Detroit – Victor Martinez showed up for the Tigers’ winter caravan with a couple of messages for fans.
One, the balky left knee that essentially ruined his 2015 season is healthy and he’s ready to hit the ground running when position players report to spring training next month.
“Obviously, I wish I could feel like I was 25,” he said. “But I feel way better. I am doing stuff that’s just unbelievable compared to last year.”
The other message was more personal.
“The fans, I don’t know if they know it or not – they might – but I am telling you, they have a lot of influence on us, they really do,” he said. “That’s why you call it a home-field advantage. We feed off that energy.”
At the end of last season, a season of unmitigated frustration for the players and the fans, Martinez spoke out against the mounting negativity the players were hearing from fans.
Before a game in Minnesota last September he talked about how the 2015 season would teach some hard lessons – to the players, the front office and, he said, the fans. He and many of his teammates were still stinging from the boos they heard at Comerica Park in Game 3 of the 2014 American League Division Series against the Orioles.
“I remember,” Martinez said. “You want to have your team in the playoffs, definitely. The fans want to win, everybody wants to win. But nobody wants to win more than we do. When we play at home, we want them behind us.
“Last year was tough. We came home down 2-0 and the fans were really hard. Now they won’t be angry. There’s no October baseball. That’s why I say this season will be a lesson to a lot of people. You know -- sometimes it’s a good thing. You need to take a step back to go forward.”
Martinez, as he spoke Thursday before boarding the bus with the rest of his teammates, was all about moving forward.
“We are so fortunate,” he said. “Every time we come here to play, we walk into a full house. As a player, that’s what inspires you. You work hard and when you get that (energy) back from the fans, you know there’s no reason to be lazy or anything. You just want to leave everything out there for them.
“We are fortunate, man. We have great fans. … You walk into the clubhouse and you walk out onto the field and you see it’s a full house, you get chills. It’s 6:30 and you are like, ‘Let’s play the game right now.’”
Martinez understands it’s reciprocal. If the Tigers want the fans to fill the house, they have to give them a reason to come. And a healthy and productive Martinez in the middle of the lineup is every bit as vital to the Tigers success as any of the nine new offseason additions.
“We feel extremely good about what we’ve been able to do this offseason,” said general manager Al Avila. “But at the end of the day, we still need our top guys to produce, and I am talking about Miggy (Cabrera), Victor and Justin (Verlander).”
Martinez has all but vanquished 2015 from his mind. The problems started when he had meniscus surgery on his left knee Feb. 10. It was the second operation on that 37-year-old knee in three years and, as he has said, he tried to come back too soon and was never fully healthy.
The result was the worst year of his career -- .245 average, .366 slugging, .667 OPS with 11 home runs and 64 RBI.
“I think the worst year I’d had was like .278 (Cleveland, 2008),” he said. “When I watch video, I don’t watch strikeouts. I watch the good stuff – balls I hit into the gap, the good swings. To be honest, I don’t remember what my average was last year. I think I hit 11 home runs. But I don’t remember how many RBI because I know everything was a career low.
“I tried, I really tried. But you are competing against the best. You focus and try to compete, but when you are hurt, you really are competing against yourself. It was tough, really tough.”
The nagging pain in his left knee forced him to alter his swing. He couldn’t load up on his back leg when he was hitting left handed and he couldn’t fully stride and turn on his front leg when he hit right handed.
“I had to fix a lot of bad habits,” he said. “It’s unbelievable when you are hurt. You do so many things to fight through the pain and at the same time you do so many bad things to your swing. It got the point where I was like, ‘Man, how did I start hitting like this?’”
He’s had to swing back to square one and rebuild it.
“I have hit the most I’ve ever hit my whole career in the offseason,” he said. “I feel good. My swing feels good.”
Asked if he was ready to get to Florida and start the 2016 season, he said, “I don’t have to get to Florida. I am already there. I live there. I am ready to play.”
And he was dead serious about his message to the fans.
"I have been in the league for a little bit and I am telling you, the fans really do have a lot of influence," he said. "It's a long season and everybody gets frustrated. We understand. They have all the right to get frustrated. They want to win. But believe me, we want to win more."