Buck Martinez was back on his old turf Friday, only he didn’t fully recognize it.
There are strip malls and traffic jams where there used to be open range and cattle.
Elk Grove seems to expand every time Martinez returns, far from the small stop-sign town of his youth that expanded from 3,500 in population when he graduated from Elk Grove High School in 1966 to 159,000 today.
Saturday night, Martinez will wax nostalgic, his humble beginnings in a slice of Americana that led him to a 17-year major-league career and a second career as a broadcaster, as one of nine inductees at the La Salle Club Baseball Hall of Fame Dinner at Christian Brothers.
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“Ah, it’s always nice to come home,” Martinez said. “I lived in a house on the south part of Stockton Boulevard, near the freeway, that’s now a Costco. I would take a bus to high school, and from home to school, there were farms and fields.”
Martinez this weekend also will visit Happy Camp in Siskiyou County. That’s where his mother, Shirley, a Native American, grew up with 13 brothers and sisters. And Martinez said he will go to Fresno to visit more relatives. The long drives will bring him down memory lane, too.
“I wasn’t a star in high school, but Ken Hottman was,” Martinez said of his old friend, who also reached the big leagues. “I never thought I’d be a pro player. I never thought of pro ball as a career was realistic. I wasn’t very good at the plate.”
But he was superb behind the plate. Martinez and a group of his American Legion buddies wound up at Sacramento City College, where they played for Del Bandy in an era when the Panthers also trotted out eventual major-leaguers in brothers Ken and Bob Forsch and Larry Bowa. Martinez was selected by Philadelphia in the 1967 January phase of the draft, though he never played for the Phillies. He made his major-league debut in 1969 with Kansas City.
And Hottman? He had his first big-league at-bat on Sept. 11, 1971, with the White Sox, facing the Royals. Martinez was the catcher.
“What are the chances of that happening?” Martinez said. “Teammates in high school and at Sac City and then to have that moment?”
Martinez’s defining moment as a player, and proof of his grit, came in 1985, at the Seattle Kingdome. Playing for Toronto, Martinez had his leg broken and ankle dislocated in a grisly collision at the plate with Phil Bradley. After applying the tag for the out, a visibly shaken Martinez managed to fire the ball to third base, while seated, in an attempt to get Gorman Thomas, the former Sacramento Solons slugger. The ball darted into left field, and the slow-footed Thomas chugged home. Martinez caught the relay throw, still sprawled out, and recorded his second out at home.
It is the only 9-2-7-2 double play in major-league history. Martinez, feeling the rigors of the game, stepped away in 1986 after hitting .181 in 81 games. He batted .225 over his career in 1,049 games and hit .333 for the Royals in the 1976 American League Championship Series against the Yankees.
“I had so much fun,” Martinez said. “That play at the plate with Gorman Thomas was something. I remember when they were putting me on the stretcher, manager Bobby Cox said, ‘Bucky, if you can stand the pain, you can play tomorrow. This won’t hurt your speed any.’ He was right.”
Martinez said he marvels at the success of his alma mater. Elk Grove baseball rises above eight surrounding high schools in the district when there was only one when Martinez grew up. Martinez spoke at an Elk Grove baseball fundraiser in 2012.
“What’s different for players today and from our generation is major-league baseball for us seemed so foreign, so far away,” Martinez said. “We saw one game a week on TV, and that was usually the Yankees. We didn’t have cable like there is now. You can see it all now.
“Kids today are so familiar with the game. They’re not in awe of it like we were, and they all think they can play at the highest level, and I love it. I think that’s really neat.”
Martinez said baseball has afforded him memories and experiences to last a lifetime. He managed the Blue Jays in 2001 and ’02 and remains a broadcaster for Toronto. He’s written books, and he’ll celebrate 39 years of marriage to Arlene in July.
“Life is great,” Martinez said. “I’m 65, feel good. I get to do whatever I want. My wife and I travel. We have grandchildren. And baseball is just around the corner.”
Other inductees into the 2014 La Salle Club Baseball Hall of Fame include Don Hammitt (El Camino), Curtis Brown (Grant), Rowland Office (McClatchy), Larry Wolfe (Cordova), Mike Baldwin (Sac City), Oscar Broyer (Burbank), Richard “Scratch” DeFazio (Sac High) and Carl Boyer (Bishop Armstrong).