WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Cleveland general manager John Hart is wishing he had returned just one of Dennis Martinez's phone calls.
If he had, the veteran right-hander probably would be in the Indians' camp this spring, instead of fitting nicely into the Atlanta Braves' rotation.
Fortunately for the Braves, Hart ignored Martinez's request for an invitation to spring training and Atlanta signed him to a minor-league contract.
It has worked out splendidly for the Braves, who were hoping Martinez could replace John Smoltz in the rotation for a start or two. They never expected the 42-year-old to be more than an April replacement, but he's forced himself into their plans, and when Smoltz returns next month they will have to decide whether to keep him in the rotation or shift him to the bullpen.
"He's been the surprise of camp," manager Bobby Cox said. "The way he's throwing, he's going to help us no matter what role he's in. We were hoping he could replace Smoltz, that's why we invited him, but if he didn't make it we would have had to go to Plan B."
Asked to define Plan B, Cox shrugged and said, "We would have had to find another starter."
Martinez eliminated the hunt. He's pitched so well he caught the eye of Hart last weekend, who asked Indians' manager Mike Hargrove if he'd like to have the right-hander back. The interest caught Martinez by surprise and left him wondering why Cleveland didn't display any interest in him three months ago.
"When I heard (what Hart said) it kind of surprised me," Martinez said. "It surprised me that they were willing to do something."
Martinez said he called the Indians four or five times last winter, leaving word with Hart's secretary each time. When he didn't hear anything from his former club, he headed to Puerto Rico to pitch winter ball, where he impressed Mayaguez pitching coach Guy Hansen, who had signed on with the Braves as a special assistant scout and minor-league pitching instructor.
On Hansen's recommendation, Martinez was offered a $250,000 minor-league contract and invited to camp as a nonroster player.
"Everything began when I went to Puerto Rico," Martinez said. "I had determination in myself to show everybody how I was feeling. I wanted to show them I was over my injury and it was time to find out if I could get people out."
Martinez had not pitched well since suffering an elbow injury in 1996, which hampered him last spring and led to his release by the Mariners and subsequent retirement. Despite not pitching most of the year, he ended the season as the major league's winningest active pitcher with 241 wins and needs two more to tie Juan Marichal as the winningest Latin American pitcher in major-league history.
Martinez, who was scheduled to make his fifth start Friday afternoon against the Indians, made only three or four warmup pitches before rain chased him off the bullpen mound. Mother Nature didn't allow him to resume throwing, so he'll work today in a minor-league game at the Disney complex.
It makes no difference if Cox is on hand to watch. The decision on Martinez was made several weeks ago. He's in the rotation, but thanks to two days off in the first week of games, he probably won't make his first start until the second weekend in Philadelphia.
"I feel like I'm in the best shape I've been in in five years," Martinez said. "I feel like I'm throwing the ball well. I'm trying to take the same mentality to the mound that I had before I got hurt."