Hitting the changeup

Mother’s pitch aided Martinez’s career

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / August 4, 2009

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Less than one year after his professional baseball career began, Victor Martinez wanted to quit. The Cleveland Indians signed Martinez off the fields in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela, when he was 17, not long after he learned the game playing softball with his brothers in the stadium behind his mother’s backyard.

Martinez watched major league games as a child and dreamed of playing shortstop, the only position he knew, the position so many of his countrymen mastered. Once the Indians signed him, they made him a catcher. Martinez had never even worn a catcher’s mitt - what chance did he have to make the big leagues now?

Martinez considered leaving the Indians complex and heading back to Ciudad Bolivar to start a life without baseball. He didn’t know what to do. He was crying when he called his mother, Margot Coromoto Martinez. She told him words he would never forget.

“Just give it a try,’’ she said. “You never know what’s going to happen. You won’t do anything back home. Just give it a good try, and see what happens.’’

His mother soothed him, and he went back to the complex the next day. He would be a catcher. His mother helped him make the most important decisions of his life. Twelve years later, Martinez is one of the best catchers in the world, an All-Star, switch-hitting slugger whom the Red Sox acquired Friday for pitchers Justin Masterson, Bryan Price, and Nick Hagadone.

Martinez owes even more than his career to his mother. He was 7 and his mother was 33 when his father collapsed suddenly and died from a heart attack. He was 66. She never remarried. She worked at two hospitals as a nurse, one in the mornings and the other in the evenings, sometimes 16 hours in a day.

“All I am right now, it’s because of my mom,’’ Martinez said Sunday. “She was the one. It was a little tough. That makes you appreciate what you got right now.’’

Everything about Martinez can be traced to the home he shared with his mother, his older siblings Carlos and Olga, and his younger brother, David. It shaped the big things about him and the small things about how he plays baseball. During his eight years in Cleveland, Martinez evolved into the franchise’s keystone.

“I can tell you definitively, he’s one of the more special players I’ve come across from a personal standpoint in 18 years in the game,’’ Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. “He’s one of those rare guys that truly took pride in the uniform he was wearing. It was personal for him. Victor just exudes everything that is good about the game and worthy of admiration.’’

Martinez is grateful of his success because David, a lefthanded pitcher, made it to Single A before arm trouble forced him from the sport. “He wasn’t lucky,’’ Martinez said.

Martinez watched his mother and learned the work ethic to mold himself into a major league catcher. He also played outside with his brothers and figured out how to switch-hit.

Almost everyday, Victor, Carlos, and David escaped to the softball field, their mother urging them to come back in time to eat, and play a game born of necessity. One brother pitched, one batted, and one played left field. Any ball hit to right was an out.

The brothers tinkered with different ways to hit the ball to left, “just trying, playing around,’’ Martinez said. That included batting lefthanded, and from the time he was 7, Martinez could hit from both sides of the plate.

His mother supported him as he played ball, and while he watched games on television, he paid closest attention to Ozzie Guillen, then the torchbearer of Venezuelan shortstops. Martinez realized baseball could be his living.

Almost immediately after he reported to a baseball academy in Venezuela, the Indians made him a catcher. “He couldn’t run at all,’’ said Shapiro, who was the Indians farm director at the time. Minnie Mendoza, the Latin America field coordinator for the Indians, told Martinez he would be a catcher. After his initial consternation, Martinez accepted his new job.

“I really took the challenge,’’ Martinez said. “That’s why we’re here. We’re here to work hard.’’

The transition moved slowly. A pitcher threw a ball in the dirt, and instead of blocking it, Martinez leaped out of the way. The pitch hit the umpire. “That won’t be the last one,’’ Mendoza told him.

Martinez had long arms and a large frame, and he struggled to coordinate a catcher’s movements. He kept working at it. He became more assertive with pitchers and learned individual tendencies.

“He’s a guy that we kept challenging, we asked him to do more, and he never gave in to the challenge,’’ Shapiro said. “He never gave into some of the frustrations. He took the leadership side of catching personally.’’

While Martinez focused on his catching, his offense was never an issue. He won two MVP awards and two batting titles in the minor leagues. “No one had to work with him on his hitting,’’ Shapiro said. “We had to just get out of his way.’’

Martinez refined his defense enough to make the majors as a call-up in 2002, by age 22, and his powerful bat made him one of the league’s most valuable catchers. He quickly emerged as a team leader, piquing the clubhouse with his daily focus.

“I just think his passion for the game, his love of it, his sincerity, those things rub off on other players,’’ Shapiro said. “Everything is just genuine with him.’’

Before games, Indians players established “Victor Time,’’ when he would complete intricate handshakes with each starter, a different greeting for each player. He had roughly 15 varying routines, and somehow he remembered them all.

“You know what? I don’t know,’’ Martinez said. “I just remember. I got you, I remember what I do and what I do with the other guys.’’

Martinez took pride in his organization, and he wanted to finish his career with the Indians. When Shapiro told Martinez he had been traded, each cried. “It was one of the more challenging professional moments of my life,’’ Shapiro said.

Martinez shed his disappointment and joined a new team for the first time in his career, the most significant switch since the time his mother told him to give something a try.

“Here I am,’’ Martinez said. “Still trying.’’

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