The weather was awful – a normal occurrence for the San Diego State baseball team when they visited the Air Force Academy, even in May. No matter how nice the weather has been at the foot of the Rockies, it seems like every time SDSU travels to Colorado Springs for a Mountain West baseball series, Mother Nature throws her nastiest stuff at the visitors.
“We’re soft,” laughed first-year Aztecs head coach Mark Martinez during a rain/hail/snow delay that ultimately suspended what would become a 2-1 SDSU victory over the Falcons. “We’re all bundled up and worried about being cold; I wish we’d just go out and play.”
Playing that day had a little special meaning for Martinez and his team. Tony Gwynn, the former Aztecs player and head coach, and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, would have turned 55 years old on this particular Saturday. The Aztecs wore their socks high and sported hats with Gwynn’s number 19 emblazoned on the side. Honoring their former coach, who lost his battle with cancer last June 16, is always paramount, but even more so on his birthday.
“It’s been a rough 10, 11 months,” Martinez confessed as he stood in an empty dugout during the weather delay. “We miss him. Today’s his birthday, so you get a flood of emotions and a lot of memories – stuff like that. We have a great group of kids, so my job is more to just carry the baton and not screw anything up.”
Martinez and his team miss Gwynn every day.
“The way he could cut up, and his laughter and the way he could keep you loose,” Martinez said is what they miss most. “He wanted the kids to always remember that he was just one of the guys, sitting in the dugout, cutting up and not taking themselves too seriously.”
The goal, Martinez made clear, was to continue the upward trend that Gwynn had started when he took over the program in 2003. An assistant coach at New Mexico at the time, Martinez became one of Gwynn’s early hires. After 17 seasons as an assistant with the Lobos, Martinez spent the next nine years as an assistant to Gwynn – often filling in during the late coach’s medical leaves – before taking over full time this season. There have been 37 Aztecs players drafted by Major League Baseball during his time on the mesa.
Martinez is no stranger to springtime in Colorado. He was born in Aurora, attended high school in Longmont, played a year at Colorado State (yes, CSU used to have an actual varsity baseball program!), a season at Trinidad Junior College and his final two years at Mesa State in Grand Junction, where he earned his degree in 1984.
“Growing up in Colorado, and then being away, you forget to appreciate how beautiful it is,” Martinez remarked.
“I’m still a Broncos fan, a Rockies fan, Nuggets, Avalanche, all of it,” he continued. Even during the NFL season in San Diego, “I make sure everyone knows about it.”
A middle infielder during his playing days, Martinez thought teaching would be his calling. Things turned quickly when he became an assistant at Mesa State, spending five years at his alma mater following graduation.
“I was very fortunate that (Grand Junction baseball leaders) Jamie Hamilton and (the late) Sam Suplizio saw something in me and steered me towards coaching. Fortunately for me, they were great mentors and I’m here because of them.”
He became an assistant to Gwynn not knowing that the Hall of Famer was going to have health problems. Having been called upon several times in recent seasons to take the reins on a temporary basis while Gwynn fought cancer, Martinez said he would try to do “what Tony would have wanted us to do.”
Things changed when he was named the permanent head coach shortly after Gwynn passing. Now it is his program; he makes all the decisions, big and small. Even so, Martinez often pauses to ask himself what Gwynn would have done in the same situation.
“We want to carry on his legacy, the things he’s build for the program; but at the same time, we put our own stamp on it, too,” Martinez explained. “Continue the hard work and make sure we put the boys in a position to have success. That’s what we try to do every day.”
It’s working well so far.
“I’m where I belong, and I have a lot of work to do and a lot of things to accomplish here,” Martinez continued. “I’m honored to be here and feel very fortunate that Tony asked me 11 years ago to come and coach at San Diego State.”
These Aztecs won their 34th game of the season when they came from behind to beat Air Force. They will still probably have to win the Mountain West postseason tournament, which concludes this weekend – which would include knocking off nationally ranked Nevada-Reno – to earn their fourth NCAA Tournament bid in the past seven seasons.
“We should easily have 40 wins at this point,” Martinez sighs. “But…
There’s a statue of Gwynn outside Petco Park, the home of the San Diego Padres. SDSU acted first, and took it a step further. Back in 1997, their refurbished facility was christened Tony Gwynn Stadium.
That’s where Martinez reports for work every day. It’s a lot to live up to, big spikes to fill. Martinez isn’t soft. He’s up to the task.