VERO BEACH, Fla. — Ramon Martinez, supposedly the next young Dodger pitching sensation to emerge from relative obscurity in Latin America, is the physical antithesis of Fernando Valenzuela, phenom emeritus.
He is 19, 6 feet 4 inches and 170 pounds. Somewhere within that thin frame--yes, he's even skinnier than Orel Hershiser--Martinez has smuggled in from his native Dominican Republic an overpowering fastball and an impressive assortment of other pitches.
So highly regarded is Martinez, who probably will pitch for the Dodgers' Double-A club in San Antonio this season, he drew almost as much interest from other teams as Bob Welch did during the winter meetings. That reinforced the Dodgers' decision to keep Martinez, whose fastball has been likened to Dwight Gooden's.
"I don't like to talk about which players we've discussed with teams," said Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president. "But, I think it's safe to say that Ramon Martinez is one of the most well-thought of young prospects not only on the Dodgers, but in baseball."
Martinez looks like something Pedro Guerrero might swing in the on-deck circle. You fear one stiff breeze might whisk him away.
All it takes, however, is one pitch to strengthen your opinion of Martinez. In his first batting practice assignment more than a week ago, Martinez and his 90 m.p.h. fastball impressed Dodger veterans. Manager Tom Lasorda watched from behind the batting cage and uttered "oohs" and "aahs," superlatives he usually reserves for linguine. Much of the Dodgers' excitement about Martinez stems from the fact that they have been uncommonly short on prospects in recent years. The preliminary expectations were supported by Martinez's performance in Class A at Vero Beach last season, when he went 16-5, had a 2.17 earned-run average and was voted the top major league prospect by Florida State League managers.
Claire is understandably enamored with Martinez, yet he hesitates to overly tout him.
"He has all the pitches, outstanding velocity and an outstanding changeup, and the only thing he needs is time to pitch," Claire said. "But let's keep a realistic view. Two years ago in Bakersfield (Class A), he was 4-8 and had a high (4.75) ERA. He still needs time."
The Dodgers apparently will give him time, but it seems Martinez is eager to pitch in Dodger Stadium, where he pitched as a 16-year-old as a member of the Dominican Republic Olympic team.
"It depends on how I do this year," Martinez said through an interpreter. "But I always have confidence in myself and think positive. I feel fine and I think I'm pitching well. But I would like to put on more weight."
Martinez's major problem in recent years has been losing weight, not games. He normally loses 10 to 15 pounds.
"His first pro year in (Bradenton in 1985) he lost weight," said Dodger scout Ralph Avila, who has been Martinez's mentor since 1984. "One problem was that he didn't know how to order food (in the United States). They eat a lot of rice, beans, potatoes (in the Dominican Republic), but it's tough to find that type of food in restaurants here. Then, he pitched in Bakersfield (in 1986), and he got really skinny, about 150 pounds.
"So, that winter, when he came back to the Dominican, we put him on a special diet and didn't let him touch a baseball or work out (at the Dodgers' Dominican baseball academy). He sat in uniform and charted pitches."
Martinez didn't like being sedentary, but the unusual program apparently worked wonders. "When he first got back from Bakersfield that winter, his fastball was at 84 m.p.h.," Avila said. "I left for spring training on Feb. 15, and I told my coaches at the academy to start him slowly on running and throwing. They called me and told me, 'You aren't going to believe this, but we (clocked) Martinez at 92 m.p.h.
"I couldn't believe it. Jumping 8 m.p.h. is incredible. But he had gained weight--19 pounds--and was stronger."
Martinez came to Vero Beach later that spring and showed Avila and others his rapid improvement. Coming off a mediocre season in Bakersfield, Martinez dominated the Florida State League. He had 16 wins, a Vero Beach Dodgers record, allowing just 3 home runs and 128 hits in 170 innings. He was second in the league in wins and ERA. Martinez had his best stretch between June 29 and Aug. 11, when he allowed only 10 earned runs in 64 innings.
The downside to Martinez's season was that he lost 12 pounds during the summer and returned to Santo Domingo for another winter of fattening up.
Again, the Dodgers suggested that Martinez rest his arm and exercise his taste buds.
"He belongs to the Licey club (in the Dominican winter league), but we didn't give him permission to play," Avila said. "In December, he was very anxious to pitch and he had gained back a lot of weight, so we allowed him to work out after Christmas.
"Well, he was the only kid at the academy on Christmas Day, everybody else was home."
An intense desire to play was what first drew Avila to Martinez.