After tragedy, Martinez gets second chance with Astros
Prospect was out of baseball at one point after dad, grandmother, uncles killed
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Jose Martinez was frantic. He had just received the worst news of his life, the kind of news that stops you in your tracks. The kind of news that makes baseball seem trivial.
It was 5 a.m. on a February morning four years ago, and Martinez was running around the practice fields of Jupiter, Fla., screaming for help from anyone who could hear him. Only a few minutes earlier, he was awaken by a phone call informing him three members of his family had been killed back home in Venezuela, and his father was clinging to life.
All he wanted to do was get home.
"I'm yelling for help," Martinez said. "'Somebody help me, I want to go home!'"
Martinez, who was a Minor Leaguer in the Cardinals' organization, arrived home late that night to find out his grandmother and two uncles had been killed in a robbery. His father was in the hospital and died not long after Martinez got to his side.
"It was one of the more tragic incidents I have dealt with in my life," said Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who was St. Louis' farm director. "He was someone who just constantly had a smile on his face and constantly had a positive attitude. He was a hard-working kid and just about the best person you'll ever meet. To have to go through that experience was really tough for us all."
The incident changed Martinez. He became angrier and less trusting. And he couldn't even use baseball as a refuge after a string of injuries limited him to six games from 2009-10. He found himself out of baseball in 2011, before Luhnow gave him a chance.
Martinez, a second baseman, was signed by the Astros as a Minor League free agent prior to last year and wound up hitting .304 with 13 homers and 75 RBIs at Double-A Corpus Christi. He was named the team's Most Valuable Player and a Texas League All-Star, finishing the season in Triple-A.
"He deserved that second chance," Luhnow said. "At the same time, he went through that personal tragedy, he had an injury to his arm, so he really didn't come back the way he expected and ended up getting released. When I came over here, I had an opportunity to give him a second chance."
Martinez, 27, is in his first big league camp with hopes of reaching the Majors. It would be an incredible accomplishment considering the things he's had to overcome. He's not one of the Astros' up-and-coming prospects, but not about to take a back seat.
"I enjoy the game as much as I can," Martinez said. "The game is my life. I love to play baseball, I love being here. The most important thing is I love my family. My family and my wife are pushing me hard."
It was Feb. 15, 2009, and Martinez had reported early to Cardinals camp to rehab a broken foot. Back home in Valencia, it was a day to celebrate the birthday of his grandmother, Valentina Guzman. His father and two uncles were singing to his grandmother when two gunman burst into the family house in a robbery attempt.
One of his uncles grabbed a gun, and a gunfight ensued. One of the gunmen started filling the house with bullets, hitting his father and killing his dad's brothers, Alvaro Jose Martinez and Rodolfo Jose Martinez.
"The last person they killed is my grandma," Martinez said. "It's tough, but nothing is impossible for me. That year, it took me time to recover. I had to change myself. I started to be a different person. I started thinking about quitting, starting thinking I didn't want to play baseball anymore."
His father, also named Jose Gregorio Martinez, was his son's biggest influence. He played catch him with daily, hit him countless grounders to help make him into a baseball player. And Martinez says he's still with him to this day.
"I know he'll be with me," he said. "That makes me strong."
There's part of Martinez that can't help but wonder what would have happened if he hadn't left early for Spring Training that year. What if he was there that night?
"Maybe I die, too?" he said. "I would have tried to protect my family."
One of the reasons Martinez is here, still pushing, is because of his family. He draws inspiration from his wife, Natalie, and his 4-year-old daughter, Valeria, who was just an infant when her great grandmother was killed.
"I have a beautiful daughter and she's my life," Martinez said. "She's the most important thing that keeps me here."
The fact Luhnow brought him to Houston isn't just a symbolic gesture.
"If there's ever a person you want to give a second chance to, it's somebody like Jose," Luhnow said. "I also felt like I knew what kind of talent he ultimately had, and signing him would benefit the organization, and it certainly did. It's a great story he's in big league camp."
Martinez is grateful for anything he has these days -- life, family and baseball.
"The only thing I have to say is, 'Thank you,'" he said. "I'm always going to stay thank you for this opportunity."