Six years after he began shining shoes as a way to support his family, Carlos Martinez was certain that he had found his calling.
He was 12 years old and one of three brothers sharing a cramped bedroom in a home in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, that appeared prone to toppling over with the next gust of wind. They lived with their grandma. Other family members came and went, further cramping the modest two-bedroom home nestled near the base of a hill.
Martinez was often found playing Vitilla -- a modified game of baseball using bottlecaps and broomsticks -- in his Dominican neighborhood, though in those preteen days he had no idea where the sport would take him. It was merely a form of recreation. As for a purpose? That would be found in the Catholic Church.
Martinez had been invited to a Church-sponsored retreat designed to help local children decide whether the path to priesthood was one they desired to walk. Martinez was particularly struck by the opportunity to do good. He saw the Church engaged in community outreach, delivering bags of rice, clothes and other food to those in need.
And though his family was so poor that he shared a pair of shoes with his brother, Martinez wanted to be a part of that mission.
"That's when this whole giving back to the community started in my heart," Martinez says now, with agent Brian Mejia serving as a translator. "I just liked being a part of that."
Of course, plans don't always stay on script. After four years of coursework and studies, Martinez ran into a roadblock when he registered for high school. He didn't have a proper birth certificate -- the same issue, incidentally, that would keep him from signing with the Red Sox a year later.
The cost to obtain the necessary paperwork was more than his family had, so Martinez was left with no choice but to drop out of the program. It was then that he started taking baseball even more seriously.
Sport would eventually carry him out of the Dominican Republic and onto the television screens of many. With a four-pitch mix and early career comparisons to Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, Carlos Ernesto Martinez profiles as a future ace for the St. Louis Cardinals.
But while his path may have pivoted, Martinez has discovered that what he most wanted to do as a teenager in Puerto Plata is what he actually has the means to do now. For through baseball, Martinez, 25, found the platform to give back in ways he never imagined. And the impact has been extraordinary.
"I see him as a young adult that is really super gracious for what God has given him and the ability God has given him to help his family and help the community," said Lt. Noe Marquez of the Fairmont City (Ill.) Police Department. "He really does put others first."
Building the Foundation
In the same year he was emerging a as permanent fixture in the Cardinals' rotation, Martinez established a charitable foundation that would help him achieve his longtime goal of assisting children in need. He named it Tsunami Waves, a nod to the nickname that is tattooed across his pitching arm.
The foundation's opening event was in Fairmont City, an area nestled just east of St. Louis, across the Mississippi River. It covers less than seven square miles but features the highest percentage of Hispanics in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
Marisa Diaz, who left her position within the Cardinals' community relations department to serve as the community program and special events director for Tsunami Waves, had organized a baseball clinic. Martinez woke up sick the morning of the event; Diaz urged him to come anyway.
"I have about 100 kids here thrilled to hang with you," she pleaded.
Martinez would spend three hours with those kids that day.
"When I went out to Fairmont City, I never thought that in the United States, and particularly in St. Louis, that there was such a need in the Latin community," Martinez recalled. "I went there and witnessed it myself and heard stories from kids about broken homes and families that couldn't really provide the essentials. It filled my heart."
"I knew from that moment on," added Diaz, "that it was an awesome thing that he was going to do here in St. Louis."
Martinez's impact in Fairmont City has continued since that clinic. This past summer, he paired up with the Fairmont City Police Athletic League to introduce children to the game of golf. He also held a washers tournament that raised approximately $5,000 for charity.
Martinez has visited schools in the area and, both figuratively and literally, closed the eight-mile gap from Fairmont City to St. Louis by donating tickets so residents could attend Cardinals games. He included them in his annual bowling tournament and invited members of the community to Ballpark Village to play Vitilla with him in August.
For many, these excursions represented their first visits to the downtown area.
"There are not a lot of professional Latino athletes in this St. Louis metro area that reach the highest level of success who these children can physically see and touch, who can walk into their neighborhood and interact as if they're friends," said Lt. Marquez, who works with the Fairmont City PAL. "And for him to return as much as he has, for his organization to include us in many of the things he's hosted in St. Louis, that shows you that this isn't some fly-by-night athlete coming to give some inspirational speech who will leave and never been seen again. He is them, and they are him."
It's the same at St. Cecilia School and Academy, whose campus sits six miles south of Busch Stadium. Of the 186 students enrolled at the school, about 80 percent come from Spanish-speaking homes.
Martinez connected right away, beginning with a 2015 visit he made to speak to an assembly. He played baseball with kids during recess and has returned many times since. This past year, Martinez was the surprise guest at the school's Cinco De Mayo event, where, after coming straight from a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium, he spent the evening showcasing his salsa moves and auctioning off a pair of jerseys to raise money for the school.
"These are impoverished and disadvantaged families and students who look to someone like Carlos because they can identify with him," said Toni Ponder, the school's senior development director. "They think, 'I can do this, too. I can be successful.' He really promotes education and doing well in school and shooting for your dreams, to never give up. He has a message for our students that is very empowering."
There's been more tangible impact, too. Martinez gave one family a scholarship that would cover tuition costs and another a free summer baseball camp. Ponder said that Martinez also offered every student and his or her family the chance to attend a Cardinals game at no cost to them. He extended that opportunity after learning most had never been to a baseball game before.
"It reflects back when I was a kid and the opportunities I wish I had," Martinez said. "I want to pay it forward and give that opportunity to other kids. I want to invest in them so that tomorrow they can be someone in the community."
Helping back home
While Tsunami Waves has planted itself in the St. Louis area, its work reaches back to Martinez's roots. Just as he felt called to serve the less fortunate as a teenager, Martinez has never forgotten the need back home.
This Christmas, Martinez will hand out baseball equipment, bobbleheads and food baskets to the neediest in his community. Next month, he'll guide those on the Cardinals' Cruise into his hometown so they can witness the joy of children receiving one of the baseball gloves Martinez collected this season.
At that event, Martinez is expected to hand out more than 1,000 pieces of equipment.
"Coming back from the United States and driving around the community, I see more and more poverty," Martinez said. "More poverty than when I was a child. It overwhelms me to the point where I want to do more. I can't impact the entire city, but, little by little, I can impact the people who really need it."
The need is even greater now after flooding displaced an estimated 20,000 residents of Puerto Plata in November. The area is still recovering.
Martinez joined Nelson Cruz and Bartolo Colon earlier this month to distribute food, water and clothing to those trying to rebuild. The Cardinals have pledged a $10,000 donation to Martinez's foundation, as well, to be earmarked for flood relief.
Martinez jokes that he feels like Santa Claus when he brings gifts or aid back to the community that reared him. But his efforts are much more tangible than that. For kids now playing Vitilla in those same streets, he's hope bottled up into a 6-foot, 190-pound frame.
"I just wish people could have an understanding of how tough a spot all these kids come from," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "You get over there and you see kids from some spots where, quite frankly, they shouldn't make it out. I think you have to give [Martinez] credit for beating the odds like that. Then anything he's doing positively over there says a whole lot about what he is deep down inside."
Matheny has had a unique vantage point from which to watch Martinez's impact, since Matheny has brought area youth players down to the Dominican for immersion experiences in past offseasons. One of those visits came in November 2014, shortly after the death of Dominican outfielder Oscar Taveras. After an impromptu sandlot game, Martinez addressed both groups.
He spoke first to the visiting American boys, then delivered a message in Spanish to the kids of that community. Matheny was struck by the emotional connection.
"I think he endears himself to people just by being himself," Matheny said. "He tried to explain to these kids what he had to do to try to change his future. He gave them encouragement from somebody who knows where they're coming from more than any of us could pretend to."
Those children continue to be the beneficiaries of Martinez's giving.
This past All-Star break, Martinez traveled home to distribute backpacks with school supplies to several hundred students. From morning until night, Diaz said, children came to shake Martinez's hand and take the backpack they'd soon carry with them to school.
"I know that when he looks at them he sees himself as a little kid," Diaz said. "He recognizes that they dream just like he dreamt one day of being a Major League Baseball player. He can see that his words have meaning to these kids. He's always asking me, 'What's the next thing we're going to do?"
The answer? Much, much more.
Diaz and Martinez both gush about the grand plans Tsunami Waves has for 2017. There will be several fundraisers in the St. Louis area to benefit the foundation, but also the frequent excursions that few ever hear about -- those visits to St. Cecilia, stops at local hospitals, outings in Fairmont City and surprise showings at other area schools. Last year, he engaged in more outreach events than there were Cardinals homestands.
This, Martinez says now, was to be his calling. And those communities otherwise unpenetrated by professional athletes are his to reach.
"It was personal," Martinez said. "I came from nothing. I lived that. I was that kid that needed help. Although I don't have a multi-year contract, I'm making half a million dollars and can do a lot to help people with the little I have. For that reason, I wanted to start the foundation so that moving forward, I can use it as a vehicle to create funds. It was personal to me, because I was that kid."
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast.