Tigers' Victor Martinez leaves indelible marks as MLB career nears end
Cleveland — Now you see why he doesn’t want to start talking about it. The Indians honored him in a pregame ceremony Saturday and he lost it. His body sagged, tears flowed. There are heavy emotions roiling around inside of him and he’s kept them pent up for eight months, since he reported to training camp last February.
It’s just too soon. There are still 13 games to play.
“Right now, like I said before, I am just enjoying being around this group,” he said. “These guys almost make me feel young.”
Victor Martinez is in the home stretch, literally. Tonight begins the final home stand in his rich and distinguished 16-year career. The five-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger winner, Edgar Martinez Award recipient plans to hang up his bat once and for all in Milwaukee on Sept. 30.
He may not be ready to talk about it, but people throughout baseball, teammates and opponents alike, certainly were. What follows is a kaleidoscopic romp through one heck of a baseball life.
Catcher James McCann:
“Just look at his presence this year. This year has kind of crystallized it all for me with Victor. A guy knowing he’s going out, knowing this is his last season. It would have been very easy on a rebuilding team to be selfish and show up at 4:30 every day and just take care of himself. But he is always in the clubhouse. He’s always willing to help younger players. He’s been especially good with the young Latin guys.
“I think he’s been able to see his career come full circle this year. He’s having a lot of fun with the role he’s had. Even when he’s not playing, he’s in the dugout cheering loud. He’s the first guy to give a young guy a high-five. His presence in the clubhouse, there are no words to describe what he has meant to this organization over the years.”
Among the best
Where Martinez ranks all-time among switch-hitters:
Games – 1,968 (T-31st)
Runs – 913 (47th)
Hits – 2,148 (24th)
Doubles – 421 (19th)
Home runs – 246 (T-16th)
RBI – 1,177 (15th)
Batting average – .295 (11th)
Slugging percentage - .455 (17th)
General manager Al Avila:
“It’s been so long, people forget that he was a catcher, and a really good catcher. He was not just a good switch-hitter, he was a really good, well-rounded player. He was an All-Star.”
Up until late in the 2016 season, Martinez was a career .300 hitter from both sides of the plate. With some work still left to do, Martinez is still hitting .301 left-handed for his career and .293 right-handed.
Royals shortstop and fellow Venezuelan Alcides Escobar:
“What this guy has done is unbelievable. And he’s a really good guy, a really good teammate. I’ve known Victor for a long time. I can tell you, everybody loves Victor. He’s had a special career. He did everything in this game.”
Martinez’s all-time ranks among Venezuelans:
Games – Eighth
Runs – Eighth
Hits – Eighth
Home runs – Sixth
RBI – Fifth
Batting average – Fourth
Slugging percentage – Seventh
Royals catcher Salvador Perez:
“He was the guy I followed when I was young. And then when I got to the big leagues and got the opportunity to meet him – it was the greatest experiences of my life. Just watching how he played, how he competed every day.
“We were fighting for the division every year and it was just fun to watch this guy. For me, he was kind of my inspiration, you know? When I was coming up in the big leagues, I wanted to be like him. I wanted to conduct myself like he did. To play for 16 years in the big leagues, that’s a goal for me.”
This past weekend, Martinez made his final appearance at Progressive Field in Cleveland, the place where it began for him back in 2002.
He recorded his first hit there, a bloop single off Justin Miller in September 2002. On July 7 last season, he collected his 2,000th hit, a single off Carlos Carrasco. He was the ninth active player to reach that milestone and the Cleveland fans, whom he thrilled for nine seasons, gave him a warm ovation.
“I will always remember this moment until I die,” Martinez said that night. “It was pretty special the way the fans reacted.”
Around the Central
Martinez has played 474 games at Progressive Field. His slash-line there is .296/.377/.454/.830 (OPS), with 51 home runs. His 289 RBIs are second-most among active players. His 499 hits rank third. You could call it his field of dreams, except he’s done similar damage in every stadium in the American League Central, where he played all but two seasons.
Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field (U.S. Cellular): .340/.412/.536./.948 – 21 homers, 74 RBIs.
Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium: .302/.361/.434/.795 – 10 homers, 75 RBIs.
Minnesota’s Target Field: .356/.387/.573/.970 – 11 homers, 50 RBIs.
With Comerica Park, though, Martinez has had a long love-hate relationship.
“This (bleep-bleep) ballpark is too (bleeping) big – at least for me,” he famously said last season after watching a couple of 400-foot rockets land in outfielders’ gloves.
His numbers aren’t what they are in the other Central Division parks but he’s been plenty productive there despite Comerica’s spacious dimensions – .276/.334/.417/.753 – 56 homers, 279 RBIs.
Tigers rookie Niko Goodrum:
“He took me out to dinner in Minnesota (in May) and basically broke down to me, as a rookie, what needed to be done. He showed me how to do stuff, how to act professionally, how to do stuff right. When to show up at the ballpark. How to get your work done. He showed me how to do it because no one ever did.
“He told me that you have to handle your business on the field and off the field. When you are here, you take it seriously. You get a routine and you stick to that routine. But when you are off the field and you are in the locker room or with your family, you’ve got to let it go and have fun.
“Vic is a great teammate. He brings a lot of energy. A lot of people don’t see that. He brings a lot to this team. We look up to him as a leader. He shows us how everything is supposed to be done and he motivates us. It’s been fun playing with him.”
Tigers reliever Alex Wilson:
“My first year here (2015), nobody really knew me. I just got traded over (from Boston) and got called up. I was just a nobody and a lot of the veterans, as usual, just stayed away. But it got to August or so and I’d thrown another multiple-inning game and he came up to me afterward. He really hadn’t talked to me much all year. Obviously, I knew who he was.
“He came up and said, ‘Hey man, what you’ve done this year is really, really impressive.’ I thanked him and he said, ‘No, you work hard, you do everything right. Keep doing what you are doing and you’re going to stick around.’ We had never had a conversation before and for him to come over and give me that kind of reassurance, it meant a lot to me.
“He’s always been a figure, a figure in this clubhouse. It’s been four years and I feel like every year has been so different with him. But this past year, he’s been one of the better teammates I ever had. The guy genuinely loves the game and it’s been fun to see him enjoy his last year and kind of turn the page on some issues that had come up. All in all, I couldn’t think of a better way for him to ride off into the sunset.”
For Martinez, 2017 was the worst year of his career. Not just in terms of his production, which was, by his standards, horrific. But he and manager Brad Ausmus clashed, badly. Neither handled the situation particularly well or expediently. Martinez essentially retreated into himself and Ausmus stubbornly refused to reach out and try to mend the fence.
At least not until Avila stepped in.
“Victor was going through a rough patch and Brad just treated it like just another day, just another player,” Avila said. “Well, Victor isn’t just another player and this wasn’t just a small thing. But it was just a period of time – not the entire season.”
Avila put Martinez and Ausmus in a room and essentially told them to work it out. Because if it didn’t get worked out, it was going to have dire consequences for both, and especially for the team. Avila’s message for Ausmus was forthright and clear:
“You have to control your players,” Avila said. “Victor is going to retire. To Brad’s credit, he did get with Victor and they sat down and they made amends. After that, Victor was perfectly fine and happy.”
Until Martinez’s heart issues. He nearly passed out on his way to first base on June 15 last season and was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. When he came back from the disabled list on June 28, Ausmus, for the first time all year, moved him out of the cleanup spot and batted him sixth.
Ausmus hadn’t discussed the move with Martinez at all. He just informed him in a text that he’d be hitting sixth. The relationship, from Martinez’s point of view, was severed irreparably at that point.
Ausmus was not re-hired for 2018, and the Tigers still owed Martinez, at age 39, one more year at $18 million. Once Martinez got a clean bill of health – he had a cardiac ablation procedure last September – Avila never wavered on bringing him back.
“Coming into this year, I knew his mindset was good,” Avila said. “We had talked. He said it was his last year and he wanted to go out on a good note. He said, ‘I am going to give it my best effort.’ And then we hired Gardy (Ron Gardenhire) and that made it even better because he loved Gardy. Everything considered, it’s been a decent year for us.”
Avila said there was no way he was going to simply eat the $18 million and then sign another player to replace him, at even more expense. That, he said, was not in the equation from an economic standpoint.
“I felt as long as he came in and put forth the effort and became a leader of this team – which he has done from day one,” Avila said. “He’s helped these guys. He’s mentored them and that’s been a valuable thing in the clubhouse. It’s been worth keeping him for sure.
“I know he’s happy with the way his career is ending. And as an organization, I also take pride in, if you come here and you play here, we’re going to treat you as a professional and with respect. If you are professional, and you have a lineage, a history with us, we’re going to take care of you. That will go a long way in recruiting guys to come here.”
Manager Ron Gardenhire:
“I understood what needed to happen here,” he said. “There are certain people you need to get through this thing and Victor was one of them. He’s a veteran guy and you need to keep him happy and comfortable.
“I told him in spring training, you need to help. If you see something, please come and talk to me about it. (Miguel) Cabrera, too. It was part of the plan. You need those guys on your side to make sure the clubhouse is strong. I told them, ‘It’s your clubhouse, not mine. You are the veterans and you have to control that stuff.’ When players are holding each other accountable, that’s when it’s easy.”
Gardenhire explained the difference between a real clubhouse leader and what he called a mad-patter.
“Anybody can go pat a guy on the back and say, ‘Don’t worry about it. They get on me like that too. They’ll get over it,’” he said. “That’s not a leader. A leader goes and kicks them in the butt and says pick it up, let’s go. You need to work harder.
“That what we get with Victor. He sees it and he pounds it. He gets after it so I don’t have to.”
Martinez has posted huge numbers (2,148 hits, 1,177 RBIs, 246 home runs) despite missing two full seasons in the prime of his career. He missed both 2008 and 2012 with knee surgeries.
He’s had memorable games, good and bad:
► July 16, 2004 – He went 5 for 5 with three home runs and seven RBIs against Seattle.
► Sept. 11, 2011 – He became the first player since Goose Goslin in 1934 to hit into four double-plays in one game.
► April 4-5, 2016 – He hit a pinch-hit home run in each of the Tigers first two games of the season. He was the first player to do that since 1914 and the only pinch-hitter to do it hitting a home run from each side of the plate.
► May 11, 2016 – While the Tigers were striking out 20 times against former teammate Max Scherzer, Martinez went 5 for 5.
The most productive season of his career came in 2014, when he was 35 years old. He hit .335 with 32 home runs, 103 RBIs. He led the Major Leagues in OPS (.974) and on-base percentage (.404). He had more walks (70) than strikeouts (42) in 641 plate appearances.
He hit .337 with two strikes. Ridiculous.
He finished second to Mike Trout in the MVP voting and went neck-and-neck into September battling Jose Altuve for the batting title.
Astros second baseman Jose Altuve:
“I remember we played each other late in the year and he was like, ‘Go get it, you deserve it.’ And I said the same thing to him, ‘Good luck.’ I think that’s really good. I ended up winning the batting title (hitting .341) and he called me up a couple of days later just to congratulate me.
“That is a great memory for me. I was in the minor leagues when he was in the prime of his career and I just admired the way he played, especially the way he hits. I wish him the best after the season and in his life. He has had a great career.”
“One thing about Victor, he’s always been really, really good to me. Since I’ve been here, I’ve never even seen him catch a bullpen, but he has that experience as a catcher and he’s always been one of the first guys to come to my defense in situations, like with pitch-calling or whatever. He’s also been one of the first guys to sit down with me and talk to me about, ‘OK, this guy we need to pitch this way.’ He’s been able to utilize his experience to help me.
“Everyone talks about how I came up with Alex (Avila) and Brad (Ausmus). Well, Victor was also a catcher and had that experience. Not only with game-calling, but how to, as a young catcher, deal with a veteran pitcher who is set in his ways. He would tell me, ‘Look, it’s OK to stand up to that guy if you need to.’ Or, he would tell me, in this situation you need to back down and let him have his way.
“He’s been very instrumental in complimenting me when I’ve done something good. But he’s also been there to say, ‘Hey, you need to be better in this.'"
How clutch has Martinez been over his career?
His slash-line with runners in scoring position: .295/.389/.435 with an .824 OPS, 53 home runs and 875 RBIs.
His slash-line in high-leverage situations: .295/.389/.435/.824 with 53 home runs and 875 RBIs.
He never played in a World Series, but 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 post-season with the Tigers, in the Oakland and Boston series combined, he hit .404 (17 for 42) with four doubles, a home run and five RBIs.
Tigers infielder Ronny Rodriguez:
“I’ve been watching him on television since when I was a kid in the Dominican. I know people in Cleveland (where Rodriguez spent six minor-league seasons) were always talking about him. Like Minnie Minoso would always tell us stories about Victor Martinez. To come here and be with him in the last year of his career, it’s something very special.
“He said to me, ‘Ronny, just be you. I like your attitude and how you are. You are an impressive guy. You always have been. Everybody can see that. Just keep doing that and working hard.’ That meant a lot to me, for him to say that.”
Paying it forward
When Martinez was in his rookie season in Cleveland, he attached himself to the hip of then-10-year veteran shortstop Omar Vizquel. He watched and copied every detail of Vizquel’s daily routine. Sixteen years later, a young Venezuelan rookie has latched on to him much the same way.
Tigers Rule 5-rookie Victor Reyes (translation by Tigers coach Rafael Martinez):
“This has been an amazing ride for me. In Venezuela, when I was a little kid, I used to watch games on TV and see Victor play. He was one of my favorite players, a switch-hitter like me. And now I am here with Victor in his final year, it is something I will never forget.
“The first time I saw him in the clubhouse in spring training, I was a little afraid, you know? Then we were introduced and he kind of took me under his wing. He’s taught me a lot about being a professional. It’s been an incredible relationship. I look up to him like an older brother. It’s been great for me.
“He helps everybody. He taught me how to watch video, to come early to the park, be prepared, be focused, just be ready for the game and be prepared to take advantage of any situation. Just being able to see him here every day and watch how he prepares every day, it’s been a learning experience.”
Early in the season, the only playing time Reyes was getting was as Martinez’s personal pinch-runner.
“That’s something I will never forget,” he said. “I got to shake hands with Victor Martinez in every game.”
But his fondest memory was Sept. 2 in New York. Reyes had a four-hit day, including his first Major-League home run. And Martinez was the first person to greet him in the dugout.
“I saw Victor on the first step and he gave me a hug,” Reyes said. “I felt like I was his son. He was hugging me with all his heart and that’s something I will never forget.”
Like father, like son
Martinez isn’t the only one leaving the Tigers after this season. His son, Victor Jose, formerly known as Little Victor, has been as much a fixture in the Tigers clubhouse as his father.
Victor Jose is 14 now. And since he was 3, his father has included him in his baseball life. He has pitched to his son in big-league stadiums across America. A few years ago, it would be in the outfield, maybe 100 feet or so from the wall. These days, Victor Jose, also a switch-hitter, can reach the fences in most parks from home plate – though, like his father, not as often in Comerica.
“It’s awesome,” Victor Jose said. “Not every kid in the world gets to do this. I am very fortunate that my dad has been able to get this far in his career and I’ve been able to do this literally my whole life. I’ve never taken this for granted.”
As you might imagine, he has mixed emotions about his father’s retirement.
“It’s going to be different, for sure, super different. I told him, ‘I’ve done this my whole life. I don’t know any other way.’ Next year is going to be really weird. But it’s going to be fun, too, because he’s finally going to get to be home.”
Martinez’s next chapter will be as a cattle farmer. He’s built a huge ranch, Victoria Ranch, in central Florida near Orlando. But, he’s also built a baseball field on the grounds. He will continue to share his knowledge of his game, if only to his son.
“Hitting on the field with him, no doubt, is my most favorite memory,” Victor Jose said. “And then, during games on the road, he will go back between at-bats and I will pick his mind about what he was looking for in that at-bat. That’s something that’s just very cool. I can kind of pick his brain. We talk hitting all the time. I ask him what he was looking for, what he was thinking.
“I’ve been very fortunate.”
Victor Martinez is leaving the game, he said, with no regrets. A kid, raised by a softball-playing mother in Venezuela, who came to the United States, skinny, hungry with nothing but a dream, who couldn’t speak the language, didn’t know even how to order food at McDonald’s, who still managed to earn nearly $150 million playing 16 seasons in the Major Leagues – no regrets whatsoever.
“You know what, I am going to go home happy,” he said.
He had his wife and daughters with him in several cities this season. He walked around Yankee Stadium with them before a game earlier this month. And to share his journey with Victor Jose, well, that’s as good as any retirement gift he’ll ever get.
“This is work for us,” Martinez said. “But at the same time, we lose a lot of things with our kids. When Victor Jose started to walk, I wasn’t in the house. Those are times you are not getting back. I am really thankful and glad I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with him my whole career. And for him to see what it takes to be here, that there is nothing given in this game.
“Just having him around, for me, it’s everything. I never had a chance to spend any time with my dad that I remember. So, that’s everything for me. Whatever I did in my career, it was a plus. But my family, my wife, my kids, if I am here, it’s because of them.”