Joe Martarano could feel the clock ticking.
The Fruitland High graduate tried to balance two sports the past three years, playing linebacker for the Boise State football team in the fall then moonlighting as a corner infielder in the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system during the summer.
But as the Broncos’ spring practice approached this year, Martarano knew time was short.
The injuries began mounting — a knee injury in the season opener and a broken ankle Nov. 18 against UNLV — threatening his potential in both sports. And with his 23rd birthday on July 28, he would be one of the older players in the short-season A Northwest League.
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If he was going to give his baseball career a fair shake, Boise State’s projected starting middle linebacker in 2017 knew he had to walk away from football.
“I just had to look at my upside in both,” Martarano said. “Each sport, if was to be at my best, which one I thought I had the best shot to make it in. So I decided on baseball.”
I know a lot of young players think it’s a lot easier than it really is, but in all fairness, there’s only been one Bo Jackson, one Deion Sanders.”
Gary Van Tol, Eugene Emeralds assistant coach
The 6-4, 235-pounder returned to the Treasure Valley on Tuesday as the Boise Hawks hosted their 2017 home opener at Memorial Stadium. The Emeralds’ starting first baseman was 3-for-5 with a double and three RBIs in the Emeralds’ 7-6 extra inning loss. He also had two stolen bases.
Martarano’s raw power convinced the Cubs to draft the multi-sport athlete in the 22nd round of the 2014 MLB Draft, a year after he turned down a contract offer from the Phillies, who took him in the 13th round out of high school.
“We feel he’s got Major League pop and power,” said Gary Van Tol, a Eugene assistant coach and a Boise resident who worked with Martarano in high school. “His BP and playing high school here in Idaho, obviously he showed that pretty easily. But you’re going to get humbled every night when you’re going out there and facing mid-90s with movement and sink and sliders and breaking balls.”
The herky-jerk start to his career have made evaluations of Martarano difficult. He played just 22 games his first two summers as a pro, hitting .256 without a home run, then skipped baseball entirely last year to focus on football.
Martarano said switching back and forth held him back in both sports.
“Balancing them was really tough,” he said. “I could do it. It’s just, I couldn’t reach my full potential when I was balancing them.
“I would start doing good in baseball and then have to go back to football. Then I’d have to leave my football team to go play baseball, which would hurt me there.
“That’s why I just figured I should make the decision and work on one of them and be the best at it that I can.”
Van Tol said the Cubs know the power is there. He said the true test is how Martarano will handle the transition to a full-time baseball player.
Football allows players to spend a week preparing and getting amped up for a single game, while baseball requires the focus, preparation and perspective to play seven days a week.
Add in a new position — the Cubs have him playing left field too — and Martarano has plenty to take in as he shakes off the rust of a year away from the diamond.
Van Tol stressed the Cubs will give Martarano the time he needs to adjust. Their clock on his development has plenty of time left.
“That’s going to take some time,” Van Tol said. “There’s got to be some separation there too and some growing pains. But he’s working very hard.
“Obviously coming up through a system like Boise State football and how disciplined and tough those guys are, he’s not afraid to work and put in the time.”