Ray Martinez played in the minor leagues for 18 seasons without once getting to sip that proverbial Major League Baseball cup of coffee.
As the second-year manager of the Billings Mustangs, it’s his job — and his passion — to see that his players have every opportunity to make it a step higher than he did.
“I played Triple-A baseball (the highest in the minors) for quite a few years. I never got the opportunity to play Major League Baseball, but I had a good long career,” Martinez said. “It’s my job to see kids develop into better players and eventually major leaguers.”
That’s done by being patient and helping players eliminate their bad habits.
“They all have to understand the game, do the fundamentals and play the game in the right way,” Martinez said. “Sometimes they do things they learned in college or high school that don’t blend in with professional baseball.”
Martinez spoke by telephone one evening during spring training after a long day of coaching at the Cincinnati Reds' player development complex in Goodyear, Arizona.
His boss, Jeff Graupe, the Reds’ director of player development, says that Billings, often the first stop even for the Reds’ top prospects, is the perfect spot for Martinez to help his players find their footing and accelerate their growth.
“He is an outstanding teacher, one of the best we have,” Graupe said. “Sometimes you need to pat a guy on the back, and sometimes you need to be in his face. He is one of the few who can do both, and he relates well to players of all socio-economic backgrounds.”
Martinez was born Oct. 1, 1968, in Brisenes, Mexico, where he spent the first five years of his life before his family moved “to within two or three miles” of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Despite the proximity, Martinez grew up a fan of the New York Yankees.
“We could see the stadium lights from our backyard,” he said. “I have five brothers and we all played baseball. My dad and my brothers loved the game, and it was always something I wanted to do. I’m very fortunate to be in the position I am.”
Selected in the seventh round of the 1987 draft from Franklin High School in Los Angeles, Martinez landed in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1992 after lower minor league stops in Oregon, California, Iowa and Texas.
In all, the infielder played 14 seasons for AAA teams in Canada and Mexico. He finished with a respectable lifetime batting average of .275, drove in 891 runs and smacked 175 home runs — the same number of round-trippers that Pirates slugger Andrew McCutchen hit during his first eight Major League seasons.
Martinez's final season as a player was 2009, when he played for AAA Reynosa in the Mexican League.
He’s now in his seventh year in the Reds’ organization, including the 2012 season when he was the Mustangs’ hitting coach. He’s also managed the Arizona League Reds and was the hitting coach for Reds’ organization squads in Arizona and Bakersfield, California, where he makes his off-season home with his wife and their three children.
“He is completely fluent in Spanish, and that’s huge,” Graupe said. “A lot of players age 18 to 21 haven’t mastered that second language yet.”
Hitting fungoes, filing reports
While managing the Mustangs may seem like a walk in the park, the job requires long hours — about 12 hours each game day during a Pioneer League season that stretches in 2017 from June 19 through Sept. 9 with just six days off.
On home game days, Martinez arrives at Dehler Park at about noon and pencils out his lineup card for that night’s contest. The players selected that day for early work stretch for a half-hour beginning at 2 p.m., then go through whatever hitting or defensive drills the coaching staff thinks they need help with.
The rest of the team stretches at around 3:30, takes infield or shags fly balls and then takes batting practice just before that evening's opponent arrives.
After the game — after most Mustangs fans have hit the sack — Martinez and his coaching staff still have another 90 minutes or so of reporting work to complete.
“I do an overall report on the game, identify the player of the game, talk about how our pitchers and defense did, how we did with our situational hitting,” such as key at-bats with runners in scoring position, Martinez said. “We write up how well the catcher played — how he did throwing to second, how many balls he blocked, and how many he didn’t block.”
Managers of every team in the Reds’ farm system complete the same report each night, and the reports are “sent throughout the whole organization, from the Big League to the minors,” Martinez said. “We also write about prospects we like from other teams. It’s a pretty detailed report.”
“It’s a way for us to stay in touch without being there,” Graupe explained. “What Ray writes is the gospel. It’s a big part of coaching in the minor leagues.”
Martinez said he’s fond of both Billings facilities and the city's fans as he prepares for his second year managing the Mustangs. Last year’s squad fell short of its second straight Pioneer League pennant, falling in the playoffs to the Orem (Utah) Owlz.
“We are hoping to get back to that championship series,” Martinez said. “For me, Dehler Park is a place I really like to go to, because we were treated very well there last season.”
He said he plans to arrive in Billings along with many of the Reds’ draft choices “about three days before the season starts. We’ll practice a couple of days and then play the third day.”
“We’ll be ready to go,” he added. “I’m excited to get back there and get the season going.”
Graupe said he wants Martinez to continue contributing to the organization just like he has during the last six seasons.
“Players’ first professional experience in Billings, we want that to go well, and we know it will under Ray,” Graupe said. “He is a big help to me.”