Among cheers for Martinez, sigh of relief from Orioles


Tino Martinez returned to the New York Yankees' lineup last night, and for the Orioles' sake, not a moment too soon.

The Yankees were angry enough when Martinez missed seven of the next eight games after getting drilled between the shoulder blades by Armando Benitez.

Judging from George Steinbrenner's remarks yesterday, their outrage only would have grown if Benitez had returned before the All-Star first baseman.

"I am not happy at all," the Yankees' owner said. "I said at the time, as Gilbert and Sullivan would say, the punishment must fit the crime."

Steinbrenner, saying that Benitez "needs help," repeated that American League president Gene Budig should have suspended the Orioles' reliever for a month, not simply eight games.

He said that Benitez should be banned for life if he hits another hitter intentionally, and suggested that the Orioles should have lost their own first baseman, Rafael Palmeiro, for as long as Martinez was sidelined.

Martinez returned to first base in the Yankees' 6-2 win against Boston last night, going 0-for-4. Benitez pitched three innings to earn the save in the Orioles' 6-3 victory over Texas, allowing one run.

The issue will fade quickly if Martinez proves healthy and regains his early season form.

But Steinbrenner is not yet ready to let go. The Yankees considered Martinez a candidate for the disabled list as recently as Thursday.

"This is where the inequities come in," Steinbrenner said. "I don't want to challenge Dr. Budig. He can't stand up to the challenges in sports. He's basically an academician. I have great respect for him. He's not a baseball man. He's not a football man. He was the president of Kansas, and a damn fine one. You can't take issue with him except to say he was wrong. He was wrong twice with Baltimore."

The first time, Steinbrenner said, occurred in September 1996, when Budig suspended Roberto Alomar for five games to start the following season after the second baseman spit on umpire John Hirschbeck.

Budig declined comment yesterday.

"I did what I thought was appropriate," he said after suspending two Orioles and three Yankees for the May 19 brawl at Yankee Stadium. "I hope this sends a strong message for that type of behavior. I think the penalties are stiff."

Orioles general manager Pat Gillick agreed.

"I feel that Dr. Budig acted swiftly and decisively," he said yesterday. "When you really look at it, eight games for a guy who's a closer, there could have been potentially four or five save opportunities in there.

"Armando made a mistake. We want to get it behind us. We took our punishment and we're moving on."

Benitez sent Martinez a letter of apology, and said again yesterday that he was sorry.

Steinbrenner's suggestion that he "needs help?"

"If he wants to meet with Armando, talk with Armando and draw his own assessment of who Armando Benitez is as a person, that would be fine with me, and that would be fine with Armando," said Benitez's agent, Mike Powers.

Martinez declined comment in New York, saying the incident was "not something I want to think about anymore." He initially missed time because of a bruise on his back, then sprained his shoulder while sliding after he returned.

Steinbrenner said yesterday that the second injury had "healed," and the Yankees said that Martinez was scratched Thursday night due to pain and residual swelling in his back -- the Benitez injury.

The Yankees' frustration is understandable -- Martinez, the victim, missed nearly as much time as Benitez, the perpetrator. And before the incident, Martinez was batting .333 with 38 RBIs in 39 games.

Budig has said the league might consider adopting a policy prohibiting players from leaving the dugout during on-field confrontations. But Steinbrenner apparently believes that Budig is too weak to handle such matters.

The Yankees' owner applauded Orioles owner Peter Angelos for saying that the sport as a whole should take immediate steps to prohibit pitchers from throwing at hitters.

"We've got to do it as [major-league] baseball," Steinbrenner said. "We can't leave it up to the league office. Baseball has got to move on it. Peter Angelos was absolutely right. We should move within baseball to ban it."

It will never happen, of course. Neither will the suspension of a position player for a position player. Nor the lifetime ban of Benitez for throwing at another hitter.

The sport's leadership is too weak and the players' union too powerful to affect such changes. Many within the sport consider retaliation an important part of the game -- especially in the AL, where pitchers do not hit.

"I'll argue with the union that a fastball thrown 90 mph at a person is a lethal weapon," Steinbrenner said. "Maybe we'd have to take it to court to find out. I wouldn't mind trying it, as long as everyone knows it's intentional."

That's part of the problem.

How could you prove that Benitez intentionally hit Martinez in '95, and then again three years later?

"I don't think Armando in the either occurrence ever admitted he did it on purpose," Gillick said. "Probably to everyone, it looks like what happened was intentional. But Armando has never said it was intentional.

"Every case that comes in front of the league president should be judged on the merits of the case. How can you say that the next time he hits someone he should be banned for life? I don't think that's a very responsible statement."

The bottom line is, Martinez is back.

For the Orioles, not a moment too soon.

Pub Date: 5/30/98

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