Yankees honor Tino Martinez with plaque

NEW YORK -- Tino Martinez was always the quiet one, the unassuming one.

He was the cleanup hitter for some of the best teams the New York Yankees ever had, winning four World Series in five years. But he was never the guy looking for attention.

"Tino was right in the middle of it," former Yankees manager Joe Torre said Saturday. "But a lot of times, he didn't think he helped the ballclub as much as he did."

So it was entirely fitting that when the Yankees called Martinez in April to tell him he'd be getting a plaque in Monument Park, his first reaction was, "What?"

"I called [Yankees senior vice president] Debbie Tymon back about half an hour later and said, 'Are you sure?'" Martinez recalled Saturday, just after the pregame ceremony to unveil that plaque.

Yes, they were sure, and so was the group of Martinez's teammates who took part in the ceremony.

"Tino was the key power piece in the middle of the lineup that really set up that run," said David Cone, who came to the Yankees in 1995, a year before Martinez arrived in a trade with the Seattle Mariners. "He was the true 4-hole hitter, the key power guy."

He was the guy who replaced Don Mattingly at first base, the guy who got off to a slow start as a Yankee and heard it from fans who didn't believe anyone could replace Mattingly. But he was also the guy who turned it around to drive in 117 runs in that championship season of 1996, and the guy who hit 44 home runs and drove in 141 runs the next year.

He was also the guy who got hit in the back by Baltimore's Armando Benitez, setting off a memorable 1998 brawl.

"The way we reacted showed what we thought of Tino," Cone said.

"Everyone loved Tino," said Joe Girardi, the catcher on those teams and current Yankees manager. "He was a great teammate, a great Yankee. Tino brought an edge, brought a real edge to the game."

Martinez retold the story of how he became a Yankee, how he read in the newspaper that the Mariners might trade him and told then-M's manager Lou Piniella that he'd love to end up with the Yankees. For the trade to go through, Martinez had to agree to a new contract.

"Before we went into the meeting, I said to my agent, 'Whatever they offer, I'm taking,'" Martinez said.

Cone looked back on Piniella's part in that deal and said, "Thank you, Lou Piniella. Sweet Lou helped the Yankees again."

Martinez helped the Yankees, even if he was never one to talk much about it himself. "A tough, tough player," Jorge Posada said. "A leader on the team, a leader in the clubhouse. One of my favorites, my all-time favorites."

There will be many ceremonies to come for that group of Yankees. Mariano Rivera's number was retired last September, and Torre's number will be retired in August. Paul O'Neill will get a Monument Park plaque in August, too.

But Saturday was reserved for Martinez, even if he had to be reassured that he really deserved it.

"I was happy to play with him," Rivera said. "And I'm happy to call him my friend."