So, a 60-something sportswriter and the hippest-looking soccer player in at least two hemispheres walk into a room.
One is coiffed in the kind of wispy white hair that comes naturally from a long life of deadlines, only some of them met. The other apparently has visited a stylist on Saturn. His ever-evolving look today includes hair dyed a shade of radioactive egg yolk and is cleaved rakishly down the middle. His body has more writing on it than a life insurance policy. In sum, these two have about as much in common as checkers and Fortnite.
So, what better way to break the ice than to talk a little baseball?
A person could quiz Josef Martinez about being Atlanta United’s resident goal-scorer, and the face of soccer in a city that has grown surprisingly fond of the game. And I would — for a season preview story that will appear later this month. But first, what about those Braves?
He smiles. It is a good look on Martinez, who admits that he plays a little bit angry as a compact, balled-fist of a player. Especially early in his United career, which dates back to the 2017 beginnings of the franchise. It was not a smile he often turned the media’s way.
There is always common ground to be found, and in this case, baseball is it. You see, we are not so very different. If a person takes nothing else from the Atlanta United experience — one that makes games at Mercedes-Benz a kind of young, colorful, multi-cultural Mardi Gras, it should be that the search for that which binds us is a lot more entertaining than looking for the differences.
“I love baseball,” he said, in clear English. Martinez has been increasingly mixing that into his speech as he assimilates more and more of the language.
Seeing how Martinez comes from Venezuela, a certain amount of baseball love is baked into his chromosomes. And, hearing him speak over and over again about his affection for Atlanta — which has kept him quite content to play here and to ignore the temptations of a higher league at a more prestigious venue — it is no shock to hear his particular fondness for the Braves.
Such is his attraction to the local baseball team that, he says, “Sometimes I feel like a Braves player, too.” Martinez is close with countryman and Braves outfielder Ender Inciarte— Inciarte, in fact, showed up at United headquarters to present Martinez his MLS Golden Boot award in 2018 for leading the MLS in goals (in record fashion, by the way). And he has a growing acquaintanceship with another Venezuelan outfielder of some importance to the Braves, Ronald Acuna.
(Oh, and here’s a handy tool for judging the overlapping seasons of the soccer and baseball player. Forget WAR or any other analytic. If the number of goals scored by United’s striker and the home runs hit by the Braves young star are in the same neighborhood then good stuff should be happening for both players’ franchises. Over the last two seasons, Acuna has 67 homers to Martinez’s 58 goals.)
While Martinez may feel in his heart as if he is a Brave, his arm and his hands would disagree. He’ll not be challenging for a roster spot anytime soon, because kicking the ball around is not a good thing in baseball.
Inciarte once threw his friend some batting practice before a Braves game. “After that,” Martinez said, “I had one week with my finger in pain. It’s no easy.”
But how’s the arm? Can the soccer player throw? “Oh, yeah, on PlayStation,” he said, smiling again. When assigned the task of throwing out a first pitch at a Braves game last April, tellingly, Martinez launched from the front of the mound, not the rubber.
But never question the man’s fandom. How deep runs the loyalty to baseball and the Braves? He was there at then SunTrust Park for the team’s final game of 2019, the NLDS finale in which St. Louis shell-shocked the Braves for 10 runs in the first inning and went on to win, 13-1.
“I go back to get my rum and when I come back (to his seat) it’s 5-0,” Martinez recalled. “When I finish my drink it’s 10-0.” The man obviously does not nurse his drink.
And he seems almost insulted by the question of how long he sat through the big let-down.
“I stayed the whole game,” he answered, as if there were no other option.
And again: “I love baseball.”
Martinez’s season begins shortly after the first Braves spring training game. And — if all goes as planned and United makes it back to the MLS Cup Final — it will extend well beyond the World Series. For his own team, he can conceive of no abbreviated ending. “Hopefully we win, that’s all that matters,” the goal-scorer says while downplaying the goal scoring. “I don’t know who may score, but if we win every game 1-0, that’s good.”
As for the Braves, when asked if that team is finally going to make some positive noise in the postseason, he is emphatic.
“Of course,” Martinez said.
“They have to.”
See, common ground. We are not so different. Who doesn’t want to win, and win now, or know the reasons why?
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