Victor Martinez takes his first swings of spring training on Monday in Lakeland, Fla. Chris McCosky, Detroit News
Lakeland, Fla. — Nicholas Castellanos welcomed Victor Martinez to the clubhouse Monday with a big bear hug. Then he stepped back and asked him, “How’s the corazon?”
“Like this,” Martinez said. “Bump-bump, bump-bump, bump-bump.”
In perfect rhythm. And that is a good start for the 39-year-old Martinez, whose season was waylaid and ultimately ended by an irregular heartbeat last season. He had an ablation procedure in October and he said, knocking on wood, that his heart is in good working order and he’s ready to compete in the final year of his contract with the Tigers.
“I wish I could tell you that I feel right now like I felt when I came into the big leagues,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t. But I think that’s what comes with age. I was in a rebuilding program before with the Indians so, I don’t know. Just try to have fun this year and help any way I can with these young guys.”
Martinez, coming off the worst statistical season of his career, said he was off all heart medication and was able to do his normal off-season workout program.
“It just took a little longer,” he said. “But nothing special. I was able to do all the stuff that I usually do before every other year.”
Martinez wasn’t in the mood to rehash last season, nor was he making any proclamations about his future.
“I have not discussed anything beyond this year,” he said. “I’m not going to do anything different than what I’ve done my whole career. I have always taken it day by day, year by year. We will just see what happens.”
Martinez said last year that his goal was to play out his contract with the Tigers, finish strong and seriously ponder retirement. There was speculation in the off-season the Tigers might consider buying Martinez out of the $18 million he’s owed for this season, but general manager Al Avila squashed that notion during the winter meetings.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Just put away that $18 million,’ ” he said. “But I think it’s a whole lot better, knowing that Victor is working hard now, making progress, he feels good — no heart issues. And he wants to come back and play.
“He’s into it. You’ve got to play it out and see how it works.”
Martinez was asked Monday if he was using spring training as a test; that if he discovered he no longer had the requisite physical skills to produce up to his own lofty standards, would he consider retiring or taking a buyout?
His answer was a hard no.
“That decision has never been on me my whole career,” he said. “The only thing I can do is go out and do my best and I’ll let them make that decision. That’s never been on me.”
Martinez certainly didn’t ease into anything Monday. He stepped in the box against Alex Wilson during live batting practice and drilled a spinning cutter off the fence in right center field.
“He said after swinging that he felt fantastic,” said manager Ron Gardenhire, who talked with Martinez throughout his batting session. “This guy is a gamer. He’s got a lot of passion to hit, and I am happy I get to use him for a year or two or whatever. We’ll just see what happens.
“If I can protect him during the course of the year, that’s going to be the conversation we’ll have.”
What it will all come down to with Martinez, Gardenhire said, is whether he can stay healthy. And not just baseball healthy.
“We’re talking about life after baseball, and he has a family,” Gardenhire said. “He has to take care of himself. I am all family. Baseball is something we enjoy and love, but we’re going to make sure he’s healthy and nothing takes away from the quality of his life after baseball.”
Until he’s told differently, though, he’s looking forward to writing Martinez’s name in his daily lineup.
“No one has said anything to me about him not being ready for opening day,” Gardenhire said. “I’ll leave it at that. I’ve not had one person say he won’t be ready for opening day. My goal is to get him ready.”
Martinez walked into a much different, much younger clubhouse Monday than he's used to in his time with the Tigers. He seemed rejuvenated by the energy.
“I hope some of that youth can rub off on me,” he said, with a smile. “It’s definitely going to be a different year. But we’ll see what happens. You never know. You might have a few stars in here. Let’s see how it plays out.
"But you know what, not a lot of people get the opportunity to play in the big leagues. I hope these guys take the most out of it.”
Martinez remembers when he was breaking into the big leagues. He was in his early 20s and he’d scoff at the old vets soaking in the hot tub after every workout. He’s not scoffing anymore.
“I would look at them like, ‘Why are you in there?’ ” he said. “And they’d say, ‘Wait until you are 30.’ I would just come here, change clothes and put a uniform on. Now, I really thank God he let me get to this point.
“Now I know what those guys were talking about. It doesn’t get easier. But I do thank God they let me be in this game for this long.”