‘A good leader’
Former Mesa player Mark Martinez takes over for Gwynn as San Diego State's baseball coach
He once played at Mesa State College. Now, Mark Martinez is taking over the reins of the San Diego State University program after the death of legendary player Tony Gwynn.
When Martinez, 52, was at Mesa State, all he knew was he wanted to play baseball forever.
“The bottom line is when I went to Mesa State, I was still trying to find my way,” Martinez told The Daily Sentinel on Wednesday. “Not only in baseball, but academically.”
Martinez, who is from Longmont, went to Colorado State University out of high school, but transferred to Trinidad State Junior College his sophomore year. He came to Mesa State in 1983 and played shortstop for two years under coach Byron Wiehe, who was assisted by Jamie Hamilton.
“My time at Mesa State was one of the most treasured times in my life,” Martinez said. “We had great teams, great coaches. Jamie was my position coach. Still to this day, I consider him a great friend and mentor of mine. We developed a close relationship.”
Hamilton remembers Martinez as a player with leadership skills.
“What I saw on the field, he was a definite leader,” Hamilton said. “He had to be one, two plays ahead of everything. He would ask about strategies on bus trips. He wasn’t a very good hitter, so he ended up being a good coach. He was a solid college player, a good guy and a good leader.”
Martinez played with former Major League pitcher Darrel Ackerfelds at Mesa State. Ackerfelds died from pancreatic cancer in 2012.
Martinez met former Alpine Bank Junior College World Series tournament Chairman Sam Suplizio and the two started discussing Martinez’s future.
“Once I got done playing, I started teaching at an elementary school and helped (the Mesa State program) as much as I could,” Martinez said. “I went to a baseball convention in San Diego, and coming home I accidentally sat next to Sam Suplizio. He asked me what I want to do. I told him I want to coach. He suggested I get a master’s degree. I went to the University of New Mexico to get my master’s degree and started coaching. I was hired full-time a year later.”
Martinez was an assistant coach at New Mexico for 18 years. Martinez recruited Grand Junction products Darren Coltrinari and Hamilton’s son, Dane, to New Mexico.
“The group of players Dane came in with were special teams,” Martinez said. “They started winning at that time.”
While at New Mexico, Martinez got an opportunity to meet Gwynn, who took over the San Diego State baseball program.
The Lobos were playing Gwynn’s San Diego State team in a series in 2002. There was an off day scheduled during the series, so the New Mexico staff invited Gwynn to play a round of golf with them.
“Tony said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” Martinez said. “As luck would have it, he said, ‘Mark ride with me.’ I was scared out of my mind. I played crappy golf. It’s Tony Gwynn. We busted on each other about bad golf, talked baseball and hitting and kind of hit it off.”
Gwynn was so impressed with Martinez he wanted to hire him as an assistant. It took three years, but Gwynn finally pulled Martinez away from New Mexico.
“It took a while to make it happen,” Martinez said. “My wife had a great job at New Mexico. Tony was relentless. He kept calling. He made it work for us to come out here. I’m very fortunate.”
That first year Martinez was at San Diego State, New Mexico returned to San Diego to play in a preseason tournament hosted by the Aztecs. Martinez introduced Jamie and Dane Hamilton to Gwynn.
Martinez found Gwynn to be every bit as good of a person as a hitter.
“Obviously he was a mentor and teacher,” Martinez said. “Ultimately, he was a friend. He was part of my family. He made it that way.
“He let us work. He gave us a rope to be who we were. If he didn’t like something, he’d let us know. Management-wise, he let us do our own thing and trusted us. He leaned on me and the other coaches to help in the college sense and managing a college program, the recruiting process and the inner workings. He would help us with the finer points of hitting. It was a good marriage.”
Together, Gwynn and Martinez built the San Diego State program like Gwynn envisioned.
“It took a long time. He had high standards,” Martinez said of Gwynn. “He recognized this early on. College programs became a way station for kids that wanted to play professional baseball. He weeded that out to get that tag out of our program. We had six to nine guys drafted out of our program each year, but we weren’t winning. Kids weren’t performing well in the classroom. He didn’t like that.
“Weeding that out took a lot of work. The last five years, we’ve achieved that. We’re still striving for higher goals. He started to see that in the last five years. We’re winning baseball games and we’re graduating players. That’s what he envisioned with the program.
“He would say even now we have a long ways to go. The vision, what he wanted, is in place. Now, we can’t screw it up. His standards and expectations were extremely high.”
The Aztecs won the Mountain West Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament the past two years under Gwynn.
Five days before Gwynn died on June 16 from salivary gland cancer, Martinez was promoted to executive head coach and signed a three-year contract.
“The one thing, he entrusted me to carry the torch. Values and ideals of the program. That’s why we had such a good relationship. Our ideals and values matches,” Martinez said.
Gwynn’s family thought so much of Martinez, they asked him to give the eulogy at Gwynn’s memorial service at Petco Park, where Gwynn played for the San Diego Padres.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Martinez said of the 54-year-old Gwynn’s death. “He really had a vision. He played here. He had a passion for San Diego State and the city of San Diego. He could walk around with his chest out. We’re starting to do it.
“There were naysayers. There were rough patches. We’re creating young men, and along the way we’re winning games. Ultimately, he wanted to be judged on the kids that came through the program.
“Our center fielder, Greg Allen, was the (SDSU) male student athlete of the year. It was the first time a junior received that award. He was nominated for the Rhodes (Scholarship). San Diego State has never had a Rhodes Scholar winner.”
Martinez continued, “(Gwynn) was a very compassionate man, very humble. He wanted people to remember he helped young people. People around the city and the country talk about the unbelievable statistics he had, but they also talk about his character. That outweighs his achievements.
“It’s been an honor and privilege to be with him for that long of time. I’m blessed to have that opportunity.”
Martinez, who vows to continue to build what Gwynn started, is the first Mesa State baseball player since the school became a four-year institution to become a Division I head coach, Hamilton said.