Before Davey Martinez was a World Series-winning manager, before he was a World Series-winning bench coach, before he was a 16-year player with over 1,500 hits and 150 stolen bases, he was a 22-year old rookie trying to establish himself as a member of the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs were coming off a disappointing 1986 season in which they went 70-90 and finished fifth in the NL East. However, a free agency freeze—caused by owners colluding against paying top players their true value—dropped three-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer Andre Dawson right in their laps, renewing hope that Chicago could end its then-79-year championship drought,
Martinez had played 53 games the year prior but entered the 1987 season as the presumptive everyday center fielder. Dawson, entering his age-32 season, would play in right. The rookie, believing that Dawson’s routine and convenience were more important than his own, came up with a plan to steer clear of “The Hawk” when in the clubhouse.
“I’d known Andre Dawson by watching him play, unbelievable player, and I got the chance to play with him,” Martinez said in a Zoom press conference Wednesday before the Nationals’ series finale in Atlanta. “But when he first came over, they put his locker next to mine and…he’s a big guy, looks intimidating, so during spring training I made sure that I was there at 6:30 in the morning just to get dressed and get out of his way and just go out to the field.”
However, a few teammates caught on to what he was doing.
“Some of the other veteran players had told him that I was coming in early to get out of his way so one day I came in and he was already there and I didn’t know what to do,” Martinez said. “So I sat there, I was kinda trying to wait for him to get dressed and get all his stuff. He calls me over and says, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Nothing, I’m just hanging out.’”
Dawson’s tone then began to change.
“You don’t like me? You don’t like me? I heard you don’t like me,” he said.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Martinez said. “Like seriously, I was like, ‘Oh boy this is gonna be good right now.’ And I said, ‘No, Hawk, I love you.’ And he says, ‘Then why don’t you ever get dressed next to me?’ I said, ‘Hawk, seriously, I just wanted to give you space.’ I’m freaking out like I look around and all the guys are laughing and he starts laughing and he says, ‘Hey, you don’t have to be afraid of me.’
“‘If you’re going to play next to me, you need to know me.’ I said, ‘We’re teammates.’ And after that we were good, I was always next to him.”
It’s been 33 years since that spring training run-in with Dawson. The Cubs didn’t make much out of that season—they finished 76-85—and Martinez was traded to the Expos at the deadline. But it’s an experience that’s stuck with the Nationals skipper throughout his career in baseball.
The Nationals’ roster is constructed with a similar blend of veterans and young players that the Cubs had that season.
On the older end of the spectrum, Chicago had Dawson (32), Keith Moreland (33), Jerry Mumphrey (34) and Manny Trillo (36). Washington has Adam Eaton (31), Stephen Strasburg (31), Max Scherzer (35), Aníbal Sánchez (36) and Howie Kendrick (36). At the other end, Martinez (22), Rafael Palmeiro (22), Greg Maddux (21) and Jamie Moyer (24) were in similar spots with the Cubs that Juan Soto (21), Luis García (20), Carter Kieboom (22) and Victor Robles (23) are in for the Nationals.
The Nationals had the oldest roster in baseball last season, but the additions of Kieboom and García as well as several rookie relievers have started to bring that average age down a bit. It’s unusual for a team with high expectations to have as many rookies as the Nationals do. Typically, teams with that many young players are in the midst of a rebuild, not coming off a World Series title.
Yet that’s the task Martinez has been assigned, keeping the clubhouse loose despite such big age gaps and, in many cases, cultural backgrounds. Though baseball has changed a lot over the past 33 years, Martinez has seen his young players acclimate well to playing in a clubhouse with so many veterans—most recently García.
“Nowadays these guys, they come right in…we’ve seen [García] up here quite a bit since he was 17, 18 so they know him,” Martinez said. “He fits in but he knows his place just like all the other guys do and the veterans treat him as such. So it’s a good combination round here with these guys.”