Davey Martinez’s desk was mostly clear, save for the wine bottle near the front right corner which provided a chance to smooth edges during the struggle.
Martinez would often have a glass postgame. Some peace existed in the elixir amid the season’s chaos. In Philadelphia in early May, after the Nationals again lost, the wine waited next to his curious optimism. “When we get healthy, we’re going to take off,” he told a reporter in a private moment.
The idea seemed a stretch. Washington was 14-19 following a 7-1 loss to the energized Phillies. It dropped five games out of first place, starting a stretch where most sentences referenced the team’s proximity to woeful Miami in order to damn their situation.
Tuesday, Martinez stood on a rapidly-erected stage to celebrate the National League championship. He relayed a quote: “Bumpy roads lead to beautiful places, and this is a beautiful place.” About 15 minutes later, he waited for a radio interview to begin on the infield grass. In a chat with the same reporter from the quiet time in Philadelphia, the first words out of his mouth brought another quote: “I told you.”
Forgive him for gloating. Martinez won this round, surviving the calls for him to be fired and the licking flames of 19-31. He made it through the bullpen, the injuries, the narrow path to the postseason, trailing late in the Wild-Card Game, the bullpen again in the postseason and all the way to the World Series. This season is no longer about whether he will be retained. It’s instead about how he won, bringing the team to a stage it could not reach prior, which was the point to begin with.
The Lerner family sat in the front row when Martinez was introduced as the team’s new manager. His first press conference took place in the clubhouse, not the traditional press conference room, a place which would be alcohol-soaked in 2019 after a trio of celebrations, the most recent happening almost two years after his initial welcome.
“I think moving forward, this team doesn’t lack much, it really doesn’t,” Martinez said at the time. “I think we just got to get over the fact that we’re not just here to win a playoff game. We’re here to win the World Series.”
The proverbial “hump” provided his first attempt at manufacturing looseness among a constricted team, and an opening for ridicule. Martinez famously -- or infamously -- brought camels to spring training. The team’s 2018 flop put even-toed ungulates into most eye-roll based commentary regarding the new manager.
This season’s clubhouse fun is organic. Derived from Gerardo Parra, and a general loosening among the team’s more rigid holdovers, nothing was created in a lab. Parra chose “Baby Shark” as his walkup song because an algorithm kept pushing it back into his phone. It took off. Dugout dancing, general freedom to bag on anyone else in the clubhouse, celebration quirks, they all came about without a distinct structure, which is perhaps the key part of Martinez’s managing this season.
Two primary things happened under Martinez: he stayed out of the way in the clubhouse, and he remained relentlessly positive, even when it seemed his preferred blinders almost appeared out of touch. The players noticed.
“I have had a lot of managers, obviously, and they all come into spring training and say they're going to stay this way no matter what, we're going to be here for you, it's going to be us, we don't care what anyone says,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “And then as soon as stuff goes bad, every manager has pretty much kind of thrown that out the window and sort of gone into self-preservation mode, where Davey, honestly, has stayed the same way. He's positive every day, his energy, he always trusts his players and has his players' backs. And I don't think it's been any different this year, even when we started as poorly as we did, he stayed the same.”
His personal health issue provided an unexpected twist late in the season. It also took his postgame glass of wine away. Doctor's orders.
Martinez rapidly pushed to get back despite the concern born from his minor heart procedure. He publicly apologized to his mother for scaring her. He privately conceded he was scared, too, because the origin of the issue wasn’t clear. Missing time with the team seemed to eat at him as much as being in the hospital after feeling chest pains midway through September.
“It’s been a little wild,” Martinez said of the season as a whole.
The year's outcome assures Martinez will become the first Nationals manager to survive two full seasons then start a third since Manny Acta in 2009. No manager has held his position for three consecutive full seasons since baseball returned to the District in 2005.
“It never crossed my mind to dismiss Davey, no matter all the pressure that was put on us,” managing principal owner Mark Lerner said Tuesday. “I think he’s become a very, very good manager, and I think in the years to come he will become a great manager. I have total confidence in him and delighted that all these good things are happening. Nobody deserves it more than him.”
It’s easier to say those words this week. It’s also easier for Martinez to smile and gently say, “I told you so,” in certain circles. He was right. The proof exists.
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