Luis Martinez has told a real-life story worth hearing

New London — Sometimes, he was a baseball player. Sometimes, he was a drug dealer.

Bullets, he says, barely missed him several times.

It was because of him that he walked downstairs once and found his mother and father in handcuffs, following a drug raid of their home.

He is an author now.

And this is the story of Luis Martinez, the kid they used to call "Chino," the man who is all grown up and back to tell the story of his life.

Martinez's latest foray with writing has produced the book "Loser," a primer into his life growing up on Crystal Ave., dodging cops and bullets, selling drugs and, yes, playing on the 1994 state championship baseball team at New London High.

"Baseball was my life," Martinez, 42, was saying Monday in history teacher Linda Pfeiffer's room at the high school. "But the streets were my playground. It was more fun to be chased by a cop than to be caught in a pickle."

Nobody knew at the time — not his high school buddies or certainly anyone he ran with — that Martinez used writing as his outlet. Imagine: this self-proclaimed 'D' student was an evolving writer and author, chronicling details of dealings and shootings and near misses as they happened. Now it's all there in "Loser," which ought to be required reading for every kid at the high school.

"I wasn't writing to publish," Martinez, who lives in Florida now (Orlando) with his two young children, said. "I wasn't into sharing my personal life with anybody. A lot of people will say 'I'm having issues; I'll go to a counselor.' My counselor was my own writing.

"My first book ("Psychologically Scarred" was the first of six he's written) was 250 pages of just typing. I was writing all day, every single day in my head. When I went home at night I'd be up till 5 or 6 and nobody knew. I thought it was embarrassing. Like, what am I the 'drug dealer poet?' "

Martinez began writing after witnessing his first death. It was of a close friend, Merrill "Babe" Epps, who was killed in 1998 in New London.

"It happened within a minute of me saying something to him," Martinez said. "He shook my hand, gave me a hug and within 45 seconds he was dead. I immediately went to writing. I didn't sleep for days. I don't tell this story to say I witnessed a murder. This was personal. He lived in Building A (on Crystal Ave.) I lived in the B Building. He was my first role model."

This is where Martinez paused briefly. His eyes welled at the memory of losing Epps, as if the shapes and forms of that night happened seconds earlier. He grabbed a tissue and kept talking, awash in the days that inspired "Loser," and the cautionary tales of the streets:

"I remember this like it was yesterday," he said. "I was 12. This guy goes 'here, hold this can.' It was a Coke can, the kind they used to sell in the mall, where you could twist off the whole top. It's how I built a friendship between me and the people my dad was trying to keep me away from.

"There were 15-20 drug dealers being searched. Nobody got caught. When the cops were done, the guy hands me a 20 dollar bill. At that age, my dad wouldn't give me 20 dollars. Nobody would. But he did. A 12-year-old with 20 dollars? I could go skating and get an ice cream.

"That 20 dollars I got I can't say ruined my life, but is the reason we are sitting here today. That can was filled with nothing but crack cocaine. I had never seen crack cocaine. The guy said, 'You just saved me from getting arrested.'

"That 20 turned into 'hold my can' every day. The cops wouldn't think a little kid would have anything like that. So I started selling it. 'Here's your can, here's your money.' At that time, because I was young, it was 70 for them, 30 for me for every hundred dollars."

Martinez, who talked to the ninth graders Tuesday at the high school, kept going:

"I believe that everybody who lives on the streets lives a double life. You can be in the streets one minute selling drugs and be on the baseball field the next. Some of them go to church and go right back to the streets. We know what right is. We know what good is. But at the same time, we also know it's easier to get what you want the fast way.

"You don't think about the consequences until you're dead or when you are in handcuffs. Unless the threat is there, you don't worry. It's like going swimming. You don't jump into the pool and say 'I might drown.' Or get in a car 'I may hit a tree.' For us being out there, it's like going fishing. Except you are selling drugs. Some days, you don't catch any fish. Some days, you have $1,000 worth of drugs and don't sell any. But some days ... it's like going to the casino. If you hit one time, there's a good chance you're going back. The moment you make $10,000, you want 20 or 30. Constantly chasing."

Martinez enrolled at Mitchell College for a semester in 1995. It was there he met the man that he says "changed my life forever." The man: Alvin Young, one of the great basketball players in the history of the school, who later played at Niagara.

Young became that one person in all our lives who challenges our beliefs, even if we never asked in the first place.

"We took rides until we ran out of gas," Martinez said. "When you are on the streets, nobody disagrees with you. But Alvin? I'd talk and he'd say 'that's not right.' He challenged me to become a better person. There were times I hated him. But I always went back and thought about what he said. I started writing without him knowing. Many things you'll read were written with his voice inside my head. He cared about me. Loved me as a friend to the point where somehow, some way, without ever saying 'I want to you stop dealing' got me to stop dealing. Today, I can be man enough to tell him that. Back then, I was the tough guy acting like I didn't care. But he changed me."

Something else did, too.

Martinez came home one day at 25-years-old to a police raid of his house. The trunk of his car was full of drugs, fresh from a pickup in New York. The police never found the drugs. But they handcuffed his mom and dad and arrested two of his brothers.

"That destroyed me," he said. "And that was the end of my run. I didn't want to go to prison. Seeing my mom and dad suffer? I didn't want to be that."

From there, Martinez began to work in halfway houses — even with federal prisoners — sharing his story.

"So many people tell our kids, 'you're from New London, you're never going to be this or that,'" said Pfeiffer, a New London native and wonderful advocate for the kids of the city. "Here's somebody who struggled and went through all the things that everybody thinks about New London and was able to get out of it, put it on paper and say, 'here's a warning.' That's what our kids need. Just the fact that he's on Amazon and he's published is huge.

"Everybody wants to talk about Kris Dunn and Rajai Davis and Jordan Reed. They're all great stories. But nobody knew Luis' book would even get published. And now he's back willing to share. It's a great book for our kids to read."

"Loser" is available on Amazon and through Martinez's Facebook page at "Chi No."

"I just want my story out. No fame," he said. "Pretty soon, it's right back to Orlando with my kids watching Mickey Mouse. I've already been down the popular road. Don't need it anymore."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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