Detroit — When Victor Martinez says he will leave the game with no regrets, it is right and just. Richly deserved. But you know there is one spot of emptiness — if not on his heart, then certainly on the mantel of his trophy room.
Martinez’s admirable 16-year big-league career is going to end on Sept. 30 without a World Series ring. Without, even, a World Series appearance.
“I think everybody wishes for a ring,” he said Saturday in Minneapolis. “But when I say I am going to leave with no regrets; I know I did everything I could do, individually. I was a guy who didn’t take long vacations, just two or three weeks off after the season and then start working out again.
“And I was like that for 16 years. At the end of the day, this is not a one-man or two-man sport. I did what I could to get that ring; I really did. But you know what, I am going to go home happy.”
Martinez played in five postseasons, eight playoff series. His teams lost in the American League Championship Series three times, the Indians in 2007 and the Tigers in 2011 and 2013. Wouldn’t you know, when the Tigers got to the World Series in 2012 and lost to the Giants, he missed the year with knee surgery.
But, to his point, he did his part. In 39 playoff games, 163 plate appearances, he hit .315 with a .374 on-base percentage, slugging .503 with an .878 OPS. He has six post-season home runs and 22 RBIs.
In the 2013 postseason with the Tigers, in the Oakland and Boston series combined, he hit .405 (17 for 42) with four doubles, a home run and five RBIs.
“I didn’t even know that,” he said of his postseason stats. “I know I left it all out there. It (a championship) didn’t happen and that’s unfortunate. But life continues. This has been a great ride.”
It has been an all-too-fast ride. One minute he’s breaking into the big leagues mimicking everything Omar Vizquel did to prepare for the season and the next he’s got less than six weeks left in his career and young players are mimicking him.
“I was talking to my wife the other day,” Martinez said. “I told her, ‘I can’t believe this year has come.’ When you are young, when I was 23, man I thought I could play forever. You never see the end until it is right in front of you.”
Tigers officials, and media members, have been bringing a lot of number to Martinez’s attention in recent weeks — 2,131 hits (1,011 as a Tiger), 243 home runs, 1,165 RBIs, lifetime .295 average. Up until two years ago, he was hitting better than .300 from both sides of the plate.
He will go down as one of the most productive switch-hitters in the game and certainly one of the top hitters baseball-rich Venezuela has produced.
“I’ve never been a guy who watched his stats,” Martinez said. “Not even during the year. But, wow. Who would have thought that, for me, a kid coming from Venezuela? I didn’t go to school. I didn’t know how to do nothing.
“I don’t know what I would’ve been if I didn’t play baseball.”
He’s not exactly limping to the finish line, either. After struggling earlier in the season, Martinez has caught a roll. His slash-line the last 22 games: .329/.381/.500 with an .881 OPS. He’s produced two homers, seven doubles and 12 RBIs in that span.
“It can be real hard,” Martinez said. “For me, especially, I am really enjoying these past few weeks. It’s like I always say, when you work, you deserve to get better. That’s what I keep telling these guys here. Don’t give up. Keep grinding. At some point, this is going to turn around.”
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire’s support and faith in Martinez never wavered, not even during the height of his struggles, like in June and July when he hit .200 with a .453 OPS for a 40-game span. He believed in the man, the track record and, as much as anything, he saw that Martinez was providing an object lesson to the younger Tigers hitters.
“He wasn’t swinging good, we all know that,” Gardenhire said. “He went through that whole big stretch. But he was competing and those guys knew it. He was trying and he was rooting for them and talking to them and that meant more than anything else.
“His numbers and all that stuff, I didn’t care.”
Gardenhire used Martinez’s at-bats as a model for the young hitters — the at-bats, not the results.
“Everybody else was seeing his numbers, we were seeing quality at-bats,” Gardenhire said. “And I was hoping our young guys would watch this guy. Learn how to take pitches and not be afraid to hit with two strikes, that you can still fight balls off until you get a pitch you can get the barrel to, which he has done all year.
“He was showing what a professional at-bat looked like. And I hoped our young guys would learn from that stuff.”
That may well be the most gratifying part of this final lap for Martinez, his interactions with the young players — not just the Latin guys like Jeimer Candelario, Victor Reyes and Ronny Rodriguez, but he’s been there for Niko Goodrum, JaCoby Jones and others, too.
Truth be told, that has rejuvenated him as much as the hot streak has.
“It’s a little special,” he said. “These guys come to me. They all want to win and to be better. No one is giving up. They come ready to play every day. They come to me. Man, I never thought I’d be on this side.”
It brought him full-circle to when he was a young player in Cleveland and he'd be on Vizquel's hip.
“I’d be sitting at my locker and there’s Omar, 10 years in the big leagues,” Martinez said. “Ten years in the big leagues and he’s getting to the park at 2:30 p.m. That tells me I have to be here earlier. He’s been in the big leagues 10 years for a reason.
“I would watch how he did his work and now they are coming to me. That makes me real happy. I know they listen. I know they are trying to do the right things.”
Paying forward. These days, Candelario talks about Martinez the way Martinez did Vizquel.
“He’s meant a lot to me,” Candelario said. “He’s one of the teammates I learn from — how to take care of business. No matter how he’s doing, no matter how he’s struggling or if he’s hot, he’s always going to be the same person. He’s always going to help the young guys.
“I really like him. He’s like a big brother. You want to be around and learn from guys who have had success. He’s a .300 hitter for 16 years; that’s huge. He must be doing something right. He’s a successful guy and I want to be around him all the time.”
You never see the end until it’s right in front of you. Martinez sees it now.
Less than six weeks left in his 16-year odyssey. Short of making one last playoff run, he probably couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying way to go out — knowing you gave the game everything you had and then passing what the game taught you on to the next generation of players.
“It’s kind of nice,” Gardenhire said. “I’ve watched him from the other side just beat the living fire out of us with his bat, glove and arm. And now I get a chance to manage him, knowing this is winding down for him — it’s a big deal to be able to watch this.
“He’s having a lot of fun right now. It’s not about his batting average or anything like that. He’s just competing and enjoying talking with and being around all these guys in here. And we are all of us getting a great experience and learning a lot.”
Cubs at Tigers
Series: Two-game series Tuesday-Wednesday, Comerica Park, Detroit
First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday
TV/radio: Both games on Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM.
Probables: Tuesday — RHP Kyle Hendricks (9-9, 4.11) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (5-5, 4.36); Wednesday — LHP Jon Lester (13-5, 3.72) vs. LHP Francisco Liriano (3-8, 4.72).
Hendricks, Cubs: The Cubs have won his last three starts, but he’s not exactly been stingy. He’s been tagged for 10 runs in 17.2 innings and opponents hit .294 in those games. His ERA (4.11) and WHIP (1.22) are career-highs.
Zimmermann, Tigers: He’s coming off a rough start against the White Sox (six runs in five innings), but he’s only allowed two earned runs total in his previous two outings. His four-seam fastball has been hit hard and often this season — .330, .633 slugging and eight home runs.