Jumping from Double-A to everyday big league shortstop in the majors as a 24-year-old Rule 5 draft pick isn't as daunting to Richie Martin as it might look.
In one form or another, he's done it before.
His father, a retired teacher, skipped him from first to third grade. So, Martin was a 14-year-old freshman on the varsity baseball team at Bloomingdale (Fla.) High, an 18-year-old regular in the crucible that is Southeastern Conference baseball at Florida, and now, a 24-year-old tasked with one of the biggest challenges the rebuilding Orioles have given out so far.
Perhaps because Martin’s gone through this before, manager Brandon Hyde believes Martin showed up this spring with a critical attribute required to succeed in his unique role — even though it might include prolonged struggles at the plate, that will be tolerated as long as he can contribute as a standout defender at his premium position.
"I just like how he came here like he's been here for a while, and a big step in your career in the big leagues is to feel comfortable and to act like you belong, and to understand that this game is not that easy and to be able to, after a tough night, be able to come in the next day and still have the same swagger," Hyde said. "And I think Richie is going to be one of those guys."
He was able to handle situations. No moment was ever too big for him.
Blomingdale High baseball coach Kris Wilken
Share quote & link
Turns out, Martin has plenty of experience being one of those guys, and he’ll need it. Entering Sunday, Martin was batting .147 (5-for-34), with nine hitless games out of 12 with a plate appearance. It’s a difficult situation Martin has prepared for his whole life.
Richard Martin, who taught for 26 years in Detroit before moving his family to a suburb of Tampa, Fla., pushed his son, Richie, and his other three children outside their comfort zones early on.
"When I was really young, he would give me extra homework on the weekends, and grades were really important in the house," Richie Martin said. "He was really strict. All A's was a must. There was no question with that."
That meant Martin was playing sports with older kids from a young age, too.
Kris Wilken, a former Orioles farmhand turned Bloomingdale High baseball coach in Brandon, Fla., started hearing about the "stud" coming his way when Martin was in eighth grade.
He learned Martin's father had skipped him a year, making him a young addition to the following year's squad. And he was glad to find out once Martin got to school that his father had raised a player who could handle the potentially uncomfortable situation his talent would put him in.
“When a freshman comes in and you've got seniors that haven't played, and they worked their butt off for three years, and here comes this little 13-year-old freshman and he's better than you already, that naturally creates a little animosity,” Wilken said. “If you're going to be a jerk on top of it, it makes it worse. But he was always just a great teammate, never caused any problems."
Orioles Rule 5 infielders Richie Martin and Drew Jackson are vying for a major league spot this year in similar circumstances, and share the experience of corrective vision that got their baseball careers moving forward.
When the games arrived, a young Martin was a lot like he is now. Wilken said he was incredibly skilled, had "off-the-charts" defensive ability, a standout baseball IQ and gave him the type of praise the Orioles would have wanted to know when selecting Martin for the role he's in now.
"He was able to handle situations," Wilken said. "No moment was ever too big for him."
The steady nature Martin has carried in the big leagues so far was already on display then, but was constantly honed. He played summer baseball for Chet Lemon's Juice, coached by the eponymous three-time major league All-Star Chet Lemon, whom Richard Martin referred to as a "second father on the field.”
"He would tell him those things he should do, and those things he should not do," Richard Martin said. "Also, as he progressed up the professional level through the different classes, things were pointed out what to do and what not to do, how to conduct yourself and how not to conduct yourself. Those things were related to him all the way through. It just didn't happen at the end. That's the way Chet ran his program."
Richie Martin, for his part, said he learned the value of steadiness most when he turned pro as a 2015 first-round pick of the Oakland Athletics.
"I'll always try to pride myself on staying even-keeled, no matter how things are going," Martin said. "I've been playing pro ball for three years and this is the hardest game in the world. If you get your emotions tied to it, and take the game outside of the field, whether it be a good game or a bad game, it can take a toll on you."
The Athletics, however, didn't protect him from the Rule 5 draft, which came as a surprise even to incumbent Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien.
"Right away, you saw the athleticism, the good arm he has," Semien said. "I know that that was his strength coming out of the draft, and I think it still is. His bat was really good last year, and that's why he got the opportunity here. I was surprised when we didn't keep him, but this is a great opportunity."
The Orioles, bereft of infield talent on the roster inherited by executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, made him the first overall pick in the Rule 5 draft in December.
Martin doesn't see his youth at other stops in his life as being related to his major league shot with the Orioles — when you're ready, you're ready, he said, and he has felt like he's been ready for the big leagues for years.
A firm believer in preparation, he credits his early-morning workouts and the daily trips back to the Bloomingdale High baseball fields with his father with allowing him to take whatever comes this year.
"Going into a season like this, if I hadn't taken the time, I'd almost feel naked going into the season, knowing you're not going to have that confidence when you just kind of run out there into something," Martin said.
Martin played his way onto the team in spring training thanks to his defense, as he hit well early but fell off late.
When Hyde told him he made the team at the end of camp, it was with the directive that he focus on defending his position at a high level every night, and not to let offensive struggles get him down. His reward was manning the same infield spot that his childhood hero, Derek Jeter, did at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day.
In the top half of the innings, he learned what the other half of his new life would be like, and acknowledged as much to his father after one of the games in New York. Martin's not shying from it — he said it into television cameras after his first hit, too.
"He said, 'Man, these pitchers are good,' ” Richard Martin said. "Yeah, that came out. And my response was, 'This is not the first time you've dealt with that. You'll be able to deal with that once you've seen it a little bit more, get used to it.'
"But we talked about that. He knew it was going to be, not difficult but he knew it was going to be different. He knew he was going to be facing guys that he read in the paper, watched on TV. The expectation was there. It was not a shock. To see it and then perform in it, that's a whole different ballgame. Only he can tell you that. I just know Richie, and I know he's going to master it."
Until he does, Richie Martin won't be riding the wave on that night's results. He had only two hits entering Monday's game against his former club, when he broke out with three hits including a triple to jump-start his season.
But if that was going to mean something about whether he was going to be able to cut it in the big leagues, so too would some of the early hitless days he shrugged off.
"It's so easy to get caught up in results, and I think that's where a lot of guys get in trouble," Martin said. "It's tough. You're going to have a point in the season where you're going to go a week, maybe it may not be that long, and it might be longer, where you're just struggling and things don't feel right. But that's the time when you kind of stay the same and try to just grind it out, because the good days are going to come."