Northern exposure: PA’s Martinez going to Bowling Green after MVP junior college season

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Gama Martinez could only grin when he heard the story from his high school baseball coach.

When Martinez moved back to Jefferson County as a high school sophomore from a town near Waco, the Port Arthur native opted at first to attend West Brook, a school with some baseball tradition.

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Jessie Riojas had just met Martinez that summer in 2012, right after his first season coaching at Memorial. He anticipated Martinez to rejoin his friends in his original hometown to begin his junior year.

“That was [going into] my second year, so we were basically cleaning up the program,” Riojas said. “He had a little doubt and West Brook was kind of rolling just a little bit, so I think a lot of friends were getting in his ear and said, ‘You know, you need to come back over here.’

“I think he felt like he was more comfortable over here, and as time went on — and he can lie until the day he dies — that’s the best decision he ever made.”

Sitting in the Memorial dugout on a warm Monday with only the calm Port Arthur wind to cool him off, Martinez didn’t tell a lie. He could only grin.

“It brings back good memories, the good terms and bad terms,” Martinez said. “I love coming back to this place. It’s where I started, and [like] getting back to work during breaks.

“I love working with coach Riojas. He throws BP and works me out again. It feels like good times again.”

Come Wednesday morning, Martinez will head back north.

He’s going farther east from Moline, Ill., where he spent three years at Black Hawk College and was named the Arrowhead Athletic Conference’s Most Valuable Player. His destination will be Bowling Green, Ohio, the namesake of Mid-American Conference university that offered him his only NCAA Division I scholarship.

“I experienced the JUCO life, and now I want to experience the D-I life,” Martinez said. “I feel the atmosphere is going to be awesome.”

Journey home, then north

His junior-college career was awesome — but also met with adversity.

Before that, Martinez needed to get his high school career at Memorial going.

He spent two years at Teague High School, east of Waco, before his family decided to move back to Port Arthur, where he was born and raised up to the sixth grade. There was more work to be found on the coast.

“I knew in my heart that Gama was going to come back to Memorial, and he was going to be knocking on my door around November or December,” Riojas said. “That exactly happened.”

The crystal ball couldn’t be any clearer in Riojas’ view. When West Brook didn’t exactly work out for Martinez as he hoped, he truly came back home.

“I knew this was the place for him, and as time went on, I said this guy is a special kid,” Riojas said. “He’s a special player, he’s a student of the game, and I only had two years to be with him. But every second he was with us, I enjoyed it because he was another coach on the field for us, and he was such a great leader at that time. Most importantly, he took care of his business on and off the field and also in the classroom.”

Martinez hit close to .400 in two years with the Titans, according to Riojas. He hammered two home runs as a senior after none the previous two years, and he drove in about 20 to 25 runs each year. Defensively, he was an outstanding fielder, hardly committing an error if ever.

He was named honorable mention All-State as a senior in 2014, and soon Black Hawk College came calling for him.

In preparation for his true sophomore year in Moline, Martinez strained his elbow during the last game of the fall.

“I guess I overdid it,” he said. “… I couldn’t throw the ball into the field no more. I had to stop and give it a break for two months. I still felt the same pain rehabbing it.”

The two-month break turned into a seven-month rehabilitation process, and Martinez’s 2016 season was over before it started.

“I put it in God’s hands,” he said. “I felt like it was for me to get back on the field and play, and that following spring, I could, but God had different plans. He wanted me to sit out for a year and go back the following year.”

Conference MVP

This past spring was Martinez’s finest at Black Hawk.

He started all 44 games for the Braves and helped them win the Arrowhead with a .356 batting average and nine home runs, two years after popping eight. He drove in 42 runs and stole 17 bases while leading Black Hawk to a 36-8 overall record (15-3 in the Arrowhead).

But it was on defense where Martinez sensed the most improvement in his game.

“Fielding-wise, I made an adjustment,” he said. “I guess just growing up and the game’s grown up in me. The hitting part is the easy part. The fielding part is, you know, more mental.”

For all he accomplished, no Division I teams recruited him until the postseason. Division II and NAIA programs were on him, though, and Martinez was all but a lock to go to Park University, northwest of Kansas City and just above the Missouri River.

Soon, Bowling Green State got wind of Martinez.

“They backed down a little bit,” he said. “They didn’t have any scholarships. Then, they needed a guy and they ended up giving me my scholarship.”

Now, Bowling Green — which began a 15-34 campaign swept badly by College World Series participant Texas A&M this spring — looks to right the ship with Martinez. And Riojas has his first D-I signee as a head coach.

“He was one of those kids I wanted the younger generation and even my own kids to look up to,” said Riojas, who coached West Orange-Stark before moving to Memorial. “As time has gone on, he has continued to grow as a man.

“Gama’s by far, one of the best players I coached ever in my career because of the qualities on and off the field.”

The batting practices and extra time Martinez has spent learning from his high school coach well after his Titan days may help him translate into a career in the major leagues. A kinesiology major, his aspiration once his playing days are over is to be a coach.

The road once again may take him back south to Port Arthur.

“When Gama gets done with the big leagues and all that, I guess we’ll hire him,” Riojas said. “We talked about that, too. Gama’s like a son to me. He’s said, ‘Coach, whenever I’m done, I want to coach with you.’ That means a lot to me.”

I.C. Murrell: 721-2435. Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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