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Florida State coach Mike Martin (Mandy Sorenson)

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A final tribute to the great Mike Martin

Columns

College baseball suffered an immeasurable loss Thursday. Mike Martin, the winningest coach in college baseball history and a larger than life figure over his four decades as Florida State’s head coach, died at the age of 79 after a battle with dementia. But on this day, let us not simply mourn the passing of a baseball titan. Let us celebrate his wonderful, warm, dadgum humanity.

Certainly, Martin’s accomplishments in the dugout are nothing short of astounding. His 2,029 wins are the most ever. He led the Seminoles to the NCAA tournament and the 40-win plateau in every single one of his 40 seasons as head coach, accomplishments that will never be rivaled as long as the earth is still spinning. Though he never won the national title, he guided FSU to the College World Series a mind-boggling 17 times, and his teams twice finished as national runners-up. His baseball legacy will endure forever.

But the tale of the tape merely scratches the surface of Martin’s greatness. He was a true gentleman, beloved by so many players, rival coaches, media members and fans for the way he treated others. He was charming, funny and famously folksy, with his deep North Carolina drawl and his bottomless quiver of old-fashioned country idioms. He was proud but remarkably humble. He never lost his sense of perspective, and when his teams fell short of the ultimate prize in Omaha, he would focus on offering heartfelt congratulations to the victors, thanking the fans and media, inevitably doffing his cap to both the crowd and even the press room.

And anyone who has ever spent time around Martin will tell you it wasn’t some Mayberry act. It’s almost hard to believe that someone so accomplished could remain so humble and gracious, but Martin was the genuine article.

I smile when recalling some of my favorite interactions with Martin over the years — just small moments that showed little bits of his personality. When we spoke about Buster Posey after the FSU catcher won the 2008 national player of the year award, Martin could not contain his exuberance about Posey’s greatness as a player and a man, to the point that he began singing — in his delightful scratchy drawl — a few lines from a song the Animals of Section B had composed about Posey: “Buster Posey, he’ll hit a home run, or he’ll walk, or he’ll throw you out.” That’s probably not exactly how the song went, but Martin’s rendition was a delight.

Another time, I called Martin and got his voicemail; when he returned my call shortly thereafter, he explained, “Sorry I missed your call, I was just driving down the road listening to the Bee Gees and I didn’t hear it ring.” There’s something wonderful about the image of Mike Martin cruising down the streets of Tallahassee, bee-bopping along to “Stayin’ Alive.” This was a man who seemed to love life to its core, from the dugout to the golf course to every gathering of his family. He took great pride in being a loving husband to his wife Carol, a loving father to his children Mary Beth, Melanie and Mike Martin Jr., and a loving grandfather to Hannah Elizabeth, Lexi, Thomas Joseph and Tyler.

More than everything he accomplished on the field, Mike Martin would want to be remembered as a devoted family man, and for helping develop his players into fine young men. For all his kindness, Martin could be hard on players, to be sure. As gentle as he was to outsiders, Martin was demanding in the dugout and on the practice field, and no few Seminoles received their share of earfuls from the man they called ’11’. But ask the hundreds and hundreds of players who were mentored by him, and they will tell you that he made them into better men. His ultimate legacy is the impact he had on so many lives.

To that point, I’d like to share this column I wrote after the final game of Martin’s career, in the 2019 College World Series. The printed word can’t fully capture Martin’s essence, but I gave it my best shot in this piece.

The following column originally ran on D1Baseball on June 19, 2019.

OMAHA — A season-long celebration of Mike Martin — his legacy and his humanity — culminated in a weeklong celebration of Martin at the College World Series. Over the last week, we’ve heard countless stories about Martin’s good humor, kindness and grace, from other coaches who admire him deeply, and from Florida State players past and present.

We’ve heard considerably fewer stories about Martin’s ornery side. But make no mistake: Martin’s greatness stems as much from his fierce competitiveness as from his gentle kindheartedness.

On the final night of Martin’s 40-year journey as Florida State’s head baseball coach, the man they call “Eleven” was in no mood for celebration or reflection until well after that final out was recorded, and Florida State had been eliminated from the CWS with a 4-1 loss to Texas Tech. Until that final out, it was business as usual for Mike Martin.

“He was still mean as a snake in the dugout,” said his son Mike Martin Jr., Eleven’s longtime assistant. “It’s all in the name of winning.”

Later, in Eleven’s final postgame press conference, he was asked if he allowed himself to enjoy the experience of his final game, despite his competitiveness and his laser focus on winning the game in front of him.

“I wouldn’t give myself an ‘A,’” he said, eliciting laughter from the packed media room. “Inside, I got a little sincere attitude.”

But when the game was over, Martin’s gracious instincts took over. His first thought wasn’t about himself and the end of his storied career. His first thought was about what he wanted to say to Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock in the handshake line.

“Be sure that I get to the other team and express to them my congratulations and wish them luck, not go out there with a frown on my face and display a part of me that’s not there,” Martin said. “Because that young man is a class act. We call him ‘Texas Tim,’ and Texas Tim did a heck of a job, and I would never want to take away from his joy and his excitement. And I’m thankful to the good lord that I was able to express that to him.”

Tadlock said Martin greeted him with words of praise for TTU reliever Taylor Floyd, who finished the game with four innings of one-hit, shutout relief: “That’s a good little reliever you’ve got there,” Martin told Tadlock.

“Holy cow. Forty straight regionals. I mean, it’s unfathomable. It really is,” Tadlock said. “I guess I was 10 years old when he started. You think of all those good teams he’s had. You think of Buster Posey, J.D. Drew, obviously you think of the day Marshall McDougall hit five home runs. You think of all those times coming to Omaha. You think what he’s done for the state of college baseball. It’s not all about Florida State; he wanted to leave the game better than when he found it. He’s definitely done that. He’s definitely paved the way for all these guys that are — all of us guys that are going out, getting to coach college baseball. …

“And I think a lot of guys said this the other day, he’s a great baseball coach, but he’s a better man. I’ve never heard anybody say a bad word about Mike Martin Sr. What you see is what you get. He’s just a guy’s guy.”

After congratulating Tadlock and the Red Raiders, Martin returned to the Florida State dugout and collected his things for the final time, while the FSU fans directly above the third-base dugout chanted, “Eleven! Eleven! Eleven!” After a few moments, Martin ascended those dugout steps again, turned to the fans and doffed his cap. “Thank you so much. Thank you. Love y’all,” he told them.

Then he walked down the tunnel and met with his team in the locker room. In a moment captured by a film crew, Martin offered words of encouragement to his heartbroken players.

“What a tremendous year this was. And I, like you, am disappointed. But, we’re not ever going to look at it other than we gave it our best shot. And your best shot took this old man to Omaha. And I appreciate it,” Martin told them. “I love you, I care about you. I knew you could do it, and you did it. You got all the way to Omaha, and with just a couple of breaks you never know what could have happened. But I will do something for the last time that I know all of you understand.”

Then he took off his cap once again and spun in a slow circle, saluting all of the players that rallied late in the year to take this old man to Omaha one final time. “Thank you,” he said.

Moments later, in the hallway outside the locker room, FSU outfielder Reese Albert expressed gratitude that “for the rest of my life I can say that I played for Mike Martin. And that’s pretty cool.”

Senior shortstop Mike Salvatore echoed that sentiment.

“Not many people get to say they were a part of his journey, and especially these last two years, how meaningful they were, and how much I learned as a baseball player, and as a person will really stick with me for the rest of my life,” Salvatore said. “So basically it was an honor to play in this uniform for him.”

Heading into the home stretch of the regular season, Florida State faced long odds just to get back to regionals. But the ’Noles finished four games above .500 in the ACC and snuck into the NCAA tournament as one of the last four teams in the field despite a borderline RPI. Then they won the Athens Regional as a No. 3 seed, and then they swept LSU in the Baton Rouge Super Regional. Martin couldn’t have been prouder of them, or more grateful to them — and that feeling was mutual.

“To have the success that we’ve had in the last three years, the ACC championships, two trips to Omaha, 40 wins every year, just to experience that with him and be a part of his legacy, it’s been a dream come true,” said FSU star Drew Mendoza. “Just to be with him day-in and day-out and just know the kind of person he is, and to grow as a man with him at the helm, it’s been everything I could have dreamed of.”

Florida State’s players know they have many reasons to be proud of what they accomplished, but that didn’t make the end any easier.

“It was tough. You spend so much time with these guys, you care so much about them, and their well being and their mindset and their psyche. To see them bawling their eyes out, it’s tough,” Martin Jr. said. “This one [hurt] a little bit more. A little bit more. Again, they loved him.

“It beats losing in Baton Rouge or Athens, but the ending’s the ending. This program’s done a lot, but we’ve got to get over the hump and get one of these things. And of course we wanted it badly for him.”

Eleven wanted it badly too, but you got the sense he wanted it for his players even more than for himself. That’s always been his way: he’s always been about the players, and the program, and the university. He’s never wanted to be the storyline himself. But on this day, that storyline was unavoidable.

“This job has provided so many exciting moments for me and my family, and I’m just very proud of the fact that I’m a Seminole,” Martin said.

He has always taken great pride in that label, above all others: he’s a Seminole. For Martin, the word “Seminole” is shorthand for hard work, for class and dignity and respect for the game and for other people. For four decades, Martin has upheld those ideals, and worked tirelessly to make sure his players uphold them, too.

His final group of players certainly did. They made him proud.

“They accomplished an awful lot, and I’m just going to look back on what this team accomplished and I’m sure I’m gonna be even more amazed,” Martin said. “Because we went through some tough stretches, but we — man, we played like Seminoles.”

And coming from Mike Martin, there’s no higher praise than that.

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