Commentary

Martinez quick to catch on with Red Sox

Acquired nearly two weeks ago from the Indians, V-Mart now taking charge in Boston

Originally Published: August 14, 2009
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

Playing first base at Camden Yards nearly two weeks ago, sharing the field with strangers and wearing the same colors but with a different team name on his chest, Victor Martinez envisioned a goal, in what was the first game of his Boston career.

Down the line, he saw Jason Varitek -- the gold standard of catching preparation and fundamentals -- effortlessly blocking balls in the dirt. It wasn't just the way Varitek stopped them; it was the control he had over them. Once the game ended, Martinez -- his first time outside of the Indians' organization since he was 17 years old -- turned to Red Sox bullpen coach Gary Tuck.

[+] EnlargeVictor Martinez
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesVictor Martinez is batting .280 with four extra-base hits in 11 games since being acquired by the Red Sox on July 31.

"That's what I want to be," Martinez said to Tuck.

It wasn't about being the starting catcher or taking Varitek's job; it was about bettering himself, even on a difficult day when everything was foreign. On July 31, Martinez was traded to Boston from Cleveland, where he spent 13 years -- almost half of his life. He was the Indians' team leader, catcher, first baseman, designated hitter and much more.

"He was the heart and soul of that team," Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia said.

Sabathia and Martinez entered the Indians' organization together, grew up together, and then, just a year apart, were traded. Now, they are rivals in the American League East. But when Sabathia left Cleveland for the Milwaukee Brewers last year, he went through what Martinez is now experiencing.

"I'm sure he's happy from going from last place to [contending for the AL East]," Sabathia said. "But you definitely have a lot of mixed emotions. I know I was happy to go to a team that had a chance to win, but I was still sad to leave those guys behind -- you know -- him, Grady [Sizemore], those guys I grew up with."

For those who know Martinez, it was no surprise how emotional he was when he got traded, even though he had been one of the top names rumored to move at the deadline. When reporters asked him about the trade, Martinez's voice cracked, saying how much he appreciated Cleveland.

After meeting with the media, he slowly started to pack his things. He couldn't believe he had to leave; it was the only big league clubhouse he had known. Martinez said Indians general manager Mark Shapiro told him around 3 p.m. ET that he had been traded; when the Indians' game started that night, Martinez was still there, lingering, finally leaving around 7:30. It was hard for him to say goodbye, grasping reality that the next morning he would be on a plane to Baltimore, as a member of the Red Sox.

"I appreciate everything [the Indians] did for me," Martinez said. "That organization, for me, was something special. They made me a better son, a better father, a better person."

The Indians also helped make him a better all-around player. One of Martinez's gifts is that he can play both first base and catcher. A three-time All-Star, Martinez has caught five times since coming to Boston, including three Clay Buchholz starts. Since being called up, Buchholz had struggled in his first three starts (Varitek was behind the plate for two of the starts and George Kottaras for one). But in his past two starts with Martinez behind the plate, Buchholz has a 2.08 ERA, despite going 0-2.

"He's been awesome so far for me," Buchholz said of Martinez in New York last weekend. "Little things go wrong and he'll come out and talk to you and he'll try and settle you down. As a young guy -- I'm not really near the veteran stage of my career -- that's a good thing for a guy to come out, tell me to settle down, make a pitch.

"It's nice for a catcher to be in the game as much as you are."

Buchholz said when Martinez puts down a sign, he does so with conviction. He'll pump his fist, giving Buchholz the confidence that he can throw it. Sabathia echoed Buchholz's words. He said there were times, in the middle of an at-bat, when he shook off a sign. Martinez would refuse to throw down another sign.

"He'd make me throw this pitch," Sabathia said. "He'd make me believe in it."

Martinez has a knack for that. Already his Boston teammates notice how positive he is: Coming into the dugout, he tries to get his teammates excited, encouraging them.

John Farrell [Victor's] got a tremendous energy about him and an approach to the game that's infectious. As much as he's injected life into us, I think [the trade] injected some life into him -- coming to a team that's fighting for a division title and spot in the playoffs.

-- Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell

Sabathia said that how Martinez's emotions went, the Indians went. One game a few years ago, Martinez got hit, and was so upset when he came back to the dugout he threw his helmet. He told his teammates they could win the game. Down three or four runs at the time, the Indians rallied back.

"We were probably going to lose that game up until that point," Sabathia said. "Then he came in and was fired up, and I know we wound up winning that game. … Every time we'd be down or be losing or having a tough game, he'd always be the one who came in and said, 'Come on, guys, we can do this.'"

When Martinez was traded, there was the tricky situation of cohabiting with Varitek. The move was widely characterized as Martinez's being the club's possible catcher of the future (he has a team option for the 2010 season; Varitek has both a team and player option for 2010). It could have been a bit awkward, but both men have been professional about it. Players say it took about a day in the clubhouse for Martinez -- who's hitting .280 with two home runs, eight RBIs and a .773 OPS in 11 games -- to feel comfortable being himself.

"I'm happy now," Martinez said. "It was tough to leave but I'm happy that I'm here; these guys are making it a lot easier for me. They've been treating me first-class."

When Boston pitching coach John Farrell was running the Indians' farm system, he oversaw Martinez and knew how special he was. When told his current team was acquiring the 30-year-old catcher, Farrell had no doubt that Martinez would fit in. And Farrell has watched how active Martinez has been in pitchers' meetings, asking important questions, eager to learn from Varitek.

"He's got a tremendous energy about him and an approach to the game that's infectious," Farrell said. "As much as he's injected life into us, I think [the trade] injected some life into him -- coming to a team that's fighting for a division title and spot in the playoffs."

It was just two years ago that the Red Sox sent home Martinez's Indians in a brutal Game 7 loss at Boston in the American League Championship Series. Cleveland led the series 3-1 before losing the final three games. The players were crushed. On the plane home, Martinez and Sabathia -- teammates since low-A ball -- sat next to each other. They were emotional, teary-eyed, as they reminisced about their time together.

Martinez, always emotionally attuned to the moment, confessed to Sabathia his thoughts about the future.

"That might be the last time we're all together, in this position," he said to his friend.

Less than a year later, Sabathia was traded, and not very long after that, Martinez followed him out of Cleveland.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. You can reach her at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com or at twitter.com/amyknelson.