SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It was the kind of summer day in Arlington, Texas, when time moves reluctantly toward 5 p.m. A couple of employees at Texas Appliance off Interstate 20 decided to turn the warehouse aisle into a break room.
Jordan Bostick brought his left-handed catching glove and flipped the ball to his former high school buddy and co-worker Chris Martin. A game of catch soon morphed into a bullpen session between stoves and refrigerators.
Those pitches began an improbable four-year journey that has Martin in the running for a bullpen job with the Rockies this spring.
“It was a slow time, and so we played some casual catch. Next thing I know, I am in a crouch and he nearly breaks my thumb and he broke my glove,” Bostick said Wednesday with a laugh. “I started thinking maybe he shouldn't be stocking shelves.”
Martin was a model employee, appreciative of the steady job on a résumé that included short stints at Lowe's and UPS, the latter for the health benefits. A former prep star and standout at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, Martin was drafted in 2004 and 2005. He never signed with the Detroit Tigers or Rockies, and his goal of reaching the big leagues became improbable because of a shoulder injury.
He tore his labrum after making the roster for the independent Fort Worth Cats — “He heard a pop, and couldn't throw,” his father Matt Martin said — and reality clobbered him in the face.
He had bills, a house payment. Dreams don't have expiration dates, but they do have credit card limits.
“I never stopped thinking about baseball,” said Martin, who was acquired from the Boston Red Sox in the Franklin Morales trade. “I just didn't think it was possible.”
Martin worked hard, long hours. He didn't have time to rehabilitate his shoulder. Turns out, he didn't need it. In something he still can't fully explain, the shoulder healed from rest and lifting the appliances. At 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, Martin was the ideal guy to get stuff on the higher shelves.
“To be honest, I do think it helped. We used to joke about it,” Martin said. “I was building up strength and finally putting on weight by eating fast food every day. Suddenly I was able to throw with no pain, and the next day it felt fine. I had forgotten what that was like.”
Martin began playing in a local men's league with his stepbrother Jonathan McTaggart. Martin felt good, but was he any good?
“I remember striking out three guys on nine pitches, and one of the hitters came up to me and said, 'Man you had to be throwing at least 82 miles per hour,' ” Martin said. “I thanked him, and thought, 'I sure hope he's wrong.' ”
Bostick knew he was. His health in danger with every pitch Martin threw at the warehouse, Bostick told the right-hander he needed better competition. A few phone calls later, Martin was trying out for the Grand Prairie (Texas) AirHogs. He thought he had a private audition, so he showed up in shorts. He was the only guy not in baseball gear among the 80 or so hopefuls. No chance, he thought.
AirHogs manager Pete Incaviglia, however, was impressed. Martin was throwing in the low 90-mph range. He signed a contract — the first time he was paid for playing baseball — and recorded a save a few hours later.
Had the journey ended there, Martin's persistence would have been validated. Then that winter, his cellphone rang during a shift at Texas Appliance. It was the Red Sox.
“Yeah, right?” Bostick recalls saying to Martin. “We couldn't believe it. I was like, 'You are going to be at spring training with Jon Lester!' ”
Boston had an offer. They wanted him to try out in Fort Myers, Fla. One catch. It was up to Martin to find a ride. His dad bought two tickets. Spring training became a long tryout, but at least Pops got reimbursed for the airfare.
“I was around guys like Will Middlebrooks who were draft picks, and nobody knew who I was or where I came from,” Martin said. “I was with Xander Bogaerts in extended spring, and he hit a home run I think every at-bat.”
Martin began a quick march through the minor leagues, reaching Double-A. By last season, as he mowed down Triple-A hitters, he was nearly called up. The Rockies wanted him over the winter, watching film every day at the winter meetings. They wouldn't have traded for Morales if Martin weren't included.
“He's a strike thrower, a groundball guy,” Rockies manager Walt Weiss said of Martin, who struggled Wednesday, allowing back-to-back home runs to the Chicago Cubs. “There's a lot to like about him.”
The absurdity of it all — from stock boy to AirHog to Red Sox and Rockie — has started to settle in. Sitting in the clubhouse, not a warehouse, Martin knows he's this close to walking over the final yellow brick in the road.
“To this day, we have a standing agreement that when he makes it to The Show, he has to find me a replacement glove,” Bostick said. “He's a good dude from a great family. Good stuff like this is supposed to happen to guys like him.”