LOS ANGELES — The story of how Chris Martin traveled from Lowe’s Home Improvement to the Rockies bullpen last Saturday is one of pain, agony…and varnish.
It is one of persistence, AirHogs…and appliances.
It is one of the coolest, best, most inspirational stories you will hear all year.
And as the kid made his major league debut in Dodger Stadium on Saturday night, you couldn’t help but think of how Rockies manager Walt Weiss had hit the jackpot. With one right-hander, he gets bullpen depth and a deal on washing machines. Right?
“That helps,” Weiss says, chuckling. “That helps.
“It is a great story. And I’ll tell you what. It’s not just a great story. This kid can pitch.”
Martin is a 6’7”, 27-year-old rookie from Arlington, Texas, who long ago suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder as a sophomore pitching for McLennan (Texas) Community College. You’ve heard that one before: Talented kid with big talent and bigger dreams and then, overnight, those dreams flame out.
But never quite like this.
The Tigers had drafted him out of high school in the 18th round in 2004, but it was too low, and he didn’t sign. The Rockies drafted him in the 21st round after his freshman season at McLennan in ’05 but, he figured, I can do better. Plus, at 6’5” (then) and 175 pounds, he knew he needed to add muscle to his flagpole physique.
Then came his sophomore year at McLennan. Both the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma were hot on his trail, when suddenly, his shoulder betrayed him during fall ball.
He continued trying to throw. The ache kept biting back. He tried some more. And he lost any chance at a redshirt season because of it. Too many innings.
At year’s end, choking on the trail dust of what once was interest from Division I programs, sinking in the abyss of all those McLennan classes he had stopped attending out of pure frustration, Chris Martin suddenly was a has-been facing a dead end.
“Just a bad situation,” he says. “Young and dumb.
“I had to take 20 hours of class time to catch up, and it was too much.”
So he took the only alternative he could: He had surgery on the shoulder in 2007, performed by Dr. Keith Meister, the Texas Rangers’ team physician. Then he tried out for the independent league Fort Worth Cats.
And then he hung up his cleats.
What does a guy do when the trail closes, the dream dies, the roads are blocked?
Martin got a job at Lowe’s. And at UPS. For a time, he worked hardware during the day and delivered packages at night. Talk about two-a-days.
“A grind,” Martin says. “That’s what I get for not going to class.”
One night he was out, dog-tired, when he bumped into an old high school buddy named Jordan Bostick. They chatted. Bostick told his old pal they had an opening where he worked, and that Martin should come in and see the general manager.
Next thing Martin knew, he was down to one job, at Texas Appliance.
As things turned out, it was the next best thing to attending a tryout camp.
His first assignment was working in the back, manual labor, dealing with inventory. He would stock the dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, everything.
“A bunch of high-end stuff,” Martin says.
His next gig was working in the scratch-and-dent department. As the appliances arrived, Martin checked to make sure they weren’t defective. Or, he would pick up the appliances from the manufacturers.
“A utility guy,” he says.
To amuse himself, Martin was playing slow-pitch softball in his spare time.
One day, bored, Bostick, the warehouse manager, brought a couple of gloves to work and engaged Martin in the simplest of all baseball activities: Playing catch.
“Next day, my arm didn’t hurt,” Martin says. “I knew I was throwing hard. But the next day, my arm felt fine.”
Bostick had played ball with Martin before, and he knew the difference between simply throwing hard and having pop. Martin again had pop.
“You,” Bostick told him, “need to go try out somewhere.”
This was in 2010, a full four years after his community college career had shredded his hopes. But now, he phoned a friend who played for the Grand Prairie AirHogs of the independent American Association. He tried out.
And during his bullpen session, the AirHogs manager pulled him aside and said, “Hey kid, do you know you’re throwing in the mid-90s?”
That manager’s name? Pete Incaviglia, the former major league slugger.
That night, mid-July, 2010, he worked his first game for the AirHogs and collected a save. He finished the year in relief.
“It was crazy,” he says.
When the season ended, he went back to Texas Appliance. Who knew? Maybe moving refrigerators was the best kind of rehab possible.
“The joke is, that’s why the shoulder got better,” he says, smiling.
Meantime, Incaviglia had phoned one of his contacts with the Boston Red Sox, a veteran scout named Jaymie Bane.
“Jaymie,” Incaviglia said. “You have to sign this guy.”
“I said, give me some background on him so I can do some homework,” Bane says. “There were no real red flags except the fact that he had just kind of disappeared, which was odd.
“I talked to his high school coach and stayed in touch with Chris about what the process is. I told him, ‘If you don’t hear from us tomorrow, it’s not a big deal. It doesn’t mean we’re not interested.’”
Bane’s message to Incaviglia was much less casual.
“I told Pete, if any one person shows interest, you tell me,” Bane says. “Then I have to slip in and sign him.”
Martin remained an undiscovered gem, Boston pro scout John Lombardo also keeping close tabs. So, two weeks before spring training in 2011, the Red Sox finally phoned and invited him to a tryout at their camp in Fort Myers, Florida.
With one caveat.
“I had to pay my own way,” Martin says.
Actually, his father Matt paid his way. Bought a plane ticket for himself too.
“It was pretty exciting,” says Matt Martin, who has worked for the same roofing company in Arlington, Texas, since 1992. “It was something he always wanted to do. And if it was something he wanted to do, I would do anything to try and make it happen.
“We would have got there somehow, even if we had to hitchhike.”
The day of the tryout, with Martin on the mound at one of the back fields at Boston’s old City of Palms Park, Matt stood right there behind the batting cage with Bane, Allard Baird, a special assistant to general manager Ben Cherington, and Jared Porter, Boston’s director of professional scouting.
“You could look over and see their radar guns,” Matt Martin says. “You could see 93, 94. And the scouts kept looking at each other, like, ‘Wow!’”
Says Bane: “When he threw, it wasn’t even the velocity. It was how easy he was doing it, and the angle was he creating. But he didn’t even know where to stand on the rubber. There was a suggestion to go to the third-base side of the rubber, and his angle got a little better.
“It was exciting to watch. It was what you dream of.”
Session finished, signing imminent, they all went out to lunch.
“Allard was explaining to him about this is your last chance, this is reality, when we sign you you’ve got to hit the ground running,” Bane says. “And I tell him, ‘You’ve got to hit the ground sprinting, you don’t have time to run.’ And he did.”
Martin advanced to Double-A Portland by the end of his first professional season in 2011. In 2012, he began the year as a starter at Portland, was converted into a reliever and then pitched that autumn in the Arizona Fall League, where many serious prospects are invited and is heavily scouted. By the end of last season, he was pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket.
But knowing it was likely going to lose shortstop Stephen Drew after its World Series title last season, Boston spent part of the winter stockpiling infielders. As part of that strategy, the Sox shipped Martin and starter Franklin Morales to Colorado for minor-league shortstop Jonathan Herrera last Dec. 18.
“He’s one of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet,” Bane says. “He doesn’t come across like he knows what he’s talking about, but he knows what he’s talking about.”
Martin just missed making the Colorado team out of spring training, but the Rockies recalled him from Triple-A Colorado Springs last Friday. Then they put him on the mound in Los Angeles in Saturday’s 6-3 loss (one inning pitched, one hit, one walk) and again in Sunday’s 6-1 win (one inning, three hits, two strikeouts).
Already, LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado’s 20-year veteran, has taken Martin under his wing. As soon as the Rockies heard his story this spring, Hawkins started encouraging him further: Tell that story over and over, kid. You have a message to deliver. You never know who might hear it, whose life it might change.
And it’s not just his story.
“Velocity,” Weiss says. “The ability to throw that fastball down in the zone.”
Sunday, the Dodgers loaded the bases against him with two out in the ninth when Yasiel Puig stepped to the plate. Martin promptly threw a 93 mph fastball low and induced a game-ending ground ball.
“He kept his composure,” Weiss says. “It’s not like he was getting knocked around. There were some soft hits, and it was a dangerous situation, but he kept pitching to the bottom of the strike zone.”
Further challenges, no doubt, await just up ahead. The major leagues are filled with quicksand and booby traps, and sometimes, like that ninth inning Sunday, you find yourself in sudden trouble without warning.
But compared with the searing pain and ditching classes of his past, this is a breeze.
The Red Sox, as you would expect, did wind up reimbursing Chris and his father for that airfare to Fort Myers. Though even if they hadn’t, it would have been the best money Matt Martin ever spent.
“I don’t know what to say,” says dad, who will see Chris pitch in the majors for the first time when the Rockies visit Arlington next week. “My mind is 1,500 miles away from here.”
As for Bane, who received an appreciative text from Martin the day he was called to the majors, the Red Sox scout says, “I kidded with him that I need a fridge for my garage. He started laughing. I’m sure he’s gotten a lot of that from the guys.”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
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