Jose Martinez could have been bitter and brooding when he joined the Rockford Aviators in 2014. After eight years in affiliated minor league baseball, he had been cut loose and was starting over in the independent Frontier League.
Matt Frahm was in his second season with the Aviators and understood the unpredictability of players dropping down from affiliated teams.
“In independent ball, you never know how those guys who have been up will receive anybody,” said Frahm, a former Olympia High School and Lewis University star pitcher. “Jose was coming to us after being a (Class) AA All-Star the year before. He came in and was really receptive to everybody.
“He was a really nice guy in our clubhouse. He was kind of jokester, which was pretty refreshing.”
He also was 6-foot-7, the only Aviators’ player taller than the 6-5 Frahm.
Four years later, Martinez is measuring up nicely in the major leagues, producing All-Star caliber numbers for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The 29-year-old first baseman/outfielder entered Tuesday’s game against San Diego hitting .327 with 10 home runs and 42 runs batted in. He ranked in the top 10 in the National League in batting average, RBIs, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging).
Frahm can’t say he saw this coming, but he knew someone who did.
“My manager at the time, Jim Frisbie, said when we first got Jose, ‘This guy can definitely hit in the major leagues. He just needs someone to give him a chance,’” Frahm said. “That was pretty spot on.
“From day one he was our (No.) 3 hitter. Offensively, nothing overpowered him. There were very few times he struck out. He had a professional approach already that a lot of guys didn’t. I was always thankful he was on my team so I didn’t have to throw to him.”
Martinez spent a little more than a month with the Aviators, batting .337 with three homers, six doubles and 14 RBIs in 28 games. He struck out 12 times in 104 at bats.
The Atlanta Braves signed Martinez in June and he spent the remainder of 2014 with the Lynchburg Hillcats of the Class A Carolina League. He was back in affiliated baseball and by 2016 made his big-league debut with the Cardinals.
Now, he is tearing up big-league pitching, often with a smile that stretches foul pole to foul pole.
That’s the guy Frahm remembers.
“I’m thrilled for him,” said Frahm, now the Member Services Manager at Advocate BroMenn Health & Fitness Center in Bloomington. “He worked hard and was always encouraging everybody. He was always working in the cage and bringing younger guys with him.
“He seemed to gravitate toward helping people out. If you were interested in getting better, he was on the same page with that.”
Martinez is among several of Frahm’s former Aviator teammates to ascend to the big leagues. Drew Rucinski is a pitcher with the Miami Marlins, pitcher Josh Smoker has seen time with the Pittsburgh Pirates and hurler Nick Anderson is on the verge of being called up to the Minnesota Twins.
Frahm says he is “lucky” to have spent time with them, adding, “Anytime you can see a former teammate in the big leagues, it’s an awesome thing to reminisce about. I can say, ‘Yeah, I played catch with those guys.’”
The best story of all is Martinez, who faced an uncertain future when he landed in Rockford. Late in his tenure there, he told Jay Taft of the Rockford Register Star:
“I’ve got a lot of time left, and you never know what will happen in baseball. You have to be out there playing to have any chance at all, and that’s what I want to do with my time anyway.”
Consider him a triumph in perseverance, and a beacon for players in independent baseball.
“Everyone has a story of how baseball didn’t work out for them. Jose is a perfect example of sticking with it and now he’s hitting three or four (in the lineup) on one of the best teams in the National League,” Frahm said. “It does motivate guys when they’re feeling down and out.”