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Detroit — The trip from his home in Birmingham to the ballpark usually takes less than a half-hour. 

On Saturday, Victor Martinez wouldn't have minded if the road went on forever.

"I felt like I drove three hours to the field today," said Martinez, who played the final game of a distinguished 16-year career. "I didn't want to get to the field. I knew this day was coming. Even though I said I was ready, I didn't want to get to the field.

"That was the hardest part."

Martinez's emotions were still very raw some five hours later, as he tried to share what this day meant to him.

"This was definitely a day I will always remember," he said, after the Tigers beat the Royals, 5-4. "I don't have enough words to thank everybody here in Detroit. Especially the fans. 

"They not only made me a better player, but they made me a better person. I thank them for that."

Martinez, per his wishes, started the game at first base, a position he hadn't played since 2016. And he left the game after one at-bat in the bottom of the first inning.

"It was a fun day for all of us," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "His family being out there was really cool and him going out the way he did — with an infield hit, who'd a thunk it?"

True story. The 2,153rd and final hit of Martinez's career was an infield single into the Royals over-shifted defense, after a seven-pitch tussle.

"I think that was the perfect at-bat to describe my career," he said. "I have to sweat it out. I have to sweat it out the whole way. I have to grind it. That was my whole career."

Let's back up and start with the lineup card.

Martinez was hitting fourth — his customary spot for most of his seven seasons with the Tigers. No surprise there. But there was the No. 3 next to his name, not DH. That was different.

“He said, ‘Skip, I’d like to play first base to start the game,’” Gardenhire said. “I told him, ‘It’s your day. You want to play over there, you got it.’”

Was it ever his day. He had announced on Friday that this would be the day he’d take the final at-bat and the Tigers threw him quite a tribute before the game. That he made it through the first hug, let alone the entire ceremony, was impressive.

After a video tribute — the final highlight was his bunt single against the Cubs (foreshadowing his last hit) — Martinez walked out of the Tigers dugout and went immediately toward his family, where his daughter was overcome with emotion. He bent down and held his daughter in a long embrace, both were shaking.

The tone was set.

Martinez hugged Al Avila, Gardenhire and each of his teammates — including Miguel Cabrera, who flew from Miami to attend. Then catcher James McCann, Shane Greene, Nick Castellanos and Alex Wilson presented him with some very impressive and fitting going-away gifts.

He got a framed display of all his Topps baseball cards, from all 16 seasons. And, knowing that he was retiring to his cattle ranch in central Florida, he got a custom-made pair of cowboy boots and a saddle, with the Old English D embroidered on it.

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From the Tigers front office, he was also presented with a framed No. 41 jersey, a Shinola watch and a leather recliner.

Martinez, with tears flowing, tried to compose himself to speak to the crowd. After a few seconds, his teammates surrounded him in an impromptu group hug. Finally, he was able to say thank you.

“From the bottom of my heart, I can only say thank you,” he said. “Thank you for being behind us all these years, supporting my teammates, supporting myself. Thank you very much.”

His final game lasted one inning. He took a throw from shortstop Pete Kozma to record the final out in the top of the first. Then he came to bat with Castellanos on first and two outs in the bottom half of the inning.

It was a very Martinez-like seven-pitch battle, with a very un-Martinez-like result. He rolled one to the right side of the over-shifted infield and beat out an infield single. He was replaced by Ronny Rodriguez.

"What went through my mind?" Martinez said, getting a wry smile on his face. "Is Gardy crazy? I just beat an infield single and he's pinch-running for me (laughing)? No, that was the way I wanted it. 

"I beat the shift. I got the second baseman playing 300 feet in right field."

Martinez tipped his cap to the Royals dugout, pointing at his heart, also to the Comerica Park crowd. Two of the Royals players, Venezuelans Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar, came out of their dugout to embrace Martinez.

“He was the guy I followed when I was young,” Perez told the News earlier this month. “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.

“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.”

The Royals gesture touched Martinez.

"I very much respect and appreciate that from the Kansas City Royals," he said. "I never would have thought they would react like that. Much respect. I tipped my hat to them. I played 16 seasons in the big leagues and 15 of them in the Central Division.

"I have faced them my whole career. So I thank them very much."

Before Martinez left the field for the final time, the five-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger winner turned and gave a bow.

Classy.

Martinez's relationship with the fans in Detroit has been stormy over the years. He and Cabrera criticized them for being overly negative during the team's run of four straight division titles. And he was vilified for trying to play peacemaker with Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez during the on-field brawl with the Yankees last season

"You have to be man enough to admit when you are struggling," he said. "A regular family comes to the ballpark and they are going to spend a lot of money. So they have the right to let you know that you suck.

"But you know what, I can't stand myself when I suck. So whatever anybody else says, it won't hurt me because I know I suck. That's the bottom line. I work my butt off so I don't suck. I want the fans to know, they not only made me a better player, they made me a better person."

The Tigers presented Martinez with the game ball and another gift, this one from the coaching staff, after the game. From the smell of things, they also gave him a beer shower. 

“The best part for me has been watching Victor Martinez,” Gardenhire said. “That’s been the coolest part of this year for me, being a part of watching him end his career and seeing how professional he is and how much he’s meant to this clubhouse.

“It’s been a pleasure, I can tell you that.”

Besides the 2,153 hits, Martinez finishes his career with 423 doubles, 246 home runs and 1,178 RBIs. He has hit the 16th most home runs among switch-hitters in Major League Baseball history and ranks 15th in RBIs. His hit total is 23rd.

No Tigers switch-hitter drove in more runs than Martinez.

He will finish ranked fifth in RBI, fourth in batting average and sixth in home runs among all Venezuelan-born players.

“If you didn’t pick his brain, then you weren’t trying to get better,” Gardenhire said. “And it’s not just about playing baseball, but about the whole life of baseball. How to take care of yourself on and off the field.

“He’s willing to talk, you just have to go up and ask him about it. We are going to miss him.”

Martinez is putting his bat and cleats on the shelf, but he will still travel with the Tigers to Minnesota and Milwaukee.

"He said he wanted to sit back and watch the kids play," Gardenhire said. "That's Victor. I get to have another manager on the bench."

Martinez addressed the team after the game. 

"If you could have been in that clubhouse and seen him in there," Gardenhire said. "All the players were looking at him and you could see how much they respected him. That tells you all you need to know about this guy.

"He spoke to the guys and it was heartfelt. I was looking at the players' eyes. They were pretty fired up. That was pretty cool. You see things like this in the game and it really tells you how much baseball really means to people. This is a big moment."

cmccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

 

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