Already tall for his age and so much like his dad, Jose Martinez was 7, maybe 8, but no older than that, when he sat in the winter ball dugout and watched his father backpedal between first and second, circling the bases for the final time.
The son believes now that his father already felt his illness growing, the cancer creeping through him, and when he connected for a home run he made it last. Carlos Martinez ran from the batter’s box to first with his arms out straight, “like an airplane,” Jose said. The elder Martinez spun around and ran backward from first to second. He pirouetted again to soar, arms outstretched, from second and around third. The Tiburones de La Guaria fans’ raucous cheers escorted him home.
“The place went crazy. They almost had a brawl,” Jose Martinez said. “That’s how he taught me to enjoy the game. I always remember that – that one moment we had.”
He craves such a moment with his own son.
For almost four months, since he left his native Venezuela and last saw 4-year-old Mathias Alberto Martinez, the Cardinals’ first baseman has been trying to secure a visa so that his son can visit St. Louis. The process is complicated by the political and economic chaos that swallowed his country, sending thousands of refugees to surrounding countries, and it is prolonged by the rigors required by the United States. Martinez is awaiting an appointment date when his son and a relative can meet with a U.S. official and explain, in person, the purpose for the visit. In short, it’s so Mathias can have the moments with his father Jose did not.
Jose was 2 or younger when he visited Chicago, too young to remember being on the field with his father, an outfielder for the White Sox. All he has are pictures. Signed for $35,000 by the same Sox a few months after his father died, Jose spent nearly 900 games in the minors before becoming a regular for the Cardinals. He knows his stay could be fleeting, so a visit from his son has much more meaning.
“It is everything for him,” said Martinez’s agent, Jose Mijares, of Octagon. “He’s come through a lot to get to the majors and when you get there you want your son to see you play. Why not? Why not?”
“It can be this year, it cannot be next year. You’re here one day, and you’re not here the next,” Martinez said. “I want him to come here and have some flashes, some idea, something that says, ‘Yeah, I was there when my father was playing.’ Maybe it is only some pictures. Let’s start from there.”
Jose Martinez has spent so much time mining online video sites for highlights from his father’s career that he can deftly call up a clip of a no-hitter thrown against his father’s Venezuelan team and swipe right to the exact second he wants someone to see. His father, all 6-foot-5 of him, sweeps a hard grounder into the play and legs for first, appearing to beat the throw.
Martinez showed the replay recently and raised his eyebrow again on a play he’s seen – what? – a hundred times.
“Easily,” he said.
His son is doing the same in Venezuela.
History repeats. YouTube unites.
“He goes to his iPad and sees all my highlights,” Martinez said. “That’s why I go out there every day and try to be the best every day so that I can do something for people to record me and put on YouTube and then he can see something new every time.”
One of Martinez’s treasured possessions is a video of his son watching a video. Mathias lives with his mother and Martinez’s ex-wife, Katherine Diaz, and she recorded the young boy watching a highlight from opening day 2017, when his father had a pinch-hit double. His son gasped as Martinez connected with the ball, and started jumping on the bed when he saw his father standing on second base. Asked how many members of his family attended opening day that year or this, Martinez shook his head. He has watched games where a prospect is making his major-league debut and the camera shows his family or the broadcasters talk about the dozen or more people who traveled to see it.
Martinez hasn’t asked for tickets on those games.
Not even at his major-league debut, in 2016.
“Nope,” he said. “Zero.”
For himself, Martinez obtained a work visa granted athletes and others with “a high level of achievement.” It is an elite- or special-skills visa. There is a related visa for direct family members, such as a dependent. Martinez and his ex-wife have been trying to obtain a tourist visa. They applied for both mother and son, had an appointment in March, and have also considered applying for only the son.
Venezuela has been undone by a collapsing economy, riots, and violence – all creating a caustic political stew. The United Nations estimated in a report earlier this year that 1.5 million Venezuelans had been displaced and nearly 5,000 a day earlier this year were arriving in adjacent countries. Venezuela was also listed as one of the nations on President Trump’s travel ban proclamation, though for Venezuela the ban only limits the access specific government employees and their families have to visas, not all citizens.
This past January, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas announced it would lift a yearlong stoppage and begin accepting applications for the B-1 and B-2 visas needed for temporary travel to the States. Martinez, with the help of family, his ex-wife, and his agent, have put together the necessary paperwork to apply, including a birth certificate. Martinez said he received a letter from the Cardinals that confirms his employment as their No. 3 hitter and first baseman and other details. The Cardinals are exploring more ways to help. The intent is to show, if necessary, that his son will be visiting, not staying. Martinez intends to return home in the offseason, too.
That’s a hurdle all applicants must clear.
A State Department official confirmed that a common reason for refusal of a visa is when the applicant does not prove “strong ties” to the home country that will “compel” a return from the United States. It is ultimately the opinion of the consular officer who determines if there is a “clear intention” of a return, the official explained. That is why an interview is important, and that is the appointment Martinez and his family await.
And they are waiting.
Jose Martinez doesn’t have to look far on the field for a reminder. He has a portrait of his father tattooed on his left shoulder. He has the names of all his family members somewhere on his arms, and on the inside of his left forearm is the name he sees every time he stretches for a throw at first base: Mathias Alberto.
“I can’t have them here with me so all of my family is on my arms,” he said. “I know they are watching. So, let’s go.”
This past week, with the White Sox in town, Jose Martinez got to spend a lot of time with one of his father’s former teammates. Daryl Boston, the Sox’s first base coach, played in Chicago with Carlos Martinez and was part of a winter ball team that “danced its way to a championship,” he said. Jose’s father would lead them in a samba after every win. With Jose at first and Boston nearby, the Sox coach chided him all series.
“You’re a first baseman now? What happened to outfield?” he asked.
“You’re hitting third now?” he wondered.
Boston didn’t have to ask about the swing. He’d seen it before.
“It’s that guy, Café Jr.,” Boston said, using Carlos Martinez’s nickname, Café. “You see a lot of his dad. Wiggling up at the plate. Legs moving. Bat back at forth. Dad was just like that. And it looks like he’s gone back to his daddy’s style of hitting. Just letting loose.”
Martinez retooled his swing after years in the minors and several sidetracks because of knee injuries. He embraced launch angle and, yes, the similarities with his father. He joked that he stopped hitting like a speedy center fielder and started taking advantage of the 6-foot-6 frame he inherited. In 2015, he set a Pacific Coast League record and won the batting title with a .384 average. He was not promoted to Kansas City’s championship team. He returned to Venezuela to play as his father did, on the same team he saw him hit the home run, backpedal to second, and then head home – to retire.
It’s the only team Jose’s son has seen him play for in person. And this past winter, as he hit .385 for La Guaira, he heard his son shout to him from the stands. He’d look and see him mimicking the same stance he did, bat waggle and all.
Only from the left side.
Jose would like to have that moment in the majors, to share St. Louis, and, he said this past week, do so even if it’s only for a short time. Then he could fly home, arms outstretched.
“This is something that I want from the bottom of my heart,” Martinez said, nodding. “It’s more than personal. It’s – I want to wake up, leave for work, and say to him, ‘See you at the game.’ I want that day. …
“I want him to have some memories.”