Tino Martinez on plaque: Monumental honor, surprise

Former Yankees player Tino Martinez reacts as he Former Yankees player Tino Martinez reacts as he is presented his plaque for Monument Park before action against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, June 21, 2014. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City ...

Surprised that Tino Martinez has a plaque in Monument Park? That he's now neighbors for all eternity with Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio?

You're not alone.

That was his first reaction, too.

"I was stunned," Martinez said.

But four World Series rings carries some clout in the Yankees' universe, so Martinez received a phone call a little more than a year ago after he had just watched a practice round at the Masters.

Martinez already was fulfilling one lifelong dream by getting to Augusta, and here was Debby Tymon, the Yankees senior vice president for marketing, calling him about another. This was not the typical call to ask for an appearance somewhere, which former players get from time to time.

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"You're going to get a plaque in Monument Park on June 21," Tymon told him.

Martinez, alone in the room, was like, 'What?" A half hour later he called back.

"Are you sure?" Martinez said.

They were. And Saturday, before the Yankees' 6-1 loss to the Orioles, Martinez took the field for a brief ceremony that made him a Bronx immortal.

We know what you're thinking. Because that's what we thought, too.

Martinez? Really? Right alongside Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy? Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford? Nelson Mandela and George Steinbrenner?

Next to Don Mattingly?

But here's the thing: You're going to see a bunch of Yankees get the same treatment in the coming months and years, the ones the thirty-somethings grew up with, as the Yankees reboot their championship legacy for the next generation.

Goose Gossage, a Hall of Famer since '08, will be honored Sunday on Old-Timers' Day. Paul O'Neill receives his plaque next month. Joe Torre, who will be inducted into Cooperstown at the end of July, gets his No. 6 retired in August.

Look for Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada next year. Then Derek Jeter not much longer after that. This ballpark, Yankee Stadium 2.0, no longer is the House That Ruth Built. But the tradition must endure, and Martinez helped carry that torch, a "key power piece" to the late-1990s run, as David Cone referred to him Saturday.

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Martinez hit 192 homers with 739 RBIs in sevens seasons for the Yankees -- only one year more than his time spent in Seattle. But a funny thing happened to him on the way to establishing a dynasty on Puget Sound. Long before they detonated the Kingdome, the Mariners chose to break up the '95 wild-card winner, and Martinez was on the must-go list.

On Saturday, Martinez remembered calling his then-manager Lou Piniella during the offseason to ask if he was being traded. When Piniella told him yes, Martinez pushed for the Yankees, knowing they had an opening with Mattingly's retirement.

"Lou said, all right, I'll try to make that happen," Martinez said. With the trade contingent on him accepting a new contract with the Yankees, he told his agent, "Whatever they give me, we're taking."

The transition wasn't so smooth. At first, Martinez was booed loudly by Yankees fans, who missed Mattingly and were upset by his slumping replacement. Who could have predicted Martinez would be standing on the field nearly two decades later, pulling a sheet off his very own bronze likeness.

Not Tino, that's for sure.

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"It's crazy," Martinez said. "I'm honored. I'm humbled by it. But again, at the same time, it's really the result of the success of the team that I played on."

And there's where Martinez nailed it. Those Yankees were special because of what they achieved as a group. It was an impressive collection of talent, no doubt. But stringing together a bunch of stars can't guarantee one World Series ring, never mind four or five. The Martinez-era Yankees created indelible memories for their fan base as beloved characters in a tremendously entertaining Bronx show.

Singled out, all but Jeter and Mariano Rivera will need a ticket to get into the Hall of Fame. As for the others, well, there's nothing wrong with getting the old band back together and reliving the good times. Or having a few more plaques to stoke those feelings.

"They all mirrored each other because winning was so important to all of them," Torre said. "And Tino was right in the middle of it. He didn't think he helped the ballclub as much as we all knew he did."

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