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Orioles' Dennis Martinez Has a New Goal: Staying Sober

March 10, 1985|MILTON RICHMAN | United Press International

MIAMI — (Editor's note: Back home in Nicaragua, everyone loves Dennis Martinez. The Baltimore Orioles love him, too, and the last thing they ever want to think about is losing him. But there was a point where they didn't have much control over that. Slowly and surely, day by day, Dennis Martinez was killing himself. Just as surely as if he were slashing his wrists or hanging himself in his clothes closet.

He was doing it with alcohol. Martinez' problem with booze goes back to when he was 14. Yet, his troubles first came to public light little more than a year ago when he was arrested for drunk driving in Baltimore.

Recently, after finishing his workout in the Orioles' camp, Dennis Martinez sat down with Milton Richman, UPI Senior Editor and columnist, and described in detail what happened the first time he took a drink, some of the times after that, and how he eventually turned his life around.

Some men would like to be president, some keep hoping they'll win the lottery and some would like nothing better than a reserved seat on the first space shuttle to the moon.

Dennis Martinez has a much more modest ambition.

All he wants to do is stay sober.

That's his primary aim in life right now, and if you think it's some kind of joke, you're wrong. It isn't.

Not with Dennis Martinez. With him, it's the new foundation he has set into place and on which he's trying to build the rest of his life.

Martinez is only 29. He's a clean-cut, good-looking young man with a devoted wife, two healthy children and a job that everyone else would love to have. He pitches for the Baltimore Orioles and is paid a few hundred thou a year on a contract that has two more years to go.

In addition to everything else, his name is a household word in his native Nicaragua where he's idolized as the finest ballplayer the country ever has produced.

For Martinez, though, the whole thing nearly became unraveled in December of 1983 when the police in Baltimore picked him up for drunk driving. This wasn't the first time Martinez had driven when he was bleary-eyed. It was only the first time he was caught and arrested.

Martinez thought he had kept his drinking problem concealed, hidden from the Orioles' management and everyone else, but like so many other habitual drinkers, he was merely deluding himself.

His agent, Ron Shapiro, talked and talked with him like some Dutch uncle trying to get Martinez to strengthen himself out. Then the Orioles called him in and laid it on the line to him. He remembers how concerned they were. Concerned about him.

"They said to me, 'Dennis, we believe you have a problem and we want you to do something about it,"' Martinez recalls the meeting. "They said, 'We love you and we want to help you, but we can't help you until you start to help yourself.' They weren't trying to force me to do something I didn't want to do. That was very clear to me. But I had a five-year contract and they started talking to me about that. That's when I got a little scared.

"They told me there was a clause in the contract that said it could be terminated by them if a player has a problem relating to drugs or alcohol and doesn't do anything about it. I didn't like that at all. When they were telling me all this, talking to me about my problem, I was saying to myself. 'You're crazy. What are you talking about? I have no problem.' That was on the inside. On the outside, though, I nodded and said,'Yes."'

Since he admitted he had a problem, primarily to placate the Orioles and get them off his back, they told him they'd try to find professional help for him and Martinez consented to have himself admitted to Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore for treatment of his alcoholism. The hospital specializes in handling various types of addiction.

"The first day I was in the hospital, I was still in what they call denial," Martinez explains. "In other words, I was still denying that there was anything wrong with me. I looked around and thought to myself what am I doing here with all these junkies, addicts and alcoholics. This was no place for me."

Shortly afterward, the Orioles' pitcher met his counselor, the one who would be responsible for him during his time in the hospital.

They chatted in general terms for a couple of minutes and the counselor then had a question.

"Do you pray, Dennis?" he wanted to know.

"I am a Catholic," Martinez answered him. "I grew up in a Catholic family and I go to church where I have prayed, but lately I've been getting so drunk that to tell you the truth I was forgetting about it. I'd come home and just fall in bed. I haven't been praying at all lately."

The counselor nodded, signifying he understood.

"Why don't you get on your knees and pray again," he suggested.

Martinez has a mind of his own. He doesn't jump simply because someone tells him to. He considered the counselor's proposal for a moment or so.

He then got down on his knees and prayed.

"That," he says now, "was the turning point of my life."

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