It was May 5, 2006, and I’d been working for the Dodgers as the team’s publications director for about 4 months. Living the dream, working for the team I fell in love with in 1977. It was largely because of the Dodgers that I wanted to one day become a sportswriter.
There was an interesting dynamic that happened for me in those early days. The current Dodger players, while I admired their talent and loved telling their stories, I saw them somewhat as colleagues. Peers almost. Though when I came across any Dodgers from back in the day — Garvey, Cey, Baker, Valenzuela — I was a kid back in Pacoima, and soaked in the moments when they would call me by name. So many special moments, I lost count.
The 2006 team, I’d spent a chunk of Spring Training in Vero Beach, FL. Historic Dodgertown! It didn’t feel like work, even when I was working on the publications until very late into the night (and sometimes pre-dawn mornings).
During my time in Spring Training, I made it a point to get to know some of the minor leaguers, as the team was considered to have the top farm system in baseball, and the Double-A Jacksonville team had won its league championship in dominating fashion the previous season. Some of those players would become All-Stars: Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton and Russell Martin. There was an outfielder in Single-A named Matt Kemp who would join that trio in the big leagues.
Martin I grew fond of because of our shared last name. He was quiet in the clubhouse, and was a joy to talk with, both on the record and casually. He had a rare athleticism for a catcher, and a quiet intensity that I saw in games. He also had a great eye at the plate. It looked like he would go to Triple-A at least to start the season.
Back to that May 5, I’d heard that he might be getting the call because of an injury, so that afternoon around 3, I went down to the clubhouse to set up some pregame interviews. There I saw Martin putting on his Dodger pregame jersey for the first time. “Russ, congratulations!” I said. “Welcome to the show!”
I shook his hand, and told him how happy I was for him. He thanked me, then with a sheepish grin and a shrug of his shoulders that he did when he talked he said, “Cinco de Mayo, what better day to make my debut?”
Martin is from Montreal, and he speaks fluent French. When I told him that the day commemorated a victory by Mexico over France, he gave me an incredulous look and said, “What? They beat us in a battle?”
I quickly changed the subject and wished him well. It was later that I realized that he was wearing No. 55, and he was debuting on 5/5.
No. 5 on that year’s Dodgers was worn by Nomar Garciaparra, Whittier’s favorite son. Nomar had become an iconic player in Boston, yet was coming home to LA to play in front of his family every night. He was genuinely touched to be playing at home, and I grew fond of him as well. I even covered a high school football game he played in at St. John Bosco. Our shared Mexican-American heritage helped, and he wore his with pride.
That night, during pregame warmups, Nomar wore over his uniform a Mexican sarape in Dodger colors and emblazoned with the team logo. It flew behind him as he was doing sprints with his teammates. This being a Friday night, the filling stadium did have a festive feel, and the Latino fans got a charge out of seeing Nomar wearing the tribute to his Mexican raza.
Well, as luck would have it, in the bottom of the ninth of a 3-3 ballgame, Nomar was up to bat with Rafael Furcal standing on second base. Nomar liked to jump on the first pitch and pull the ball. Not this time. He went with a 1-1 slide off the outside corner and hit it off the end of the bat. The ball “squirted, hits the bag, fair ball!” as the legendary Vin Scully filled the moment so well.
Furcal flew around the bases with the winning run, and after the walk-off celebration, Dodger teammates Ramon Martinez and Kenny Lofton grabbed the sarape and put it on Nomar’s shoulders once again and pushed him to the lip of the dugout to soak in the standing ovation from the Dodger Stadium faithful.
A feliz Cinco de Mayo indeed.