Family reunion for Martinez in Cleveland
CLEVELAND -- He was 20 years old and in the United States for the first time, plunked down in northeast Ohio to play for the short-season Class A Mahoning Valley Scrappers, whose ballpark was located behind a shopping mall.
Victor Martinez had never lived outside his native Venezuela and didn't speak English. So he had no idea who Patti Bixler was or what she was saying when she approached four Scrappers after one of their first games, found out that they were walking the two miles back and forth from the ballpark to where they were staying and decided that wouldn't do.
"Go home and get the van," Patti said to her husband, Bob. "We're taking these four boys home with us."
Bob's reaction? "You're not taking four boys home with us," he said.
"Oh, yes, we are," Patti said. "Two of them will stay with us, and we'll find homes for the other two."
Patti turned to Dennis Malave, a 19-year-old pitcher from Venezuela who spoke some English. "You'll stay with us," she said. "Who do you want to stay with you?"
Malave chose his friend. Martinez did not know it at the time, that summer of 1999, but he was about to become part of the family. And so it was no accident that Bob and Patti Bixler and their adult son, Ryan, were in the family room in Progressive Field on Monday night, waiting for Martinez to emerge from the visitors clubhouse after the Sox-Indians game.
This was Martinez's first trip back to Cleveland since the trade last summer that had left them all in tears. Now, they were taking him home again, back to their home in Howland, Ohio, about 60 miles southeast of Cleveland, where it all began.
"They're like my mom and dad," Martinez said as he walked down the corridor to where the Bixlers were waiting with his wife, Margaret, 5-year-old son Victor Jose and 3-year-old daughter Maria Victoria.
The first summer
That first summer, Malave did not stay with the Bixlers for long. The Indians promoted him, which came as news to Patti. Exchange students had stayed with them before, but this baseball business was new to her. She didn't know how the minor leagues worked and that this was just one of the first steps in the journey.
So with Malave gone, that left Martinez. "I didn't talk to him," she said. "I couldn't. He didn't speak English. Nobody spoke Spanish. Then I said, 'This is ridiculous.' I said, 'Come on,' and I started teaching him English every day."
Soon, much of the Bixler house had yellow Post-it notes stuck everywhere. "Mirror." "Table." "Sofa." "Window."
Each morning, Martinez would come down and sit at the kitchen table.
"McDonald's, Mom," he would say.
"I'd make him an English muffin, ham and cheese and egg," Patti Bixler said. "I'd make three every morning. In fact, I just made it for him yesterday."
Martinez played only one season for the Scrappers. Bob Bixler, a commercial loan officer for Chase Bank, always had been a baseball fan. "You could tell that Victor was not only one of the better players on the team, but in the league," he said. "That didn't necessarily mean he was going all the way to the majors, but he had a good foundation, a good start. Where it went from there, who knew, but he kept going."
By the end of that first summer, Martinez's English had improved dramatically. The next season, he was in Kinston, N.C., where he hurt his shoulder, spent two months on the disabled list and then spent the rest of the summer in Columbus, Ga. The Bixlers went to see him play in both places. They returned the next summer to Kinston, where this time he won the Carolina League batting title, and they celebrated when he returned to Ohio to play for the Indians' Double-A team in Akron.
And then came his major league debut.
"Sept. 10, 2002," Bob said Monday night.
It was a night that none of them would soon forget, for very different reasons.
Night to remember
Ryan Bixler was 16 at the time and in the hospital, which was nothing new for him. He had cysts on his brain and had had so many operations that it was hard to keep track. "I think this was my 12th or maybe my 13th operation," he said. "I've had 16 in all."
That day, Martinez was called up to the big leagues. Coincidentally, it was the same day that a Triple-A outfielder named Coco Crisp, who also would play for the Red Sox one day, was called up. The Indians were to face the Blue Jays that night, and Martinez would start behind the plate.
Bob and Patti were at University Hospitals with Ryan, whose surgery was scheduled for the next morning. The doctors and nurses all urged them to go to the game. So did Ryan. They would be back with plenty of time, he told them.
Just one thing, Ryan told them before they left: Do you think you could ask Victor whether he might swing by the hospital after the game?
"I'm like, 'Oh, Ryan, honey, this is his first major league game. He's not coming here," Patti said.
That night, Martinez hit a two-run single, knocking out the Jays' starting pitcher, before making the final out of the game. Bob and Patti Bixler sought him out afterward.
"Something made me tell him jokingly," Patti said, "I said, 'Victor, if you would, Ryan would love for you to come to the hospital.'
"He said, 'Mom, let's go.' I said, 'Are you kidding me?"'
All of them -- Bob and Patti, Victor and Margaret -- piled into Bob's car. Victor made sure he brought along the ball he'd kept as a memento of his first big league hit and the lineup card that he'd been given by interim manager Joel Skinner.
"As soon as he got to the hospital, he sat on the bed with Ryan, and for a couple of hours they played video games," Patti said. "That's what he did for the night of his debut."
The day after Martinez was traded this past summer, Ryan called him. That night, the Red Sox were scheduled to play the Orioles in Baltimore. "If you want to leave us tickets to the game so you will have a familiar face there, we'll come," he said.
Ryan and three of his buddies hopped in a car and drove to Baltimore, six hours away. You do those things for family.
"If someone asks me what type of person Victor is, it's about family," Ryan said. "And he considers us part of his family."
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
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