Victor Martinez paying it forward to young Tigers hitters
Detroit – I walked into the Tigers’ clubhouse Thursday on a mission that didn’t involve Victor Martinez. But I quickly noticed several reporters encircling him at his locker. They say baseball is a game of adjustments; so is beat reporting.
If Victor Martinez is talking about hitting, if he’s talking about baseball, you need to listen. So I scrapped my mission and stood on the outside of Martinez’s media scrum. (Detroit News columnist John Niyo was in the scrum and provided me with an audio tape.)
It was a fascinating, insightful and revealing 15 minutes. It’s almost like he has an Eidetic memory – especially when it comes to his own performance over the years.
One of the topics was the recent struggle of third baseman Jeimer Candelario, who has hit the wall hard in his first full season in the big leagues. Martinez has provided counsel throughout Candelario’s month-long slump.
“I told him, nobody is going to feel sorry for us,” he said. “When they see you hitting .200, they want to see you hit .150. That’s the way it is. I tell him, you have to stay within yourself, stay with your approach. The last thing you can do in this game is lose your faith.
“Keep working hard.”
Martinez then pulled out a poignant example from his own career — 2005, his second full season in the Major Leagues. It was 13 years ago, but he pulled the numbers right off the top of his head. He was hitting .207 on June 12, with six home runs and 21 RBIs.
“But I ended up hitting .305 with 20 home runs and I drove in 80,” he said, absolutely dead-on. “I told (Candelario), if I did it once, somebody else can do it.”
Martinez was asked if he had ever lost faith in himself at any point in his career.
“I never did, I swear to God,” he said. “Actually, I just came early to the ballpark and worked and worked and worked and finally I started to get on a roll. But it’s tough. When things are going good, everything is pretty. You are the best.
“But when you are struggling, you are the worst. It’s just really tough.”
Candelario, who was given a couple of days off in a row by manager Ron Gardenhire, is hitting .171 since June 1 with 37 strikeouts. Gardenhire believes he’s fatigued, mentally and physically, and Martinez doesn’t dispute that.
“It can happen,” he said. “In my first full season, I came in on Sept. 1 hitting .304 with 22 home runs and 100 RBI (again, the numbers right off the top of his head). But after that September, I ended up hitting .283. I must’ve hit .150 that month. I hit one home run and drove in just eight.
“I ended up with 23 homers and 108 RBI and I felt like I had a bad year, just because of that bad month.”
It changed how he prepared that off-season and it changed his daily routine in-season.
“It was the first time for me playing through September,” he said. “I used to shag balls (during batting practice), take ground balls and diving her and diving there and honestly, that last month I couldn’t even lift my shoulder. I was so tired.
“The next year, they told me, after you hit, go inside and rest. I started to learn how to take care of myself.”
He’s passed all this on to Candelario and the other young Tigers’ hitters who have come to him for advice. Last season, for a variety of reasons, Martinez isolated himself in the clubhouse. This season, he’s become somewhat of an oracle and has had a profound impact.
“I am really proud of these guys,” he said. “They all want to get better. They come around. They ask you things. For me, I am more than happy to pass it on. I tell them, ‘Listen here and listen there and then you take whatever works for you.’ Everybody is not the same.
“When you struggle, you are going to have a thousand people telling you stuff. It can be really tough. Just take what works.”
There’s no secret that this is the final lap in Martinez’s brilliant 16-year baseball career. He’s going to retire to his cattle ranch in central Florida and he’s leaving on his own terms. Which is as it should be.
“I will leave this game with no regrets,” he said. “I know I left it all and I did everything I could to win and to get better and to be a productive player. I am going to go home happy.”
Yes, he said, he is going to miss the game. He’s going to miss the comradery of the clubhouse and the competition – the one-on-one battles with the pitchers. But as he said, your body always knows when it’s time to go.
“You have to be honest with yourself,” he said. “Your body is not the same. You wish you could play until you are 50, but it is what it is. You’re not getting younger. You are getting older. But I look back and what can I say?
“I never thought as a kid, watching Major League baseball on the TV, that I would play one year in the big leagues. To be in the spot I am right now, I’m real happy.”