Lighten Up on Tino, Folks

I'm not sure exactly when or how Tino Martinez fell into such bad graces with Cardinal fans, but the reaction of those in attendance at the first Yankees game at Busch came as a shock and surprise. My memory of his service with the birds-on-bat jersey must have been quite different from that of over 50,000 others who were actually at the game. The boo's that rained down on Tino were, in my opinion, underserved and were also astonishingly uncharacteristic of the best fans in baseball.

When the Cardinals signed Tino to a $7 million free agent deal, he was leaving the Yankees after it had become apparent that his first base position was to be lost to Jason Giambi. Martinez came to St. Louis in the highly unenviable position of "replacing" Mark McGwire. Tony LaRussa admired Tino's leadership, defensive skills, and winning attitude that might infect the rest of the Cardinal team. It didn't take much lobbying by TLR to get Walt Jocketty on board and complete the deal.

Martinez had been a big part of the run of Yankees World Series wins and appearances during the 1990's. His defense skills were excellent and he was known to possess a home run caliber bat that tended to resound in particularly tight situations. Tino was a big-game player in a big-game city under contract to the game's most well-known owner. He was used to playing under the critical eye of some of the most demanding fans in the game.

The transition to St. Louis must have been startling to Tino. In this city where those who wear the red StL cap onto the hallowed fields of Busch Stadium are granted god-like status, he foundered. For two years, he struggled to recapture the magic of his halcyon Yankee days. It wasn't for lack of trying. Tino certainly wasn't lazy. He didn't roll over and play dead. It just didn't happen here.

He continued to play a solid defensive first base, but his offense was never what it was expected to be, especially with runners in scoring position. The clutch hitter in pinstripes became the guy opposing pitchers would intentionally walk other Cardinals to get to, and they usually weren't disappointed.

By mutual consent, the experiment ended as Jocketty, LaRussa, and Martinez agreed that he might do better elsewhere. The skids were further greased by first base heir apparent Albert Pujols. Tino eventually landed in his native Tampa Bay. The Cardinals sweetened the deal by agreeing to pay a major part of his remaining contract. Again, though, the magic wasn't there and he didn't stick with the Devil Rays. He re-signed with the Yankees for the 2005 season, a deal which has been a bit of a restorative to bygone days.

So Tino returns to Busch Stadium, back into the bosom of the best fans in baseball, and he is booed roundly. None of the smattering of boos that Edgar got, no sir, these were heartfelt and thunderous boos that were completely out of character for St. Louis fans who by tradition honor all who have worn the birds-on-bat. Frankly, and let me be blunt, it was one of the few times I was embarrassed by the behavior of Cardinal fans.

Tino Martinez wasn't a bad guy. He tried hard. He did some very positive things while he was here. There were rumors – never substantiated – that he was a "clubhouse cancer", but as the years pass the supporting facts for those rumors erode. He didn't take steroids. He didn't drown puppies, and for all intents and purposes he was an upright guy. He just didn't hit the ball as he was expected to. For this great transgression, he seems to have earned the unleavened fury of Cardinal fans.

Perhaps there are deep and profound sociological reasons that would cause these fans to be so angry with Tino, but that profundity is lost on me. As far as I can determine, Tino Martinez gave it the old Harvard try during his two years here, and is despised for it.

He, as are Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa and you and me, are human. We make mistakes. Sometimes we excel. Sometimes we don't. If we were perfect there would be no sports. Albert Pujols – no, Scott Seabol – would be batting 1.000 with 200 rbi's by the all-star break. All of our pitchers would be 12-0 with 0.00 ERA's. There would be no mystery, no excitement, no wonder to the game in which we regularly celebrate 3 in 10 performances.

If people want to boo, I guess it is their right, but I wish they would save it for those who have truly earned such a massive show of disrespect. I'll be the first to boo knuckleheads like Carlos Zambrano. I don't think much of Dusty Baker. If I were a Cub fan, I would have booed Sammy Sosa out of the Midwest when he left Wrigley Field prior to the start of the last game of the 2004 forlorn hope on the northside. Conversely, Tino Martinez has done nothing, and let me repeat the word "nothing", to earn the enmity of the best fans in baseball.

To quote from Warren Oates in the movie Stripes, "Lighten up, Francis." Tino isn't even close to the worst thing that happened to the St. Louis Cardinals, and he certainly doesn't deserve to be booed. I hope cooler heads will prevail for the remaining two games of the series and Tino is able to leave St. Louis with a least a modicum of the respect he might otherwise have had for us.

You can write to Rex Duncan at rdunc221@yahoo.com


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