends and family. It’s always good. I have unbelievable memories about this place, from 1998 to 2008 and beyond, we did a lot of fantastic things here. I’m excited to be back.”
Tampa Bay ran two tributes to Martinez on the video board, one acknowledging him as the man who got the first hit in Rays history and another acknowledging his broader tenure as a player and coach. A lot has changed since Martinez played here. A lot has changed since Martinez served as bench coach here, and a lot has changed since Martinez hoped he would get to manage here and several key Rays endorsed him for the position.
Martinez now is managing a contender, albeit one that lost, 11-0, Monday night. He announced earlier in the day the previously reported news that he will serve as a coach on Dave Roberts’ National League All-Star team staff.
“For me, things took its course. I’m happy to be where I’m at. I actually feel blessed,” Martinez said. “It’s a great organization. I love this team. We’re playing well. I’m really happy to be here.”
Sometimes familiarity breeds honesty, and Martinez was candid when a Tampa writer asked him about the biggest adjustment he’s had to make in moving from bench coach to manager — a question he has answered more vaguely before — or even denied he has had to adjust much at all.
“Honestly, for me, it’s the bullpen,” Martinez said. “Keeping them healthy. Keeping them fresh. That’s been the biggest thing.”
Many of the Nationals’ stars have spoken highly of Martinez. Bryce Harper has been unreserved with his endorsements. Max Scherzer has said he loves the themed trips and other unorthodox antics. But if there has been one cause of tension, an area in which Martinez has had to explain himself more than the others, it has been in his usage of his bullpen, including leaving starters to begin an inning and using the big guys at the back end more than they can handle, etc. Both Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler have admitted they need rest after heavy early usage. Both landed on the disabled list.
Martinez has admitted the need to adjust his thinking, to take care of those relievers and remain in constant communication. For the first month or so, he seemed to take them at their word, trusting them when they said they were available. Though their usage has not decreased dramatically, he nevertheless acknowledged the need to lay down the law, to tell them they are down no matter what they say. The whole thing seems like a work in progress.
As the tributes, hugs and handshakes flew in, Martinez had to consider how best to use his bullpen Monday after a grueling game and trip Sunday night. The Nationals activated Kintzler from the disabled list Monday, giving them their four-headed monster of Kintzler, Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle together for the first time. Before the addition of Herrera, Kintzler pitched the seventh, Madson the eighth and Doolittle the ninth on ideal days. Kintzler said Monday he hopes that continues.
“Not to do matchups as much, but to let us each have our own innings, I think that would be beneficial,” Kintzler said. “If we know all our roles, that would go a really long way and have a really strong bullpen.”
“In a perfect world, [they would each have an inning],” Martinez said. “But that’s not the case. In a game, I’m going to use those guys to match them up the way we see fit.”
Such is the adjustment a manager has to make, funneling opinions into decisions and answering for them, good or bad. Martinez has showed the ability to own mistakes and to adjust, the ability to stay even-keeled (at least publicly) through ups and downs and the ability to earn the respect of hard-to-please stars. The ability to do many of those things earned him respect as a player and a coach, so much so that a team would run multiple video tributes to him years after he left, even though he has been back since. Things are different for Martinez now, a few months into a job that earns so few a hero’s welcome and will continue to require him to adjust and evolve.
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