CHICAGO -- It’s Saturday afternoon, an hour or so before the game, and Chicago Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez has exactly five minutes to talk.
But five minutes turns to 12, before the recorder goes off. And then there’s another five minutes just talking and laughing in the dugout. Then he goes off to chat up some kids down the bench.
Martinez, 29 years past his rookie season with the Cubs, is still at home at Wrigley Field, where his infectious, positive personality has helped keep the Cubs rolling in a resurgent, fun-filled season.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon gets the headlines for transforming the culture of this team, but he needs guys like Martinez to help. In fact, he specifically needed Martinez, his bench coach since 2008.
“Helpful is not an adequate word,” Maddon said.
Back in June, as the Cubs were heating up, I asked catcher Miguel Montero about Maddon’s influence in transforming the Cubs from rebuilders to winners, and he immediately pivoted toward Martinez.
“His right-hand guy is amazing, too -- Davey Martinez,” Montero said. “I think he’s a big influence on his success, his career. Joe’s a great guy, and so is Davey Martinez.”
Once just known as an ex-Cub and itinerant ballplayer, Martinez has carved out an impressive third stint on the North Side as Maddon’s top lieutenant.
So what exactly does Martinez do as Maddon’s bench coach? A little bit of everything.
Martinez is the guy who started the post-win dance parties this season. He’s the guy who told Maddon that Kris Bryant could play the outfield back in spring training. He’s the guy trying to loosen up Addison Russell during games, and he’s also the guy coming up with strategic decisions late. He also says “Poom!” a lot.
“Our biggest phrase is ‘Poom! Poom!'" he said. “Joe and I carried it around since the Rays. One day someone hit a home run and I screamed ‘Poom!’ and Joe said ‘Poom?’”
Whatever works. But his main job is to be Maddon’s assistant manager.
“Your job as a bench coach is to permit the manager to intellectualize the day and not worry about the minutiae,” said Maddon, a former bench coach with the Angels. “You take care of all the crap. And a lot of that has to do with conversations, a lot of that has to do with strategy -- things he may run by me that he takes to the coaches that I don’t have to.
“In-game bench coaching properly done really lightens the load on the manager a lot,” Maddon said. “He keeps guys ready, he helps with the defenses, helps with the baserunning. He’s definitely involved with all the factors, all the facets of the game on a daily basis. So what a good bench coach does is primarily permit the manager to become a manager and not a coach.”
“Exactly,” Martinez said. “I try to keep all the riffraff away from Joe. He manages the game the way he sees fit, and I stand by him and do the same thing. As he knows, I’m very opinionated and I throw stuff at him all the time. He comes back at me with different things.”
Martinez said he starts his day with Maddon working on lineup possibilities. Then he moves around the clubhouse, checks in with the trainers, oversees batting practice. Part of Martinez’s gig, he said, is delivering information to players, communicating statistics and trends. Part of it is keeping guys loose and delivering Joe’s message in a different voice.
“Once the game starts, I manage,” he said. “I manage next to Joe. He kind of looks at one thing, I look at the other thing. His biggest thing is managing the bullpen, the pitching staff, and I oversee game situations, try to pick spots where maybe we can bunt, we can run, do different things.”
Martinez said players get a kick out of the way the two friends talk to each other during games, but they don’t have disagreements, because he knows Maddon makes the decisions. His job is to help him make the right ones. The players respect how their relationship benefits the club.
“Me being a bench player and seeing how they utilize the bullpen and the bench, we never get outcoached,” Cubs outfielder Chris Denorfia said. “We always seem to be making the correct moves. In my eyes, that always is a complementary role -- the bench coach and the manager -- and when they put their heads together, they always seem to come up with the right decision.”
“He’s like the uncle of the team,” Cubs catcher David Ross said. “Joe’s the dad, and Davey’s the uncle. He brings a good mood to the locker room and the dugout every day. He’s still got that player mentality, and that’s fun. He hasn’t lost sight of how hard it is to play the game.”
Martinez, still trim with a full head of black hair, was a Cubs rookie in 1986, and if he’s really 50, he discovered some Ponce de Leon water down in Florida.
Martinez has been Maddon’s right-hand man since the Tampa Bay Rays’ run began, but he seems ready to take off on his own.
“The fact that he hasn’t become a manger yet is kind of difficult to understand,” Maddon said.
Martinez has interviewed for a number of managerial jobs over the past five seasons, becoming a perennial candidate floated by anonymous sources. The Rays, preferring to move on after an awkward ending with Maddon, passed over him last offseason. He was a candidate to replace Dale Sveum here in 2013. The Cubs went with Ricky Renteria.
“Eventually, one day, yeah I do,” want to manage, Martinez said. “I know I’ve prepared myself for it. I know I’m ready for it. But for right now, what I’m concentrating on is getting to the playoffs and winning the World Series with the Chicago Cubs. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Martinez was thought to have been high on the White Sox’s list to replace Ozzie Guillen after the 2011 season, but Kenny Williams threw a curveball and picked Robin Ventura, who had no coaching experience, on Oct. 6, two days after the Rays were eliminated from the playoffs.
If the White Sox and Ventura part ways after this season, Martinez, who played three seasons for the Sox, would be the perfect choice to bring a different structure to the flagging franchise. He could be the emissary of the Maddon Way: have fun and be prepared. A lot of teams could use this experienced coach as their manager.
He can communicate and strategize. He sees possibilities. It was Martinez who first suggested utility man Ben Zobrist could do more than play shortstop.
“I don’t dwell on the negatives,” he said of his approaching to working with the Cubs’ young hitters. “Every day we try to pick positives out and we build on that. It’s a lot of fun coming to the ballpark and watching these guys play.”
And yes, the post-win dance parties were his brainchild, the outgrowth of him bringing a DJ to the end of spring training.
“Let’s just say it’s kind of me,” Martinez said, laughing. “I introduced it, definitely. I love music. So I told the guys that music, for me, keeps me happy, puts me in a good mood. So during spring training, Joe and I started with the whole music thing during stretching and all that stuff. And I said, hey, we keep it going. Why not celebrate every time we win? You should celebrate every time you win. It’s a great feeling, you know. When we get to the big dance, the celebration will be even bigger. And they love it.”
Martinez played for nine teams over his 16-year career. But he has a special place in his heart for the Cubs, where he came up as a 21-year-old rookie.
“Like I told them, I had Rick Sutcliffe, Jody Davis, Keith Moreland, Andre Dawson, Goose Gossage was here with me, Shawon Dunston, Leon Durham,” Martinez said. “Talk about some characters, we had some characters. Steve Trout.
“My first big league trip I’m on the plane and I’m like, this is so cool, and Rick Sutcliffe comes up to me and said, ‘We bought you a gift,’” Martinez said. “And I heard rumors about guys getting free suits. I’m like, all right, I’m getting a free suit. So I said thank you, put the box down. And he said, ‘No, you need to open it.’ So I said, ‘Oh no,’ and I go open it up and it’s an apron from the airlines and he said, ‘Every time you hear that bell ring you better be there before the flight attendant gets there.’”
Nowadays, the Cubs need the rookies to help carry the offense, not the drinks. When Martnez sits by Russell during games, he’s on him to stay aggressive, think about the middle of the field when he’s hitting, Russell said.
“I tell him all the time this game is not easy,” Martinez said. “I understand that. I did it for a long time. It’s a hard game. You’ve got to keep it fun, keep it real, and just go out there and do the best you can.”
Russell showed Martinez he can have some fun. Last week, in a 14-5 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, after Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hit deep fly balls in the third inning, Russell homered for the second time that game in the fourth.
“I scream out, ‘You’ve got to be a little big man to hit home runs here!’” Martinez said. “And Addison Russell, I turn around and he’s flexing.”
Martinez does an impression of a smiling Russell flexing his muscles and laughs. Martinez has been a major addition to the Cubs, and his work continues.