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BUCK MARTINEZ IS ABOUT TO TAKE ON A BRAND-NEW ROLE - ONE HE'S BEEN REHEARSING FOR HIS WHOLE LIFE

There are just 15 minutes until ESPN's Baseball Tonight airs, and chaos reigns: Script pages are flying as they are written and rewritten, highlight tapes are pulled and punched into machines for last-second editing, behind-thescenes people are running amok. And then there is Buck Martinez. Cool, calm, Buck Martinez. The 52-year-old ex-catcher is chatting with the makeup woman. He smiles at her politely because Buck Martinez never panics. She tells him he has "a great base" and "marvelous tone." A great base and marvelous tone are nice for TV. And now that Martinez has traded the makeup chair for the hot seat in the Blue Jays dugout, they could be his tools for success.

The new Toronto manager is about to start Act III of his career. Act I-his playing days-lasted 17 years, which is a remarkable achievement considering Martinez didn't look like he would last one day in the majors, not with that lumpy body that looked so bad in a uniform. He caught for three different organizations, and some of his teams were good, some of his teams were terrible. Some of the times he was good, some of the times he was terrible. But he survived. He played 10 years with impaired vision after he was shot in the eye in a hunting accident. He once broke a leg and dislocated an ankle making a tag at home plate, but still managed to get off a throw and to tag out a second man on the same play. After that, he endured five months of 50-hours-a-week rehab just so he could play one more year for the Blue Jays at age 37. As a player rep, he played a key role in baseball's strike of 1981. He even wrote two books about his baseball life. As the lady said, great base.

Act II for Martinez began in Blue Jays spring training 1987, on the roof of Dunedin Stadium. That's where he prepared for his career as a broadcaster, speaking into a tape recorder, practicing his delivery. On the ride home that day, he listened to the tape and thought, "This is awful. I'm rotten." But he wasn't that bad, and he got better. His knowledge and love of the game came through, and before long, he was working not only for TSN in Canada, but also for ESPN. He comes across on-air as nice because he is nice. There's no pretense, no agenda, no bigtiming. "I made $16,000 in my sixth season," he says. "And my wife made $19,000 flying for American. But she had a better year." Marvelous tone.

So while his only real managerial experience was guiding Martinez's Marauders at the Blue Jays' Fantasy Camp in 1995 and 1996, Buck isn't exactly unprepared for Act III. He has those 17 years of crouching behind the plate and mingling in the clubhouse, the 14 years of watching the game from on high. He also has the credibility and personality to make himself heard.

The team Martinez inherits is young and the task he inherits is fairly daunting: win now for new owners who want to fill SkyDome after seven years out of the playoffs. "I saw Preston Gomez at the winter meetings," says Martinez. "He said, 'Remember, the bull looks really small up there in the booth. But down on the field, the bull is really big." In the Blue Jays' case, the bull wears Pinstripes. Which brings Martinez back to where he started. "In spring training," he says, "I'm going to feel like I felt in 1976, sitting on the Royals bench with George Brett, getting ready for the Yankees [in the playoffs]. Partly, 'What in the hell am I doing here?' And partly, 'I'm about to take the greatest adventure of my life.' "

Despite his lack of experience, Martinez is exactly what the Blue Jays were looking for. He is a decided change of pace from Tim Johnson, who was fired two years ago after lying about his involvement in the Vietnam War, and from the sometimes churlish Jim Fregosi, who was fired after a disappointing 2000 season. Uncle Buck has also been a popular Toronto figure since his playing days. "Cab drivers jump out in the middle of the street and yell, 'You're going to be great!' " Martinez says. "Season ticket-holders tell me they haven't been this excited in five years. I understand the commitment to the organization and the community that comes with this job. I'm not intimidated by it."

Martinez doesn't intimidate easily. He wasn't drafted out of Elk Grove High School outside Sacramento because he couldn't run well and he wasn't considered a good receiver. But he worked at it until he was good enough to catch on with the Royals in 1969. He was there when Brett broke in. "We taught him how to play," Martinez says. In 1976, he drove in four runs in five games in the ALCS against the Yankees. (He also called the pitch that Chris Chambliss hit over the fence off Mark Littell to end that series.) Martinez was on top of the world.

Until that winter. The day his wife, Arlene, told him she was pregnant with their first child was the same day he was shot in the left eye while hunting. After nine hours of surgery, his 20-15 vision had become 20-250. "I went from playoff catcher to fourth-string catcher," he says. "They traded for Darrell Porter."

Martinez was traded to St. Louis in 1977. A few hours later, the Cardinals sent him to Milwaukee, where he played with Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. In 1981, he became a Blue Jay and part of the Whitt and Wisdom catching platoon with Ernie Whitt. Martinez also became something of a cult hero for his tenacious style and spit-in-your-eye grit. In a 1985 game in Seattle, Martinez tagged out Phil Bradley at the plate. During the collision, he dislocated his right ankle and fractured his right fibula when his spikes caught in the ground. He held onto the ball for the out, then tried to throw out Gorman Thomas, who was going to third. The ball went into leftfield, where George Bell retrieved it and threw it home. Martinez dragged his mangled leg several feet to home plate, sat on it, caught the ball and tagged out Thomas. "Bobby Mattick, who was the Blue Jays VP then [and who had played with the 1940 Cubs], said it was the greatest baseball play he'd ever seen," says Martinez. "That same year, Carlton Fisk tagged out two runners at the plate on the same play." But he didn't do it with a broken leg.

Following five months of rehab, Martinez played the 1986 season, but it was pretty much over. The next spring he was on that roof at Dunedin Stadium. "I did daily reports," Martinez says. "Toughest spring I've ever had. I hated it." But he fought through it. Jerry Howarth, a longtime radio voice of the Blue Jays, says Martinez took criticism well. "He always wanted to get better." And he did.

Last year, on top of his TSN job, Martinez expanded his ESPN duties to include Baseball Tonight. His first appearance looked like it could have been his 500th, it was that seamless. Of course, he was upset that he wasn't as prepared as he could have been. "That won't happen again," he said to himself. It didn't.

One night, he did a Blue Jays game on TSN, but because the game ran late, he missed his flight to Connecticut for a Sunday Baseball Today show. So he drove 500 miles from Toronto to Bristol, using his cell phone for script updates, and arrived at 11:50 a.m., 10 minutes before airtime. He did a peaceful hour. Would another former player kill himself for a TV show? "It was my job," he says.

Martinez is a perfectionist. It's one of the qualities Blue Jays GM Gord Ash likes about Uncle Buck. Ash knows he is taking a big risk hiring a broadcaster to run his team. B ut the general manager needed someone with energy to bring baseball back in Toronto, where attendance has been mostly slipping for seven years. Ash knows Martinez isn't some self-infatuated gasbag who believes the team revolves around him. Even as a broadcaster, Martinez was the guy from whom many of the Blue Jay players sought advice-and would vent to. "Sports is a people business," A sh says. "It's a business of communication and Buck is an excellent communicator. If you can't communicate with players, if you can't sell your vision, you can't be a successful manager."

Martinez believes he will be a successful manager, but he's grown into that belief. He says that three years ago, when the Blues Jays first thought of him for the job, he deflected the team's attention. "I wasn't ready," he says. "It wasn't the right time." Instead, it was time for him to coach his son, Casey, at Sacramento State. "It was an opportunity for a dad to spend time with his son after missing all those years," Martinez says. "I knew it was the only one I was going to get." Wrong. Casey is now a catcher in the Blue Jays system. Dad will see him in spring training. Arlene, who's also her husband's agent, is a flight attendant again after 23 years off. And John Albert Martinez is ready to manage.

He has been counseled by several former managers, including Cookie Rojas, his mentor and new bench coach, and Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer. Says Martinez, "They told me, 'Don't make promises. Be the bearer of bad news. Be honest, decisive and quick.' I've always been those things." One of his first acts as manager was to write letters to 32 players, telling them how he thought they could make up the five games that kept them out of the playoffs last year. He called several players personally. He was positive and upbeat. "I didn't mention the Yankees," he says. But Martinez is a realist. Maybe he can coach Chris Carpenter into being a better pitcher, but he'll never be able to turn recalcitrant rightfielder Raul Mondesi into a Paul Molitor in the clubhouse. "No one plays like George Brett and Robin Yount anymore," Martinez says. "We're not going to change players. Hopefully, we'll enhance what they have."

What Toronto has is a lot of talent. Last season it led the AL?in home runs (244). Its double-play combo of second baseman Homer Bush and shortstop Alex Gonzalez is superb. "I've got an All-Star at first base [Carlos Delgado] and third base [Tony Batista], a lefthander who is a 20-game winner [David Wells], and a closer [Billy Koch] who is the cream of the crop. I'd be nuts not to take this job."

But he's also got some work to do. Wells and Koch notwithstanding, Toronto's pitchers had an ERA of 5.14. And Carpenter, Kelvim Escobar and Roy Halladay, the young arms, have yet to develop as promised. But Martinez has handled pitching staffs before. Eight major league managers, in fact, are former catchers. Martinez has the added benefit of being from the Sacramento area. Maybe that means something: Sacramento is the home of the two Managers of the Year last year, Dusty Baker and Jerry Manuel.

Predictably, most of Martinez's off-season discussions have been with his catcher, Darrin Fletcher. Managers today typically run a game from the dugout, calling all pitches, pitchouts, step-offs and throw-overs-things that Martinez prided himself on doing when he caught. The new skipper says he'll give many of those responsibilities to Fletcher, in part to make him more of an authority figure. "I want my catcher to put down the sign and make the target with conviction," Martinez says. "If you're sloppy back there, the pitcher looks at you and thinks, 'Oh, he doesn't know what he's doing either.' Make a statement. Don't be ambivalent." Martinez also says he will cut out several bunt and cutoff plays. Streamline and simplify things. He will eliminate pregame stretching. "A waste of time," he says. "And it creates little factions all over the field."

His coaching staff is in place, and it includes one of his best friends from his days as a Blue Jays player, Garth Iorg. At the Blue Jays' minicamp in late December, Martinez dressed with his coaches, not in the manager's office. "The first day, I didn't know what do to," he says. "Then it came back to me. I remembered Whitey Herzog's spring trainings, George Bamberger's, Bobby Cox's and Jimy Williams'. By the fourth day, I was ready to start our spring training."

Martinez is not the first guy to go from the broadcast booth to the dugout. In 1997, Larry Dierker became manager of the Astros after 17 years as a broadcaster and won the Central Division title his first three seasons despite no managerial experience. In October, Bob Brenly, a Fox broadcaster and former Giants catcher, was hired as manager of the Diamondbacks. The most successful manager in baseball, in fact, is a former catcher and broadcaster. Before an AL CS game between the Yanks and Mariners last fall, when it appeared that Martinez might get the Blue Jays job, Joe Torre sought him out. "He told me he thought I'd be great," says Martinez. "He grabbed me by the back of the neck and said, 'If you need anything, call me.' Until that point, I had my doubts. But from that day on, I made the emotional commitment to be a major league manager."