Celebrating 60: O’s veterans provided calming influence for young Dennis Martinez

When pitcher Dennis Martinez saw former teammate Brooks Robinson at the Orioles’ 60-year anniversary celebration, he greeted him with a line that goes back nearly four decades.

“It was great to see Brooks, and when I saw him, I said, ‘Hey Brooksie, we can’t go any higher, but if there were a higher league, you would be there. He was always fun, always joking,’’ Martinez says.

It’s a standard greeting between the two Orioles Hall of Famers, and goes back to 1976, the year Martinez was called up to the Orioles for the first time. In those days, Robinson, the legendary third baseman, often told the young Martinez similar words to build his confidence that he was capable of success in the big leagues.

“It was his way of saying, ‘I believe in you,’ ‘’ Martinez says.

Martinez remembers Robinson’s calming influence when he was making his first appearance, in a relief role for the Orioles in September 1976 against Detroit in Memorial Stadium. The Orioles fell behind 7-0 and Martinez came on to pitch 5 2/3 scoreless innings with five strikeouts versus a Tigers lineup that included Willie Horton, Bill Freehan and Mickey Stanley.

The Orioles bounced back and won 9-8. Martinez got credit for the win.

“I was coming in with the bases loaded and Brooks saw that my legs where shaking,’’ Martinez says. “He told me to pitch the way I did in the minors. He told me to throw strikes and that they’d take care of the rest. To hear that from some one like Brooks Robinson made me feel very good. It was helpful.’‘

Martinez, the first big league pitcher from Nicaragua, played 11 seasons with the Orioles, going 108-93 with a 4.16 ERA and 10 shutouts. He reached double figures in wins in six seasons. Overall, he won 245 games from 1976-1998, playing also for Montreal, Cleveland, Atlanta and Seattle.

For his career, Martinez finished with a 3.70 ERA and one-third of inning short of 4,000 innings. At 37, he threw a perfect game for the Expos in 1991, the 13th in big league history. That year, he led the National League in ERA, complete games and shutouts.

Martinez fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year, but considering he had more wins that Catfish Hunter, a Hall of Famer, and his statistics were similar to Jack Morris, Martinez should have had more Cooperstown consideration. He’s in the Latino baseball Hall of Fame in the Dominican Republic.

The Orioles signed Martinez as an amateur free agent in 1973 and he worked his way through the minors. As an Oriole, Martinez said he relied on his best pitch, a curveball, and struggled to throw all his pitches for strikes. After he was traded to Montreal, he said he got comfortable knowing he could throw his fastball, changeup and breaking pitches for strikes at any time in the count.

As a 25-year-old in 1979, Martinez had his best season in Baltimore. He went 15-16 and led the American League with 39 starts, 18 complete games and 292 1/3 innings. In one stretch, he won 14 of 15 decisions.

“I didn’t get a chance to go to the All-Star Game that year and I don’t know why,’’ Martinez says. “I took it personally. I was proud of my consistency.’‘

Two years later, Martinez had 14 wins and a 3.32 ERA and finished fifth in the American League Cy Young Award voting in the year Milwaukee reliever Rollie Fingers won while Oakland’s Steve McCatty, now the Nationals pitching coach, finished second.

Martinez said Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer was a role model for him, given they were both right-handed pitchers. “I tried to pick his brain as much as I could,’’ Martinez says.

Once, after Martinez gave up a grand slam home run to the Yankees’ Dave Winfield on a 3-2 fastball, Palmer talked to him about pitch selection in that situation. The lesson: Hitters look for fastballs in those situations, so it is better to throw a changeup or breaking pitch in those counts.

“I never gave up another grand slam,’’ Martinez says. “Jim Palmer took me under his wing. Ken Singleton was always good to me. I had a lot of good friends and good times.’‘

Singleton was the player who gave Martinez his famous nickname, “El Presidente,” saying Martinez would eventually be the president of his home country.

The good times in Baltimore came to an end on June 16, 1986 when Orioles general manager Hank Peters walked into the clubhouse to find Martinez and inform him that he had been traded to the Expos.

Martinez went into another room and cried. Mark Belanger, a former Orioles shortstop who was working for the players’ union at the time, gave Martinez a new perspective: “He told me to look at it as a good thing, that another team wanted me.’‘

It turned out well for Martinez. After the trade, he ended up playing in four All-Star Games, three for the Expos and one representing Cleveland.

And he never lost his Orioles ties: He came back for the closing of Memorial Stadium and, of course, the 60th anniversary of the Orioles last week. As Martinez walked around the field at Camden Yards during batting practice, he was talking and smiling as he greeted people.

“Seeing everybody and remembering the good times, it was a great weekend,’’ Martinez says.