FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mayra Bazavilvazo wanted to do something unforgettable for her brother on his 19th birthday. So, in the summer of 2006, she gave him the gift so many of her friends from dental school at Boston University would give for a special occasion.
She got him tickets to a game at Fenway Park.
It wasn’t just any game, either. It was the Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees in the late-August heat of a pennant race. And the seats weren’t just any seats. They belonged to Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, whose brother was doing his residency in the same dentistry program as Bazavilvazo.
"If you're going to go to Fenway and experience it for the very first time, what a better way to do it than having it be a Red Sox-Yankees game?" Bazavilvazo said by phone. "My brother is a student of the game in every way, shape or form that you can imagine. I always tell him, 'You eat, sleep, dream everything baseball.' It has always been that way. The opportunity was too good to pass up. He loved it."
Twelve years later, J.D. Martinez will be spending many more days at Fenway. And as Boston's new $110 million slugger, it's expected he will create even better memories at the 106-year-old ballpark.
Martinez, 30, was exactly the player the Red Sox needed to add to their lineup. They finished last in the American League in home runs last season, and he's coming off a career-best year in which he went deep 45 times in 432 at-bats and led the majors with a .690 slugging percentage. And Martinez needed the big-spending Red Sox, too, especially with few teams willing to offer nine-figure contracts during a historically thrifty offseason.
But to hear Martinez and Bazavilvazo tell it, this union was preordained for reasons that go beyond prodigious home runs and an escalating payroll. It goes back to Aug. 21, 2006, the day Martinez turned 19. And truth be told, it extends years before that, back to when his friends teased him for wearing a Red Sox jersey in high school in Pembroke Pines, Florida.
"Oh yeah, I was a Red Sox fan at the time. They were nasty," said Martinez, who also identifies as a "Tom Brady fan" and, though he isn’t much of a football aficionado, regards the New England Patriots quarterback as the best player ever in that sport. "That's when they had Pedro [Martinez] and Manny [Ramirez] and Papi (David Ortiz).
"I told Pedro this story: I used to wear a freakin' Pedro Martinez jersey because it had 'Martinez' on the back. I would wear it every weekend when I was in middle school or a [high school] freshman. We'd go bowling or something and I'd be wearing my Pedro jersey. My friends used to make fun of me. They called me a bandwagon fan."
Bazavilvazo, eight years older than Martinez, knew of her brother's fandom. He was a pretty good player, too. The Minnesota Twins drafted him in the 36th round in 2006, and if he had signed, he probably would've celebrated his birthday on the road with a rookie league team in Florida. Instead, he decided to honor his scholarship to Nova Southeastern, a Division II program in Fort Lauderdale.
Back then, Red Sox tickets were hard to come by -- and Red Sox-Yankees tickets were downright impossible. The Red Sox snapped an 86-year championship drought by winning the World Series two years earlier and were in the midst of an 820-game sellout streak.
Bazavilvazo had already purchased weekend Red Sox-Yankees tickets online when Victor Lowell mentioned his brother wasn't planning on using his seats for the Monday matinee finale of that series. Lowell need not say anything more. Bazavilvazo bought plane tickets and whisked her baseball-loving brother to Boston to see not one but two games.
"I didn't even know Mike Lowell," Martinez said with a laugh. "I mean, I knew him, but I didn't know him personally. I’m waiting to see him so I can tell him."
The seats for the Monday game on Aug. 21 -- Martinez's actual birthday -- were sweet: section 21 in the grandstand, just to the left of home plate. But before Martinez even walked through the turnstiles, he could tell there was something unique about Fenway Park.
"I remember I was like, 'There's events going on outside the stadium before you walk in? What the heck?' " he said, referring to the sausage stands and souvenir shops that fill the neighborhood streets around the ballpark. "It was totally different. I was like, 'These people are nuts up here. I love it.' "
The Yankees won 2-1 to complete a five-game sweep. For the record, Lowell went 0-for-3, Ortiz 1-for-3 with a walk, and Wily Mo Pena homered. Ramirez left the game with cramping in his right hamstring. Batting ninth and playing shortstop for the Red Sox: Alex Cora, now Martinez's manager.
But it was something else entirely that stayed with Martinez all these years.
"Kettle corn. That's what I remember most," he said. "The kettle corn behind right field, they would stir it with a bat. I was like, 'What the heck is going on?' "
Said Bazavilvazo: "I bet he's looking forward to having that kettle corn again."
Martinez has been back to Fenway several times over the years. He went 2-for-4 with a double in his Fenway debut on May 18, 2014, with the Detroit Tigers. In seven career games there, he's 12-for-39 (.444) with two doubles and two walks.
As one of the top sluggers in baseball over the past four years -- and now, one of the highest-paid outfielders, too -- Martinez can share a laugh with Pedro Martinez about the jersey that once hung in his closet. And he's eager to see Lowell, a close friend of Cora's who came to Red Sox camp as a guest instructor only a few days before Martinez signed his five-year contract, and thank him in person for those tickets.
Mostly, though, Martinez says he's ready to match the passion of the fans he met outside Fenway Park on that summer day in 2006.
Baseball is different in Boston. It's not for everyone, as big-ticket free-agent busts Carl Crawford and Pablo Sandoval can attest. Bazavilvazo can vouch for that, too. As a student, she lived in the city's South End and remembers Victor Lowell occasionally being bothered by critics "talking crap" about his brother.
"That's unfortunately part of it, but the pluses, there's no fans in baseball like it," said Bazavilvazo, who owns a dental practice in Newport Beach, California. "When he signed, basically I told him, 'You're not in Kansas anymore,' because it's a whole new ballgame, no pun intended."
And after seeing it from the perspective of the fans in the seats, Martinez insists he's ready for it.
"I grew up in Miami watching baseball down there, so you could see it from one extreme to the next," Martinez said. "It was like, 'Well, this is what baseball is about.' "