It was a typical hot and hazy Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles. The temperature got up to 95 degrees during that summer day and a crowd of 45,560 were sweating and melting into their seats underneath the powerful sun that roasted Dodger Stadium and its occupants. The Montreal Expos were finishing a three game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers and were hoping to avoid a sweep against the southern California ballclub before they had to head up north to play the San Francisco Giants.
Luckily for the Expos, they had their top pitcher, Dennis Martínez, 37, on the mound to help them avoid the sweep and let the Canadian club leave Los Angeles without a sour taste in its mouth. Through the sixth inning, Martinez gave the team exactly what they needed, retiring the first 18 consecutive batters on just 56 pitches. Although his arsenal of pitches was never overwhelming, Martínez made the Dodgers look silly that game. Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times said that the Dodger hitters were fooled that day “with curveballs and sinkers and guts.”
Martínez, the first Nicaraguan-born player to play in MLB, was nicknamed “El Presidente” and is by far the most successful player from Nicaragua, playing a total of 23 seasons in the major leagues. Although his career was long, it wasn’t without some struggles not only on the field, but off the field as well. His father was an alcoholic when Dennis was growing up and before Dennis himself debuted in the major leagues, “teammates stated that [Martínez] had developed ‘bad night-time habits,’ and enjoyed the party life.”
When his father died in September 1982, Dennis took it hard. In 1983, when his own alcoholism came to a head, he got arrested for drunk driving in December of that year. The Orioles staged an intervention for the pitcher and he went into rehab. With rehab, the ongoing help of attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and prayer, Martínez stayed in control of his illness. “[Prayer]” Martínez told UPI sportswriter Milton Richman, “was the turning point in my life.” It took him three years to build back up the mental toughness and baseball aptitude before he was able to effectively pitch at the big league level again.
After three mediocre years in Baltimore while he was dealing with improving his mental health, Martínez was traded to Montreal in the second half of the 1986 season. For the next seven seasons in Montreal, Martínez would put all of his skills together and be considered one of the top National League pitchers, going 97-66 and posting a 2.96 ERA between the 1987 and 1993 seasons.
Unfortunately for Martínez, his offense didn’t help him much during those first six innings, only scraping by a single hit and a walk through the top of the sixth inning. For opposing pitcher Mike Morgan, he was neck and neck with Martínez for the majority of the game, not allowing a baserunner through the fifth inning.
However, offensive salvation finally arrived for Martínez during the seventh inning in the form of two unearned runs. Alfredo Griffin, the Dodgers’ shortstop, committed a fielding error, allowing Dave Martinez to reach first-base safely. A sacrifice bunt allowed Martinez to move to second, but a groundout to the shortstop kept him at second-base with two outs.
Then, up to the plate came Montreal first baseman and future baseball hall of famer Larry Walker. In a seven pitch battle, Walker finally found a breaking ball he liked and hit a triple into the right center field gap, scoring Martinez. In the next plate appearance, Expos catcher Ron Hassey hit a tough grounder to Griffin at shortstop, which he fumbled, allowing both Hassey to reach first base and Walker to score the second run of the inning. Morgan got out of the inning when Hassey was thrown out at second during the next plate appearance.
The Dodgers came close to having a man get on base on multiple occasions. With one out in the fourth inning, Montreal third baseman Tim Wallach fielded a ball smashed to the edge of the infield grass and fired it to first to barely beat the runner. Then, with one out in the sixth inning, Expos second baseman Delino DeShields fielded a groundball from Griffin and threw a low ball to first. Luckily, Walker was able to stretch and receive the ball before it nearly pulled him off the bag.
With Martínez given two runs of support by his teammates, all he had to do was retire each Dodger batter one final time, in order, to complete history. In the seventh inning, he got Dodger centerfielder Brett Butler to pop out in foul territory near the Dodger dugout. On the next pitch, Samuel tried to bunt his way on base, but Martínez made a spectacular play on the bunt pushed down the first-base line. Martínez rushed over, barehanded the ball, and threw Samuel out as the pitcher fell forward onto the ground. Getting up, Martínez headed back to the mound to face his next challenger. On the seventh pitch of the next at bat, Eddie Murray softly rolled a breaking ball over to the second baseman for the third out. Martínez only had six outs to go to finish the game.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Martínez got Darryl Strawberry, the Dodgers’ right fielder that day, to softly groundout to second for the first out of the inning. Then, Kal Daniels, the Dodgers’ left fielder, in a six pitch at bat, struck out on one of Martínez’s great curveballs. Three pitches later, Martínez fielded a groundout and threw the ball to first-base to get the final out of the inning. He retired the first 24 batters, he needed three to go before he could make history.
Lucky for Martínez, he didn’t have to sit in the dugout, alone with his thoughts and anxiety, for very long. The Expos went down in order in the top of the ninth on nine pitches. Mike Scioscia, Stan Javier, and Chris Gwynn were the names of the batters that stood between Martínez and baseball history. He faced 24 batters and retired them all. The ninth inning awaited him.
Running to the mound, Martínez was ready to face his destiny with confidence. A two pitch flyout, right to the left fielder, retired Scioscia and helped greet Martínez into the inning. With one out, Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda pinch-hit for Alfredo Griffin with Stan Javier, a switch-hitting bat who decided to hit left-handed for the plate appearance. Interestingly, Griffin, who had four hits the previous night, was substituted for Javier, who was hitting with a .159 batting average, from the left side, coming into the at bat. Well, Martínez took advantage of the interesting mismatch, striking out Javier on six pitches, and getting him to chase his dominant curveball for the out.
Getting five strikeouts that day, Martínez thrived on the use of his curveball. Expos historian Jonah Keri revisited the usage of his curveball when looking back on the game. She wrote, “Though there weren’t advanced pitch-tracking systems back then… you’d swear he threw 50 of his trademark knee-buckling curveballs.” Ken Singleton, the color commentator teaming up with play-by-play announcer Dave Van Horne on the TSN telecast, said, “[Martínez’s curveball is] not your run-of-the-mill curveball that’s coming up there today.”
26 men had come up to the plate and Martínez slayed them all. With masterful command, a devastating curveball, and great defense from not only his fielders behind him, but by the pitcher himself, Dennis Martínez was one out away from a perfect game. All he had to do was get the number nine man in the batting order out. Lasorda pinch-hit for the pitcher, Morgan, and went with Chris Gwynn. Not quite the hitter his brother Tony was, Chris would have a respectable career, playing in 10 seasons. Seven of those seasons he spent with the Dodgers, two with the Royals, and even one with his older brother down in San Diego during the 1996 season, where he would end his career at 31.
To the Expos players, coaches, fans, and especially Dennis Martínez, it didn’t matter who was in the batter’s box. It only mattered that he could represent the final out. Hitting .245 off the bench, Gwynn was the Dodgers’ best bench player at the time, and their last chance to break up the perfect game. The first pitch was outside, ball one. The next pitch, his dependable curveball, dropped out of the sky, into the strike zone, and froze Gwynn for strike one. A swing from Gwynn on the next pitch almost took the collective breaths away from Expos fans as he hit the ball just foul of the third-base line, strike two.
Taking a breath, Martínez went to pick up his rosin bag to dry his hand. Then, he walked back up to the pitching mound. He scaled that 10 inch tall mountain that every big league pitcher climbs and every amateur pitcher hopes to climb in their lives. Before the 12 other pitchers to that point finished off their perfect games, they all had to make that ultimate climb.
However, for Dennis, that climb started long ago. That climb started before he dropped off the rosin bag in the bottom of the ninth inning during that hot summer day in Los Angeles. It started before he was traded to Montreal, before he struggled with alcoholism during his time in Baltimore, before he was given his famous “El Presidente” nickname by Orioles teammate Ken Singleton, and before he debuted as the first Nicaraguan-born player in MLB history. He started his climb when he was a small boy in Granada, Nicaragua. From the moment he used rolled up socks to imitate baseballs as a child and when he first held a real baseball at the age of 13, Dennis Martínez started his climb.
This game marked the 482nd time he climbed the mound in his major league career. At 37 years old, Martínez was standing on the 10 inch summit again, ready to etch his name in baseball immortality. Here’s TSN play-by-play announcer Dave Van Horne with the call.
On July 28, 1991, 30 years ago today, a hot Sunday summer afternoon in Los Angeles, Dennis Martínez was the 13th MLB pitcher to be perfect.
After the on the field celebration subsided, Martínez spent time alone in the dugout. “There was nothing in my mind, ” he said. “I had no words to say, I could only cry. I didn’t know how to express myself. I didn’t know how to respond to this kind of game.”
Martínez’s catcher, Ron Hassey said, “You give the credit to Dennis. He’s the guy who had to throw the pitches. I’m just the guy who’s catching them and helping him.”
Tito Rondón, sports editor of the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa in 1991, said, “Dennis Martínez was already the most popular man in the country before he pitched a perfect game. Now he’s just more popular.”
Martínez would go on to pitch seven more years until the age of 44, pitching two more years in Montreal, three with Cleveland, one with Seattle, and one with Atlanta before calling it a career in 1998. He finished with a 245-193 record and a career 3.70 ERA. His 3999.2 career innings pitched is good for 41st among all pitchers in MLB history through the 2021 season.
The Montreal Expos would finish 71-90, good for sixth in the National League East in 1991. The Expos wouldn’t make the postseason again for the duration of the franchise’s existence, moving to Washington D.C. in 2005 and rebranding as the Washington Nationals.
Since Martínez’s perfect game in 1991, there have been ten perfect games, the last of which occurring in 2012 by Seattle Mariners pitcher Félix Hernández.
For the information in this article, the author consulted baseball-reference.com and sabr.org