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Even after unveiling, Tino Martinez still can't believe his addition to Monument Park

06/21/2014 3:25 PM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Tino Martinez stands proudly next to his newly unveiled Monument Park plaque.(AP)
In front of his family, a handful of ex-teammates, and a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium, Tino Martinez joined the pantheon of the elite on Saturday, unveiling a plaque in his honor that will sit in Monument Park forever.

In his speech, Martinez thanked George Steinbrenner for bringing him to New York, he thanked the Steinbrenner Family, his teammates and Joe Torre for seven wonderful seasons here, and thanked the fans for being the best.

"The fans…you guys are the best. I can't tell you guys how many times over the years we were behind in the last inning, and we'd sit in the dugout and hear you when we got a hit or a walk and it would give us momentum. You guys helped us get through so many games and are so important to us, so thank you very much."

And after he closed his speech and got one last ovation, after he threw out the first pitch and watched the ex-teammates and Yankees staffers in attendance get to dote on him, Constantino Martinez - flanked by son Tino Jr. - sat on the dais in the Yankees press conference room, exhaled, and, with the "pressure" of the day over, said "now I feel better" and got to reflect on just what this meant for a man who was booed when he first came to New York to replace Don Mattingly.

PHOTO GALLERY: Yankees honor Tino Martinez

"It really is awesome. I think back to those days I first got here, and I was really excited to be a Yankee. I started out slow, but I just wanted to play hard, do my job, and help the team win championships, and then these things just happen thanks to the success of our team," he said. "I never imagined being in Monument Park when I was playing, and when they called me I still couldn't believe I'd be out there with all these great names. I'm honored and humbled, but as I said, it's all a result of the teams I played on."

It was back in April that Tino found out he would be joining a long list of storied Yankees, and one might laugh knowing that when he learned of his enshrinement, Martinez was at a locale where you might often find retired players: the golf course.

"I was actually at The Masters; I had been dying to go since I retired and I finally got there, and it was the Wednesday before the tournament," he recalled. "I watched practice rounds and had a great time, and I got back to my place where I was staying around 6 p.m. and I got a call from Deborah Tymon and a group of guys from the marketing department. I do appearances for the Yankees and at first I thought it was going to be one of those calls."

Of course, it wasn't, and even in the midst of the call, Martinez couldn't believe it was real.

"Deb said that 'I just want you to know that you're on speakerphone and there's about 10 guys in the room here, and we want you to know that you're going to get a plaque in Monument Park on June 21,'" Tino recalled. "I was stunned. I was by myself in the room, and I'm looking around thinking 'what?' I was in shock."

The idea of someday getting in Monument Park wasn't far-fetched to Martinez, but the timing sure was.

"I had heard some people talking that I might get out there one day, but I had put it out of my mind, figuring once Joe Torre and Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada go in that I might have a chance," he said. "But I hung up the phone, and I called Deb back about a half-hour later and said 'are you sure?' She said yes and I said 'I'll be there!'"

When he unveiled the plaque, it was the culmination of a journey that began officially on December 7, 1995, a day that has three-fold meaning for Martinez and is one he called "the greatest day of my life" in his speech on the field.

That day, Tino himself turned 27, his daughter Victoria was born, and as it turns out, he truly began the best days of his career - and for the latter part of that he had one man to thank: Lou Piniella.

"When we beat the Yankees in the playoffs, we thought we the Mariners were going to keep the team together, but it wasn't until about November that I found out I was going to be traded when I read it in the paper," he said. "Lou (then the Mariners manager) lives in Tampa, so I called him and asked him about it and he said 'yeah, they can't afford to keep all of you guys in arbitration,' and he asked me where I wanted to go. He listed teams like the Cubs, the Padres and the Yankees, and I said 'man, I'd really love to go to New York.' I knew Don Mattingly was retiring, and I knew they had a good team coming back, and that was the first year where they would do spring training in Tampa, where I'm from, so I thought it would be a great situation, and Lou told me he'd try to make it happen."

It did, and it was actually thanks to the impending arrival of Victoria Martinez that Tino became a Yankee so quickly.

"The trade went down on December 5 or 6, but I had to agree to a contract with the Yankees before the trade would be done," he said, "so I went into that meeting and told my agent that 'whatever they give me, we're taking!' and that's how it all worked out."

The rest, as they say, is history, and we'll leave the closing of that chapter in the words of Martinez himself moments after unveiling his plaque.

"The first time I walked into Yankee Stadium and saw my pinstriped jersey hanging in my locker, it was overwhelming to me. It is such an honor and a privilege to not only play Major League Baseball, but to play for the Yankees. All I wanted to do was play my best and help my team win, and I couldn't have asked for a better situation. … When I got the phone call, I couldn't believe it, and looking at this plaque today, I still can't believe it. I'm going to have to go out there to Monument Park and see it again to really believe it."

Believe it, Tino, because you're now one of the immortals.

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