Martinez’s Brief Farewell Tour Fittingly Stopped First in Cleveland
Bob Toth | On 17, Sep 2018
Prior to Saturday’s game, longtime Cleveland slugger Victor Martinez announced his plan to retire at season’s end, bringing a close to a professional career that began in 1996 with the Indians organization and that has lasted 16 years at the Major League level.
Martinez’s announcement ended a month of speculation in the Motor City after the 39-year-old, relegated solely to designated hitting duties over the last two years and for the majority of the last four, had previously indicated in August that he was ‘pretty sure’ that this season would be his last. He erased those doubts prior to Saturday’s game, when the Indians honored one of the better switch-hitters in franchise history in a brief ceremony.
Martinez stood near home plate with Indians manager (and his former manager with the Boston Red Sox) Terry Francona and Cleveland team president Chris Antonetti and watched a tribute video on the left field scoreboard narrated by Indians’ Senior Vice President of Public Affairs, Bob DiBiasio, appearing touched by the gesture. Following the video, he was presented by Antonetti with a replica of home plate with some of the highlights of his Indians tenure written across it. A hand shake between the two turned instead into an lengthy and emotional embrace by Martinez, who shared a similar gesture with his former skipper Francona afterwards.
Martinez made just one plate appearance in Saturday’s game, grounding out to third before being lifted for pinch-hitter Jarrod Saltalamacchia in Cleveland’s 15-0 blowout win over Detroit. He did not play in Sunday’s series finale.
The professional baseball career of Martinez started on July 15, 1996, when Indians scout (and former Tribe pitcher) Luis Aponte signed the 17-year-old out of Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela, to a pro contract. He was a shortstop at the time, but Aponte thought that third base, first base, or catching was in his future.
“I had a tough time in my first game catching,” shared Martinez in a May 2, 2002, story in The Plain Dealer. “The pitcher threw the ball in the dirt and I got out of the way. Minnie Mendoza [former Indians scout and minor league coach] told me, ‘You got to block it.’”
He saw his first official minor league action in 1999 with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, where he also honed his English speaking skills while living with Bob and Patty Bixler of Mahoning Valley.
“They didn’t speak Spanish and I didn’t speak English when I went there,” said Martinez in the aforementioned story. “The first couple of months we used sign language.”
A strong season in 2001 at High-A Kinston, which included a cycle, earned him the team’s Minor League Player of the Year Award. The parent club further rewarded him by adding him to the 40-man roster. After a dominant performance at Double-A Akron in 2002 and an appearance for the World Team in the Futures All-Star game at Milwaukee’s Miller Park, Martinez leapfrogged Triple-A and got the call to the Majors on September 9 after Major League rosters had expanded.
“Victor is a special player, a special person,” Indians assistant general manager Neil Huntington was quoted in a September 10, 2002, story in The Plain Dealer. “His makeup and work ethic have allowed him to keep improving in all areas. You hate to put labels or expectations on anybody, but it wouldn’t surprise me to someday see him in an All-Star Game, or better.”
Martinez, who was named the Eastern League’s Most Valuable Player (his second straight league MVP award) and won the league’s batting title, debuted on September 10 in the number 63 and got a hit and two RBI in four at bats. He appeared in 12 games before the season ended for the Indians, hitting .281 with a double, a homer, and five RBI.
The emergence of Martinez and fellow switch-hitting backstop Josh Bard allowed the team to deal Einar Diaz to the Texas Rangers as part of the Travis Hafner deal in the offseason. Martinez started the 2003 season at Triple-A Buffalo, primarily to work on controlling the running game, and got called back up to Cleveland at the end of June, wearing his new number 20. He hit four doubles and a homer while driving in 16 in 49 games of work, missing more than three weeks in August with a bone bruise after twisting his right ankle.
Martinez broke camp with the club (now wearing his much more familiar 41) and became the breakout player that many in the organization had been hoping for in 2004, when he emerged as one of the top offensive catching threats in the game. He was selected to his first American League All-Star team after hitting .290 in the first half with 25 doubles, 12 homers, and 63 RBI. He hit .283 over 141 games in total on the year with 38 doubles, 23 homers, and 108 RBI while working out of the cleanup spot extensively and was selected after the season as the Silver Slugger Award winner (the first catcher selected in Tribe history). He led all catchers in homers and RBI that season and his 101 RBI while in the lineup at catcher established a new franchise best (ousting Sandy Alomar’s 83 set in 1997).
At the start of the 2005 season, the Indians restructured his contract, inking him to a five-year deal taking him through the 2009 campaign with a team option for 2010.
“This signing is a significant one for the Indians organization and its fans in that it represents a big commitment from Larry and Paul Dolan and their recognition of a very special player,” general manager and executive vice president Mark Shapiro said in a press release announcing the contract extension. “With a special player like Victor Martinez, whose talent is matched only by his character, it is a priority for us to insure his long term place in the line up, on the team and in the community.”
Martinez scuffled to start the season, hitting just .207 in April and .213 in May to bring a .210 average through the first two months of the campaign. But by season’s end, aided by a .380/.449/.578 second half slash, Martinez ended his year with an impressive .305 average, hitting 33 doubles and 20 homers while driving in 80 runs in 147 games, but the Indians faltered down the stretch and missed out on a playoff spot with an end of September collapse.
He remained a reliable producer in the lineup in 2006, adding in work at first base on his days off behind the plate. He played in what was then a career-high 153 games, hitting 37 doubles and 16 homers while driving in 93 with a then-career-best .316 average and .391 on-base percentage.
Martinez played a big role in the Tribe’s run to the postseason in 2007. He was an All-Star for the second time and finished the season seventh in the AL MVP voting, his third season getting votes in the balloting. He set new career highs with 40 doubles and 114 RBI while adding 25 homers and a .301 average in 147 games. He hit .353 in the first playoff series of his career, helping the Indians defeat the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. Cleveland lost in seven games in the American League Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox that season; Martinez hit .296 with eight hits and four runs scored in the set.
Things started well for Martinez in 2008, as he began the first month of the year hitting .366 with five doubles and ten RBI. But things quickly went south for both Martinez and the Tribe as they were not able to replicate their performance from the previous year. Hafner landed on the disabled list, as did
Fausto Carmona (Roberto Hernandez). Jake Westbrook needed Tommy John surgery and in June, both Martinez and Josh Barfield hit the 15-day shelf with injuries of their own. Martinez, who had strained his left hamstring on Opening Day, underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow. By the end of June, the team sank to last place in the American League Central, and a week later, star pitcher and free agent to be CC Sabathia was shipped to Milwaukee. Former closer Joe Borowski, who dealt with injuries, was released, and Casey Blake was traded to Los Angeles for Dodgers prospect Carlos Santana.
Martinez was limited to just 73 games, hitting .278 with two homers and 35 RBI on the year.
The mini-rebuild did not work for Cleveland, as the next season proved to be even worse. The team spent much of the first four months of the campaign in last place before sliding into fourth at season’s end. An eleven-game losing streak in September (when the club lost 15 of 16) capped off a 7-21 month. Martinez was healthy again and headed to his third All-Star team (the team’s only representative), hitting .284 through his first 99 games. But heartbreak was coming for the eighth-year backstop and first baseman, as on July 31, the Indians dealt him to the Red Sox for pitchers Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone, and Bryan Price, just days after reigning Cy Young winner Cliff Lee was traded to Philadelphia on the heels of other deals that sent
Mark DeRosa, Rafael Betancourt, and Ryan Garko packing for prospects.
“This is the toughest day of my career,” Martinez shared with reporters in quotes in the August 1, 2009, edition of The Plain Dealer. “This is my house, and I feel like I’m leaving my house.
“This organization brought me to the big leagues. It made me a better person and player. I always wanted to wear one uniform in my career…but tomorrow is another day, and we’ve got to move on.”
Martinez hid behind sunglasses to hide his eyes, weary from tears, while dressed in a black hat and Ed Hardy shirt.
“It’s a challenging personal moment for me, Chris Antonetti and our organization,” said Indians GM Shapiro to the media following the trade in quotes in the August 1, 2009, The Plain Dealer. “I was there the first week we signed Victor in Venezuela. I know he will be a friend well beyond his playing days and my GM days.”
The trades of Lee and Martinez saved $16 million on the books for the next year in club options. The thought was that the banged up Tribe could potentially contend the next season had the two been retained, but that those chances were not great and that Shapiro’s recommendation to ownership was to move pieces now to have a longer window of opportunity down the road.
“I’m not asking for patience,” continued Shapiro. “I feel similar frustration as to where we are. I take responsibility for that. We’re trying to do everything we can to get back to a championship ballclub. I don’t ask for applause now…I just want to be right at the end.”
Masterson, who was acquired in the Martinez deal, became a key cog in the rotation for years. The same could be said for Carlos Carrasco, the only piece of the Lee trade that panned out, as well as Michael Brantley, the biggest contributor from the Sabathia deal the season before.
Martinez took well to his new home in Boston with his new manager Francona, putting up a .336/.405/.507 line in 56 games with the Red Sox with 12 doubles, eight homers, and 41 RBI. He made his return to the playoffs that season with the club that had knocked him out just two years before, hitting .182 with a pair of RBI as the Sox were swept in the first round by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
The Red Sox picked up his easy option for 2010 and were rewarded with another All-Star season from the switch-hitting slugger, who hit .302 with 32 doubles, 20 homers, and 79 RBI before hitting the open market for the first time in his career. He signed with the Detroit Tigers in the offseason on a four-year, $50 million deal, giving the Indians’ division rival a dangerous lineup mate with Miguel Cabrera.
Martinez helped lead the Tigers to the playoffs in his first season at Comerica Park, using the spacious confines to match a career-high with 40 doubles. He hit just 12 homers on the year, but more than made up for it with a .330 batting average and 103 runs batted in as Detroit went to the ALCS. He missed all of 2012 with a torn left ACL suffered during offseason conditioning (missing the Tigers’ World Series appearance that season), but bounced back to form in 2013, appearing in 159 games and hitting .301 with 36 doubles, 14 homers, and 83 RBI while the Tigers reached the ALCS again.
He was an All-Star for the final time in 2014 in a career year at the age of 35. He played in 151 games, slashing .335/.409/.565 with 33 doubles, a career-best 32 homers, and 103 RBI. He was the league’s leader in on-base percentage and led all of baseball in OPS (.974) and intentional walks (28). He finished second that year in the AL MVP voting and was a Silver Slugger recipient for the second time in his career and first time in more than ten years.
Heart scares slowed him a bit in 2015, leading to an offseason cardiac ablation procedure to address an irregular heartbeat (a procedure that his former skipper Francona also had done earlier that year), but Martinez was back to posing a big threat in the middle of the Tigers lineup in 2016, when he hit 22 doubles and 27 homers with 86 RBI and a .289 average.
The wear and tear on his body may have finally caught up to him over the last two seasons as his playing career winded towards its end. He was limited to DH duty only last season while playing in 107 games and accumulating his fewest number of hits (100) since his injury-shortened 2008 season in Cleveland. Through 128 games this season, Martinez is hitting just four-thousandths of a point above his previous career low, posting a .249/.296/.351 line with 19 doubles, nine homers, and 53 RBI.
In 16 MLB seasons, he owns a .295/.360/.455 slash with 421 doubles, three triples, 246 homers, and 1,177 RBI with 2,148 total hits. He remains the Indians’ all-time leader in a handful of offensive statistics by a catcher, including homers (103), RBI (518), batting average (.297), on-base percentage (.369), slugging (.463), and OPS (.832).
Martinez’s mark on Cleveland is likely not done, as he would seem to be a prime candidate for induction in the Indians’ Hall of Fame home at Heritage Park somewhere down the road for the work that he did with the club during the first decade of the 21st century. Here’s hoping that Martinez wraps his career with an honorary one-day contract with the Indians after the season, to bring his career full circle back home to Cleveland while allowing him to once again wear the jersey of the team that he loved so dearly one last time before hanging up the cleats for good.
Congratulations, Victor, on an incredible career.
Photo: David Maxwell/Getty Images