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PETER ABRAHAM

J.D. Martinez is ‘completely obsessed with baseball’

John Minchillo/Associated Press

After a lengthy negotiation period, the Red Sox finally landed their free agent target in slugger J.D. Martinez.

By Globe Staff 

It all could have ended at Santa’s Enchanted Forest, the Miami amusement park 12-year-old J.D. Martinez wanted to visit instead of playing another baseball game.

Why had he signed up for a travel team that played into November anyway? He was tired and grouchy.

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“It felt like baseball was consuming my life,” Martinez said. “I told my mom I didn’t want to play anymore.”

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The only boy in a family with five older sisters, Martinez was used to getting his way. Pampered is the word everybody used when they told the story.

“Yes, all his life,” said his mother, Mayra. “The girls were always looking out for him.”

But Julio Martinez decided his son would stick it out because that was how his family operated. He left Cuba in 1962 and worked double shifts making pizza in Miami before opening a successful roofing company.

Swinging a hammer in the Florida sun hardened his hands. His son could swing a bat.

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“He had committed to play and I told him he would finish the season,” the elder Martinez said. “If he wanted to quit after that, he could.

“When the season ended, he asked me if I had signed him up to play again. I said, ‘I thought you didn’t want to?’ But he begged me.”

That decision and others like it led to back-to-back high school state championships, a record-setting college career, stardom in the majors, and now a five-year, $110 million contract with the Red Sox.

Julio Daniel Martinez — it has been J.D. since he was a kid — is the only new player on a team that won 93 games last season but faltered in the playoffs. His job is to provide the power gone missing since David Ortiz retired and push the Sox back into the World Series.

No pressure there.

“It will be fun for him. He’s completely obsessed with baseball,” said Mayra Bazavilvazo, one of Martinez’s sisters. “I’ll go visit him and when he’s done playing he comes home and turns on MLB Network to watch highlights. He loves it.”

Martinez family

J.D. Martinez in an undated Christmas photo with his sisters, Mayra and Joanna. (Photo: Martinez family)

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It’s a passion born of diligence. Martinez’s family initially saw baseball as a path to college, not a possible career choice.

“Oh my God, he was so skinny,” Mayra Martinez said. “He went to a hitting coach in Miami and they told me he could make it. I thought they just wanted him to come back so I would keep paying for the lessons.”

But there was something there. Martinez was a star in high school and went to play for Division 2 Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The program had never produced a major league player, but Martinez forced the scouts to take notice, and he was taken in the 20th round of the 2009 draft. His debut in the majors came only two years later.

His sister was at Nova at the time doing advanced studies in periodontics. She now owns her own practice in Newport Beach, Calif.

“Jay didn’t want to be a small fish in a big pond. It was a family decision for him to go to Nova and he made the most of the opportunity,” Bazavilvazo said. “I went to games with my boyfriend, now my husband, and I saw how good he was.”

Martinez was released by the Astros at the end of spring training in 2014 and agreed to play in the minors for the Detroit Tigers. His career took off, a change in his swing leading to 23 home runs that season after he returned to the majors.

“He’s a self-made player,” said Greg Brown, the Houston scout who signed Martinez and is now the coach at Nova. “J.D. put in the work. There was no easy way for him.”

That Martinez got stronger in the gym and spent long hours honing his swing in the batting cage earned respect from coaches, as did his habit of keeping careful notes on every pitcher he faced and binge-watching scouting videos.

Martinez even has his batting practice swings recorded so a private coach can evaluate them and provide quick feedback.

“He’s meticulous in how he prepares,” said Scott Boras, Martinez’s agent. “He has a thirst for information.”

“A very hard-working player,” said Dave Dombrowski, who signed Martinez for the Tigers and again for the Red Sox.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora already has told his younger players to pay attention to Martinez’s process.

“Let’s be honest, from where he was four years ago to who he is right now, there’s something good about him,” Cora said. “I believe he’s going to make a difference in that clubhouse.”

Martinez finds it all a bit amusing. He looks at what his parents accomplished after they came to the United States and how they struggled to make the lives of their children better.

Photo courtesy of Martinez family

J.D. Martinez in an undated photo dancing with his mother, Mayra.

His mother became a registered nurse after she left Cuba, and she met his father later in life. When they married, she had two daughters from a previous marriage and he had three. But they made it work, blending their families and ambitions.

“Like the Brady Bunch,” Bazavilvazo said.

J.D. was the only child they had together. His sisters became an instant support network, there to drag him out of bed and make sure he got to school or drive him to practice because his parents were working.

That defines perseverance, not playing baseball.

“To me I’ve never worked a day in my life,” Martinez said. “Yeah, there are days it feels like work. But most days it feels like I’m going to the park and I’m thankful I get to do what I do.

“There’s a grind to it; it’s not easy. You’re always away from your family and friends so you miss out on a lot. But it’s not like what my parents did. They got dirty, they weren’t afraid to work. There is no shot I’d be here without their support. I don’t know how they did it.

“I admire them so much. Even now, they’ve never asked me for a thing.”

Martinez recalls striking out four times in a minor league game and being convinced he would never make the majors. Then he realized the alternative was working for his father installing roofs.

“I had to make baseball work. I threw myself into it,” Martinez said.

Martinez is now one of the best players in the game, a slugger who can hit for average. He made the All-Star team in 2015 and last season powered the Arizona Diamondbacks into the playoffs after being traded in July.

When the Yankees traded for Giancarlo Stanton, it was seen as a seismic move that would change the American League East. But Martinez has only eight fewer home runs the last three seasons and essentially the same slugging percentage.

“I think he’ll be great in Boston,” said Arizona manager Torey Lovullo, the former Red Sox bench coach. “He keeps his head down and goes about his business. We loved what he brought to our team beyond what he did at the plate.”

John Minchillo/AP

When scuffling in the minors, J.D. Martinez made a commitment to improving. “I had to make baseball work. I threw myself into it,” he said.

The decision to sign with the Red Sox came slowly, Dombrowski waiting out a free agent market gone curiously cold.

It came down to another family decision.

“They’re in this with me,” said Martinez, who lives 20 minutes away from his parents. “Equal responsibilities, definitely. I never go a day without talking to either my mom or dad, and my sister is one of the smartest people I know. She was involved the whole time.”

There were several conference calls with Boras to debate the details of the contract and what to do. But in the end, it felt right. The contract was the driving factor, but history could not be ignored.

“We don’t like the Yankees in our house,” Julio Martinez said. “Never have. I was a fan of the Red Sox because of that. So was my son.”

When J.D. turned 19 in 2006, his sister took him to Boston to see two games against the Yankees. She attended dental school at Boston University and knew the city well.

“We had a blast,” Bazavilvazo said. “Jay and I have always been close, we’re only eight years apart. I’m like a second mom to him.”

His sister paid for tickets for one of the games. The other game she arranged through Victor Lowell, a dentist friend from Miami and the brother of then-Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell.

“Fenway Park was so iconic,” Bazavilvazo said. “We’ve always loved that legacy.”

Bazavilvazo’s three children — two little girls and an 18-month-old boy, already have Red Sox caps. Uncle Jay will get them jerseys soon.

“I think about my journey sometimes,” Martinez said. “I was always taught that if you wanted something you had to work your ass off. This was what I wanted, to have a chance like this.”

Photo courtesy of Martinez family

J.D. Martinez with his niece Emma.


Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.