By Ronal Quiñones
HAVANA TIMES – Very few Cuban baseball players can boast of having left an important mark on the memory of fans in only 11 seasons. One of those cases is that of the baby-faced Camaguey pitcher Omar Luis Martínez, who marked an era with his provincial squad and Team Cuba.
Thanks to technology, we are exchanging with this former player today, remembered above all for being the big man on the mound at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, but who today feels a lot of pride when he talks about a volleyball playing daughter who wants to be like Mireya Luis.
“I started playing baseball at the age of 11, influenced by my brother Andrés. My first coach was Conrado Perez. I started out as an outfielder, because I really liked hitting, but since I threw hard, my brother convinced me to become a pitcher, when I was fourteen. “
How were those first starts?
“I had six victories and one defeat in the National Youth League, and I was chosen for the Cuba team of that category in 1989, which was in Havana. There I won two games and I didn’t lose any.
“With Camagüey I started as a long and intermediate reliever, to gain experience and because the team had good pitchers. Then I became a starter in 1992. Since I was little, I would strikeout a lot of batters, because I had good speed and also a good breaking ball. I enjoyed it and I always characterized myself for that. “
You caught the attention of the coaches and in a short time you were already on the national shortlist, until you broke in during the 1995 Intercontinental Cup in Havana, where you were the most valuable player…
I won three games, the first against South Korea, in relief. Then I beat Chinese Taipei, with 19 strikeouts, and the third against Japan, in which I pitched eight innings. In total I struck out 35 in 21 innings, almost two per inning.
That paved the way for you to be the number one pitcher in Atlanta…
That’s right, in Atlanta I finished as the leader in ERA and strikeouts. Also with three victories, I beat the United States and the Netherlands and Japan. People think I was the first starter from the beginning, but that wasn’t the case, I had to earn it.
Only two days before the semifinal game I didn’t know that I was designated to pitch the final, against whoever it was. Ultimately it was Japan, which had an exceptionally good team. In qualifying we beat them in the last inning, which was when our hitters finally deciphered their pitching.
I felt physically and mentally prepared. Since I had pitched against them a year before, I felt confident, because it was almost the same team. Thus, I had a notion of how to work against each hitter. In addition, while the game was happening, the pitching coach, Pedrito Perez, reminded me about the pitching plan against each of them.
We started winning 6×0, but the Japanese tied and I was only able to last up to the sixth. In that inning, with two outs and men on first and second the batter hit a ground ball for third. Omar Linares tried to touch the runner, but he couldn’t, and when he threw to first it was too late. Then their cleanup hitter homered and tied the game, and I had to leave the box.
The homerun surprised me, it was a slider at 86 mph, but it stayed in the zone and he hit it with ease. I remember that it was the Mizuno 150 ball and aluminum bat. Whoever hit it well, the ball sailed. Luckily, our batters also hit and we brought the victory for our country.
However, at your best moment, almost everything changed. How was that?
After that I was in a car accident that almost ended my career. Luckily the biggest problems were in the left arm, and I’m a righty. It took me six months away, but luckily there were no major ills.
The following year I came back and got 13 wins with Camagüey, and a 1.77 ERA. The doctor (Rodrigo) Alvarez Cambras was the one who operated on me at the Frank País Hospital and Miguel Borroto, who was the director of the Camaguey team, gave me a trainer for myself, so that I could recover my form.
Later Omar Luis was also on the champion team in the Maracaibo Central American Games of 1998 and in the World Cup in Italy that year. In total, in top-level international events he finished with nine wins without a loss and 76 strikeouts in 58 innings.
“In Maracaibo 1998 I beat Puerto Rico and Venezuela. We won comfortably and sweep the whole world. At the World Cup in Italy I defeated South Korea and the Netherlands. “
Then a serious injury did come. What happened?
I had a bursitis in the supraspinatus. They gave me injections and blocks that relieved me, but after throwing a couple of times the pain returned. I ended up with a calcification on my shoulder, and the arm stopped responding to me as before. I retired and returned to my municipality, Esmeralda, to be a coach at the 13-14 year categories, and in the Provincial Senior Series with Esmeralda, with which we have won several times. I feel very proud when pitchers who were trained by me make it to the Cuban National Series.
Who were the hardest hitters to master for you?
When I was throwing there were very good hitters, but the ones who gave me the most work were Omar Linares and Antonio Scull, and not easily, but I was hit well by stars like Gabriel Pierre and Ermidelio Urrutia.
I didn’t have a fixed formula, it depended on how I was each day. I threw a fastball, slider, curve and change-up, and whatever pitch was best that day was what I relied on in the most difficult moments.
What differences do you see between your time and today despite not being so distant?
The training methods are different today. I improved control by pitching, against left-handed and right-handed hitters, and in batting practice, which was done more back then. For example, to practice pitching inside, you need to have batter in front of you, if not, it is not done well. It also seems to me that today’s pitchers are afraid of injury. However I think that an arm is more prone to injury if you don’t use it often.