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Archive for Monday, October 29, 2001

High school teammates meet in Series

Gonzalez, Martinez proud to add to strong tradition of Florida baseball

October 29, 2001

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— Tino Martinez and Luis Gonzalez didn't have to look far for their motivation to be major leaguers.

All they had to do was walk the streets in their hometown of Tampa, Fla., and listen to old men talk about baseball.

They'd hear stories about many of the city's great ballplayers Dwight Gooden, Wade Boggs, Lou Piniella and Tony La Russa, among others and dream of someday playing in the big leagues, too.

"That kind of drove us to say that, 'Hey, we want to be the next crop of guys that these guys sit around and drink their Cuban coffee and eat their bread in the morning and talk about,"' said Gonzalez, an Arizona outfielder.

"It's pretty exciting. It's fun when you go back home and walk into those coffee shops," he said. "That's the first thing they do is pick up the box scores to see how the local guys did, and they still do it now."

What they saw when they opened Sunday morning's paper was that Gonzalez doubled, homered and drove in two runs the night before as the Diamondbacks won Game 1 of the World Series 9-1 against Martinez's New York Yankees.

There's no question who the talk of the town in Tampa is these days.

It's Martinez and Gonzalez the Little League rivals, high school teammates and opponents in this year's World Series.

"It's an amazing thing, it really is," Martinez said. "When we were kids, we never really thought we'd make it to the majors, much less the World Series. And here we are."

There they were, chatting and posing for pictures on the field before Saturday's game. Martinez was yelling in Gonzalez's direction after watching his friend double.

The two are chumming around just like they did 16 years ago, when they formed the right side of the infield for Jefferson High School's baseball team that made it to the state semifinals.

Along the way in that tournament, Jefferson beat a team led by Gary Sheffield another Tampa product.

Gonzalez, a slight 120 pounds back then, batted .400. Martinez was the star, setting school records with a .553 batting average, 11 homers and 42 RBIs.

"I was the setup guy for him," said Gonzalez, who batted second, one spot ahead of Martinez. "I was an ant. He was the bull. My job was to get on base so he could drive me in."

Gonzalez, benefitting from the scouts who came to see Martinez, went on to play at South Alabama before being drafted by Houston. He took time before developing into a star, hitting .325 with 57 homers, 142 RBIs and winning the Home Run Derby this season.

"He just loved to play baseball even when it wasn't baseball season," Martinez said. "He always wanted to hit, hit, hit. That's all he wanted to do year round."

Martinez stayed home at the University of Tampa before being drafted by Seattle. He went on to hit 263 career homers and win four World Series titles with the Yankees.

Their success comes as no surprise to their coach at Jefferson, Pop Cuesta, who has also sent Fred McGriff, among others, to the majors.

"The difference between these guys and some who didn't make it is their work ethic," Cuesta said. "They sacrificed to become good players. When everyone else went to the beach or a party, they went to hit and field grounders."

The work ethic was developed in the hitting cages, on the baseball fields, and in the cigar factory Martinez's grandfather owned, where the two worked together in the summers.

"We'd unload semis and have fun," Gonzalez said. "I think his grandfather hired us just to show us what a job was all about and keep us off the streets. It makes you work harder to play baseball, believe me. But it was fun."

This is an exciting time for Cuesta, who also watched McGriff and Martinez square off in the 1999 World Series. All Cuesta needs to do for a reminder of his two great players is to look at the equipment the two donated or the pictures of his stars that adorn the walls at the school.

"I'll be happy for whoever wins," he said. "Hopefully they'll both do well and break lots of records."

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