Picking up balls in the batting cage, that’s what this was all about, according to former Miami Marlins hitting coach Tino Martinez.
Three different Marlins refused to pick up balls in separate incidents, violating a standard practice during drills in which a coach “soft tosses” balls for players to hit, Martinez said.
Martinez, 45, confronted the players about it. The confrontations grew heated. Martinez admits to using vulgarity with each player and grabbing one of them, second baseman Derek Dietrich, by the jersey, but not — as some reports suggested — by the neck.
On Sunday, Martinez resigned after his actions became public, apologizing to the Marlins organization for his behavior and acknowledging mistakes to reporters.
On Monday night, he spoke exclusively by phone with FOXSports.com about the incidents that led to his demise, saying they were one-time disputes that did not linger.
Martinez, who had no prior coaching experience at the professional level, expressed wonder that young and inexperienced players would act, in his view, less professionally than some of his former New York Yankees teammates, players such as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill.
Martinez said he decided to speak out after talking with friends and asking them, “Do you realize I’m out of baseball basically because a couple of players didn’t pick up balls in the cage when I asked them to? As a coach, when I asked them to pick up the balls, why didn’t they just say, ‘Absolutely, no problem, I’ll do it right now.’ ”
Added Martinez: “I started thinking about it, thinking I’ve got to say something, not just let it go away. I’ve had a great reputation in this game for years. I walked away from the game with integrity. But now, to have a couple of kids try to ruin my name, I felt I had to say something and fight back.”
To describe how a soft-toss drill works, Martinez harkened back to his days as a player.
“If Bernie Williams is hitting in front of me and I’m waiting with Paul O’Neill or whoever, there are no questions asked,” said Martinez, who played 16 years in the majors and won four World Series with the Yankees. “You help pick the balls up, and the next guy hits. Whoever is hanging around helps pick the balls up. It’s standard.”
Martinez’s disputes with the Marlins players — Dietrich, 24; infielder Chris Valaika, 27; and outfielder Justin Ruggiano, 31 — all followed roughly the same pattern.
Start with Valaika, who opened the season with the Marlins but went on the disabled list May 8 with a fractured left wrist and eventually was sent to the minors.
Martinez said that Valaika often would follow veteran outfielder Juan Pierre in the batting cage but never help pick up balls after Pierre was done.
“One day I told Juan Pierre, ‘One of these days, he’s going to help us pick up the balls. He’s a 27-year-old journeyman. You’re a 15-year big leaguer. He will help us pick up the balls,’” Martinez recalled.
“So finally after about a month or so goes by, I decide I’m going to tell him something: ‘Hey Chris, help us pick up the balls.’ And he goes, ‘Why should I? I didn’t hit ‘em.’ And I said, ‘Pick up the balls, you’re part of this team.’ And he goes, ‘But I didn’t hit ‘em.’ So, I got in his face and I said, ‘Pick up the f—— balls. You’re part of this f—— team.’ I got in his face and said it kind of angrily. And he picked up the balls.”
From that point on, Martinez said, “it was never, ever a problem again.”
Dietrich, a rookie, joined the Marlins after Valaika was injured. About a week later, Martinez said he was soft-tossing to another Marlins player when Dietrich, the next hitter, declined to help pick up balls.
“I go, ‘Derek, help us pick the balls up,’” Martinez recalled. “He goes, ‘Why, I didn’t hit ‘em.’ I said, ‘I don’t give a s— if you didn’t hit ‘em, help us pick the balls up.’ He walked toward me, not angrily, and said, ‘Hey, I didn’t hit the balls, why should I pick ‘em up?’
“I grabbed his jersey and said, ‘Because you’re f——- part of this team, pick the f—— balls up right now. Pick the f—— balls up. I’m tired of your s—.’ I probably pushed him backwards. That was it.”
Martinez described this incident, too, as a one-time event. He said from that point forward, he worked well with Dietrich. Only after the Marlins sent Dietrich to the minors on July 22 did the incident become an issue, Martinez said.
“Derek, a day after he gets sent to the minor leagues, decides to say, ‘Tino grabbed me by the throat two months ago,’” Martinez said. “This came out of nowhere. We were working together for two months, fine.”
Both the Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that the players’ union was notified of the alleged incident.
The Sun-Sentinel said the notification occurred “well after the fact.” The Herald said the union also learned of other incidents involving Martinez and then contacted the commissioner’s office, “which was demanding action from the Marlins.”
Martinez, however, said that Tim Smith, a batting-practice pitcher with the Marlins, witnessed his altercation with Dietrich — and that Smith confirmed to club officials that Martinez grabbed Dietrich by the jersey and not the neck.
Martinez said his other dispute with a player over picking up balls was with Ruggiano in spring training. A player whose identity Martinez said he could not remember was feeding balls into a hitting machine for Ruggiano. According to Martinez, Ruggiano left the cage after he was done and returned to the clubhouse without picking up the balls he had hit.
“I was like, ‘Why did you let him do that?’” Martinez recalled saying to the player. “He said, ‘That’s just the way he is.’ I said, ‘We’ve got to change that.’ So one day I confronted (Ruggiano) and told him how he was a terrible teammate, how he treated the players, how he was this and this and this.
“I got in his face. There was no contact. I got in his face and told him he needed to change; he had one year in the big leagues, and he shouldn’t treat people like that. And I went on and on and on, probably dropped a few F-bombs. And that was it — a one-day deal there.”
Martinez’s disagreements with Valaika, Dietrich and Ruggiano, however, weren’t his only incidents with players cited in media reports.
“He uses intimidation. It’s been a problem since Day One,” said one player to the Herald, asking not to be identified for fear of retribution.
The Sun-Sentinel reported that Martinez in spring training berated minor-league infielder Matt Downs for working with then-minor league hitting coordinator Greg Norton. Martinez did not dispute the account but said he had been trying to help Downs make the team and wanted him to hear a consistent message.
“I didn’t want another coach telling him something different from what I was telling him,” Martinez said. “I said, ‘What’s he telling you?’ He said, ‘This and this and this.’ And I said, ‘That’s the same thing I’m telling you.’
“I kind of did it in a frustrated way. ‘You don’t trust me as a hitting coach? If you don’t want to work with me, you don’t have to work with me anymore.’”
The Sun-Sentinel also reported that Martinez challenged first baseman Casey Kotchman to a fight. Martinez did not directly address that claim but took responsibility for the disagreement.
“That’s probably the only one I regret — he’s a good guy,” Martinez said. “I questioned his injury (a strained left hamstring that Kotchman suffered on April 5). I shouldn’t have done that. I felt bad about doing that.”
Martinez told reporters Sunday that “he had made some mistakes along the way.” He said Monday night that he apologized to club officials after an initial report in the Herald described his behavior as “erratic and abusive.”
“When I went in to talk to the general manager, the president, the manager, all the guys who were in Redmond’s office, I basically felt guilty, like I had done something wrong, because of what I had read in the paper,” Martinez said.
“I apologized. I honestly didn’t know why I was apologizing. I did it because I felt the public was going to read that, and it made it sound like I yelled at those guys every single day. But if you ask those players how many times after that I yelled at them or said something to them, they would probably tell you zero, not one day after that.
“I resigned because I felt the manager and general manager had lost trust in me somewhat. They kept asking me, ‘Did you grab (Dietrich) by the throat?’ And I kept saying no. I felt like I was being isolated by some of the coaches, the manager and the general manager. I felt that they didn’t want me around at that point.”
The Sun-Sentinel reported that Martinez “displayed erratic behavior and mood swings that prompted some to question whether he is bi-polar.” Martinez called that claim “ridiculous” and said nothing in his life was causing him to be excessively moody. He has been married to his wife, Marie, for 22 years. The couple has three children — Olivia, 21, Tino Jr., 19, and Victoria, 17.
Were Martinez’s problems simply a case of an old-school coach failing to relate to a new generation of players?
Martinez said no, explaining that he had it much worse as a younger player, when coaches and veterans would hassle rookies every day. He emphasized, over and over, that his arguments with Marlins players were isolated incidents.
Picking up balls in the batting cage, that’s what this was all about. Picking up balls in the batting cage, Tino Martinez couldn’t understand why it was such a problem.
“If Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill and Derek Jeter can pick balls up for everyone else, so can this guy here who has no time in the big leagues — that’s what was in my mind,” Martinez said. “That’s what burned me up a little bit on the days they didn’t do that. And it went on for days before I even said something.
“It was one day, it was one outburst (with each player). I had just bottled it up for so long.