Drawn by the promise of precocious speed, Cardinals director of international affairs Moises Rodriguez followed scout Juan Mercado to an abandoned ballpark in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, for a private workout with a slim, wiry righthander.
Carlos Martinez, then known as Carlos Matias, was 18 years old, little more than 160 pounds, if that, and serving a Major League Baseball suspension for inaccurate paperwork. He was the definition of a difficult signing.
The teen fired some fastballs for the Cardinals' officials, and seeing the fluid zap of his delivery, Rodriguez joked that the delighted radar gun must be off. Told after the workout how fast he threw, Carlos "dropped his head," Rodriguez recalled of the workout in Feb. 2010.
"His eyes were watery. He so much wanted to impress us. He was on the verge of getting emotional. He thought he had disappointed."
Carlos had hit 94 mph to 96 mph.
Those readings don't disappoint, and the Cardinals were all in.
"It was like, 'Did I just see that?'" Rodriguez said. "He wasn't throwing 100, but it was this easy, effortless 95 mph. It left an impression."
This evening at Busch Stadium that same teen righty hopes to make another one. Martinez is scheduled to start for the Cardinals' Class A Quad Cities club in a regular-season game relocated to St. Louis as a showcase for major-league fans to see rising minor-league talent. The start, Martinez's fourth in the United States, represents the unofficial arrival as one of the Cardinals' top prospects.
Yet, Martinez, now 19, would not be on the mound tonight if not for the gumshoe detective work of administrator Aaron Rodriguez, a $1.5-million investment, a 40-page binder the Cardinals presented to the U.S. Consulate, and one key document inside of it — his mother's death certificate.
As fast and easy as Martinez throws, it took a slow and difficult process to give him that chance.
"It's an easy one to give up on. It was such a long shot," said Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals vice president of player procurement. "You genuinely feel for the kid. It would be different if a guy is lying to you to get away with something. We felt this kid was a victim of circumstance and paperwork. We felt there was no ill intent here. We wanted to do what it took to get the player."
Last Friday at Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, Iowa, Martinez made his home-field debut and buzzsawed through the Cedar Rapids lineup. He struck out nine of the 18 batters he faced, hit 100 mph with two strikes in the first inning, and claimed his first professional win. Afterward, Martinez was asked what he hoped to accomplish at the Cardinals' lowest full-season affiliate.
"No hit," he beamed.
He wasn't grinning because of the boast, but because he understood enough of the question to reply in English instead of Spanish.
The Cardinals delayed his assignment to an affiliate to give Martinez more time to get comfortable in the States. Martinez and teammate Jonathan Rodriguez, a Puerto Rico native, live together in an apartment, where they have relocated their inflatable mattresses into the living room — the only place with an air conditioner. Rodriguez serves as Martinez's translator and guide, taking him to open a new bank account the same morning he helps him through an interview.
Quad Cities manager Johnny Rodriguez said Martinez's development at this level will be a balance between on-field learning and off-field acclimation. Martinez is fluent in the 60 feet, 6 inches between the mound and home plate. Ordering his favorite chicken sandwich at McDonald's? Martinez is practicing.
"This is where I become the papa," manager Rodriguez said. "I become to him like a father, a pastor, a mom and a brother, and then his manager. … We have to be careful we don't rush it. Baby steps. Very baby steps."
Martinez grew up on the northern coast of the Dominican, about a three-hour drive from Santo Domingo. He said he was raised by a grandma, who he calls "mami," and an uncle. He said he never knew his father, and his mother died before his first birthday.
The past few years have made her absence clearer, Martinez said.
Martinez described how he had plans of studying to become a priest when baseball interceded. Shortly after switching from shortstop to pitcher at age 17, the righthander agreed to a $160,000 bonus with the Boston Red Sox. His paperwork didn't pass a Major League Baseball review, and he was suspended for a year from signing with any team because of incomplete documentation of his name and age.
Luhnow said he had instituted a "zero-tolerance policy" when it came to questionable investigations. ("We weren't going to fish in those waters," he explained.) Scouts lobbied for an exception. Convinced by the private workout Moises Rodriguez attended and other trips made by major-league scouts like Matt Slater to see Martinez, the Cardinals offered him a $1.5-million bonus in spring 2010. With other teams in the bidding, Martinez said he signed with the Cardinals because they were willing to walk with him through another investigation.
Early in the process, the Cardinals knew that Martinez' last name was a hurdle. An uncle had given Carlos his last name, Matias, and his deal with the Red Sox carried that name. Aaron Rodriguez, with the help of family representatives, pieced together documents that helped validate Carlos' identity and, most importantly, connect it to his birth date. Rodriguez visited schools, dug through file cabinets, unearthed needed evidence.
"It was," Luhnow said, "a lot like solving a mystery."
Moises Rodriguez said at no point did Martinez's birth date change, but to show it belonged to him they had to prove his story, that his name was changed after his mother's death. That meant Carlos had to get proof.
"It kind of got frustrating," Carlos explained. "The fact that the investigation took so long, sometimes I didn't want to pitch anymore. I went through the motions. My grandma and uncle told me it was going to be OK. It was my real name. This is my real age. Put faith in God.
"I had to go back and back, three, four times (for the death certificate) I had to go," Martinez continued. "It's not the kind of paperwork that comes easy. I had to basically beg. 'This is about my future, my baseball career.'"
Once they had the proof, the Cardinals inserted it into the spiral-bound, 40-page document they presented to the U.S. Consulate as part of the application for a visa. Carlos Matias had become Carlos Martinez.
It's his mother's last name.
"Si, si," Carlos nodded, enthusiastically, and added: "There's a connection now with my mom."
While the Cardinals organized their proof and MLB conducted its investigation, Martinez proved he was worth the effort.
In 12 starts for the club's Dominican Summer League team, Martinez struck out 78, walked 14 and had a 0.76 ERA through 59 innings. That carried into his domestic debut on May 7. Martinez retired the first 10 batters he faced, striking out six. Four scouts watching this past Friday's start pegged him at 97 mph, consistently. He struck out three of the final five batters he faced, and opposition had him hitting 97 mph with one of his last pitches.
"Big-league stuff. An electric arm," Cedar Rapids manager Brent Del Chiaro said. "You can tell he senses some excitement when he steps on the rubber. He throws hard and it seems like he looks forward to showing it off."
An 'electric' fastball
The most common description for Martinez's fastball is "electric." A scout from another NL team suggested that pitchers with fastballs like Martinez "aren't seen too often or too long in this (Midwest) League."
Cardinals lefty reliever Brian Tallet, who played catch with Martinez during his rehab assignment, said: "He throws a heavy ball ... and he throws nice and easy and then the ball comes out like a laser beam. It's easy cheese."
One American League scout who watched Martinez pitch Friday said he's seen hard throwers stall at that level and not become pitchers. Martinez will have to meet certain off-speed quotas during starts, like the 16 curveballs and six changeups he threw Friday. It was the lack of those pitches that cost him as he allowed six runs on five hits and three walks in his second start. Manager Johnny Rodriguez said that outing exposed something new to Martinez: failure.
After rebounding in his next start, Martinez called it "learning."
"It's that game that made him realize at this level he wasn't going to be able to outpitch everyone," teammate Jonathan Rodriguez said, conveying Martinez's explanation. "That's the game that will make him improve his stuff. … He's not focusing on just throwing the fastball, because he knows that just throwing fastballs won't get him to St. Louis."
The long journey
Things started to speed up for Martinez when he found out earlier this month he was moving from extended spring training to Quad Cities. The timing of his promotion was much more than coincidence. The Cardinals' Low-A affiliate uses a six-man rotation, and Martinez deciphered with one look at the schedule that he had the game at Busch.
But first he had to get to Wisconsin.
Enter Moises Rodriguez. Again.
To help Martinez navigate his way from Jupiter, Fla., to his pro debut in Appleton, Wis., by way of a connecting flight in Charlotte and a bus trip from Chicago, Rodriguez traveled with him. Along the way they talked about the months spent waiting on the investigation. Rodriguez was there in the room to present the binder to the U.S. consular officers, and there at his computer awaiting word of their decision. It came in October — a brief email that announced Martinez's visa was approved.
Rodriguez still has the email saved in his inbox.
So it was fitting that Rodriguez escorted Martinez to his pro debut. He was among the group that helped get him every step of the way.
"Except the big show," Rodriguez said. "Everywhere but to the big show. Getting there — that's up to him."