13 Years Of Sobriety, Dennis Martinez Has Been A Responsible Family Man, A National Hero In His Native Nicaragua And One Of Baseball's Best Pitchers.

TORONTO - If it appears that Dennis Martinez is trying to rescue or recover his success as a major-league pitcher, not to worry.

Martinez, whose comeback was to continue tonight in the opener of a six-game Mariner road trip, is a veteran at this as well as more than two decades of retiring hitters. He has rescued his life. He has been in recovery since 1983.

One night in October that year, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. The facade of normalcy he had carefully constructed around his family life and his baseball career came apart.

Despite a run of six strong seasons with the Baltimore Orioles that had made him one of the top pitchers in the game, Jose Dennis Martinez was an alcoholic.

Ron Shapiro, Martinez's longtime agent and friend, remembered it being "a challenging time for Dennis."

"That night I was with him, and he didn't want to accept what had happened," Shapiro said. "Our intervention with him - myself and Orioles General Manager Hank Peters - was difficult. He had to deal with the possible loss of his playing contract, and he had to face his family."

Martinez went home the next day to talk to his children, Dennis Jr., then 8, and Erica, 7.

"I wanted to try to explain how this could happen to their father, to say what had happened to me," said Martinez, a man of soul and sensitivity as well as a pitcher of knowledge and ability. "I'll never forget what I saw in their eyes."

They told him they already knew, that kids at their school had been making cruel fun of their father and of them.

"They were so hurt," Martinez recalled. "For the first time, looking in their eyes, I knew what I had done. It woke me up."

With the support of his family - there now are four children - and "the perseverance of my wife, Luz Marina, who stood by me," Martinez has been sober since.

Over ensuing years, speaking to people about the insidious destructiveness of drinking, he has hammered at the effect on children. "I hope every parent realizes before it is too late the damage we can do to our kids," he said this week, repeating a message he has delivered countless times. "We don't bring our children into the world to suffer. We must help them, prepare them for life."

In his awakening, Martinez said he was fortunate.

"Nothing happened to hurt anyone physically, no accidents, no abuse," he said. "I have seen studies that show alcoholism is often passed from parents to children, from father to son. I decided it would stop with me, that I would not damage my kids, who are good kids."

Martinez is the son of an alcoholic. He is not sure when or why his father, Edmundo, started to drink in the years before Dennis was born to him and wife Amelia on May 14, 1955, in the little colonial town of Grenada, Nicaragua, about 45 miles northwest of Managua.

It was a good place to grow up; big old homes, with ornate timber doors and courtyards. The family life was good.

Edmundo had inherited land from his father, who had owned a large farm. Amelia ran a store in which she sold produce grown on the land - rice and beans, cotton, pigs and chickens.

"I never knew my grandfather," said Dennis, the baby of the family, born when his mother was 41. "I asked my older brother what he was like."

Guillermo Martinez, now 63, told his little brother his grandfather had been a man "of great composure, who carried himself with a tall bearing . . . not a drinking man."

At some point, however, Edmundo developed the habit of drinking rum. It split his marriage, while Amelia was pregnant with Dennis. "He was not an angry drunk," Dennis said. "He would come to my mother and say, `Hey, baby, I love you.' But she would not let him back in the house. They never got back together."

Dennis became a good student and baseball player. Baseball is not as much a sport in his homeland as it is a way of life. "I was a third baseman in those days," he said, smiling. "A good third baseman. I could hit. . . . No, really, I could hit."

He also pitched well enough to make the national team, and beat Cuba in a juvenile tournament when he was 17, something Nicaragua had never done.

Still, when the scouts went after a Nicaraguan player, it was Tony Chavez, a younger, bigger player who threw harder. "They always look to the hard throwers," Martinez said, smiling again, as if this was baseball folly.

He went to his coach, Tony Castano, and said he also wanted to sign. Castano went to Oriole scout Ray Poitevant and told him. But after signing Chavez, there was no money.

"I don't care," Martinez told them. "I want a chance."

Poitevant came up with $3,000, which he later called "the best money I ever spent," and Martinez was a pro. In June 1974, a year out of high school, he was headed for Miami, where Baltimore had its rookie-league team.

"My friends told me I'd be back in a week," he said. "I knew different. This was my chance to support my family. When Luz and I married, we lived with my family. This was my chance to make our own life."

He was an immediate success and climbed quickly through the system, but along with growing confidence and prospects was the drinking. Martinez started having postgame beers with teammates.

"After a game when I pitched well, someone would say, `Celebrate, man, here's a beer. . . . Here's another.' I often pitched well. I didn't know what was happening to me."

Later, as he entered the big leagues in 1976 and stayed for good the next year, he drank to fill empty times on the road. "It was lonely," he said. "I missed my family."

At first, he drank on days when he didn't pitch; later, he drank every day.

When he went back to Nicaragua, he drank with his father.

"I feel a great guilt over that," he said. "I did not know what I was doing to him, to myself. He had a need, a compulsion that overcame everything else. My brother and sister had turned their backs on him in their hurt. I didn't want my dad on the street for people to laugh at."

So he bought his father bottles of rum. "I was wrong to do this, to supply him," Martinez said. "He never had a chance to stop, to seek professional help, as I did when the Orioles and Hank Peters helped me."

Edmundo Martinez died in 1982.

His son did not stop drinking.

"I hid it at home," Martinez said. "I didn't want my wife to be ashamed of me. I didn't want my kids to see me with a bottle in my hand."

After he helped pitch the Orioles to the World Series in 1979, with 16 wins and 18 complete games, his drinking worsened.

"I was feeling like some kind of big shot," Martinez said. "It was the glamour of the big leagues, of winning, of everyone telling you how good you are."

What had started with a couple of beers after games had gone to hard liquor. "I told myself I was controlling it," Martinez said. "But it was really the other way around, and I never saw it, never let myself see it. I was a drunk."

That part of his life ended in 1983.

Martinez is proud of what he has achieved on the field as well as off since he has been sober.

A four-time All-Star, he helped Montreal contend for years after he left Baltimore, helped Cleveland win titles. He is a hero in his country, where the anniversary of his 1991 perfect game for Montreal is recognized as a national holiday.

"I feel God has meant for me to do something with my life," he said. "I would like to think since I got straight, I've done more good than bad. They call me a winner, but I think to be a winner you must first learn to deal with failure."

Martinez, winner of 241 games and one of only seven pitchers to win 100 games in each league, goes to Mass as often as he can, virtually every day, "to maintain my relationship with God."

He goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings often, too, "to keep close to me the realization of what happened to me, that I will always be recovering, that God gave me a second chance and the chance to tell as many people as I can never to give up that hope. Look what I have done."