Head Baseball Coach Mark Martinez

LEADING THE MOMENT

Head Baseball Coach Mark Martinez on guiding his team through uncertain times.

Interview by Lisa Haney and Ryan Schuler | Photograph by Sandy Huffaker

January 22, 2021

 

Since being named the late Tony Gwynn’s successor in 2014, Mark Martinez has become the fastest head baseball coach in program history to log 100 wins (in 2017) and the fastest in Mountain West history to win three conference tournament championships (in 2018). He’s had 44 players drafted during his total tenure at SDSU, with nine of those picks making the major leagues. Under his watch, the baseball program has reached its highest academic progress rate, highest team GPA and highest total of scholar-athletes in its 84-year history. He’s been recognized for starting education training for players and coaches around healthy relationships and consent. Now he’s stepping up to the plate to guide his team through uncertain times.

What is it like leading a team through the pandemic and these strange times for sports?

It’s been hard — for everyone — really since last March. To have everything slam stop was an emotional punch in the gut. It was difficult to tell our guys, “Our season’s over.” To see the faces of our seniors, and everybody, it was just heart- wrenching. We did have a slice of normalcy during the fall with our afternoon practices. For our administration — from the president all the way through our athletic directors, our sports liaison, our training staff, everybody — to make that happen was a blessing. It’s a lot of moving parts and everything is different every single day. We’ll find out what the spring looks like. There are plans to play. If we get that opportunity, that’s great. But ultimately you want to be safe and make sure everyone’s healthy.

How are you prioritizing health for your players?

We’re asking them to exist in a bubble — to consider their roommate as their family pod and avoid gathering with others. It’s a big ask of 18- to 22-year-olds, because they’re very social and that’s part of their growth and development. They’re also doing daily wellness questionnaires, temperature checks whenever they’re on campus and weekly testing. We’re organizing patterns on the baseball field, so there’s not too much cross traffic or gathering. Baseball is kind of a socially distanced sport as it is, so we’re lucky in that sense.

We hear you have a “super team” this year. What’s your forecast for the upcoming season?

We’re a veteran team. We had built a really nice foundation into last year and the pieces were in place to become a Top 25 program. Because last season was shortened, we now have three super seniors in Ryan Orr, Jacob Cruce and Mike Jarvis. That’s a huge win. And we have a group of nine super talented signees coming in who need that leadership. We’ll see how it plays out. But I think we’re very talented. We’re experienced throughout the field and on the mound. We’re asking our older guys to do what we had planned last year: Make some noise and break down the door of having San Diego State in the national conversation — not just short-term, but long-term. Their focus is getting to Omaha and playing for a national championship. Hopefully we’re on schedule to realize some great dreams.

How are you setting goals and expectations for players given all the uncertainty at the moment?

It’s the same message from when they come in the door, as freshmen: Each day, in itself, is a competition. You got to win each day. And if you win today, then you go to bed and you get up the next day and win the next day. And along the way, you can set yourself some mini goals. The other long-term things that you want to realize will take care of themselves.

So many of your players — including Casey Schmitt and Anthony Walters last year — have gone on to realize their dreams of being drafted. What’s the key to making it to that level?

There are guys that come in here with über amounts of talent. The biggest thing is understanding how to harness that talent into a day-to-day process, and embracing the process and those things that help you grow as a young person. Guys like Stephen Strasburg, Greg Allen, Alan Trejo, Seby Zavala and Ty France, who are playing in the big leagues right now, epitomize what we’re trying to do — which is to have players understand that being a well- rounded person creates reward. The guys who struggle are the guys who really try to stay in that narrow path: It’s just baseball. We try to create opportunities for those guys, and open up that tunnel — whether it’s a broader focus on their academics, working on their social skills or doing community outreach. I tell our guys all the time, if you follow this path, there is unbelievable reward on the backend. And it’s not just being a Major League Baseball player.

You’re known for coaching your players both on and off the field. What’s your coaching philosophy?

We don’t coach baseball players, we coach people. We’re growing young men. When they leave SDSU, we want them to be prepared to be successful and to be leaders. We’re trying to take advantage of a very small window of opportunity in their lives to impact them and teach them life skills.

In the wake of the George Floyd killing and the widespread protests that followed you started an alumni group to address systemic racism. How did that get started and why is it important to you?

We all saw the images of the events taking place last summer. It ripped my heart out. I started calling baseball alumni who I consider close friends to say, “I love you, man.” We started meeting on Zoom. It’s myself, former Aztec players Tony Gwynn Jr., Chris Gwynn, Quintin Berry, Greg Allen, Alan Trejo, our Associate Head Coach Sam Peraza and Assistant Coach Joe Oliveira. We even had Adam Jones [five-time MLB All-Star and SDSU baseball signee] join from Japan. We talk about: We have a family here and it’s very safe. But what happens when you leave Tony Gwynn Stadium? What is it like for a Black player to walk down the street at night after practice? It’s conversational, not confrontational. The mission is to make change and make the world better.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.