PAUL CONNORS / AP Enlarge
GOODYEAR, Ariz. - Victor Martinez is Cleveland's starting catcher, part-time first baseman, best all-around hitter, most happy-go-lucky player, and so much more.
"He's the heart and soul of us," reliever Jensen Lewis said.
And last season, the Indians were lost without him.
After playing most of the first two months in pain, Martinez underwent surgery on his right elbow in June and appeared in just 73 games, his fewest since his rookie season in 2003. For the two-time all-star, the time away from the ballpark and his teammates cut deeper than any operation imaginable.
"It was really bad," Martinez said. "It was so tough, I wasn't even watching the games on TV. It was so hard watching my teammates in the dugout, watching them bust their butts every day, you want to be a part of it. It was something that was taken from my hands."
Martinez is fully recovered, and with him back behind the plate and in the lineup, the Indians are feeling much better about their chances in 2009.
Martinez's prolonged loss - he was out from June 11 to Aug. 29 - coupled with designated hitter Travis Hafner missing several months with a shoulder injury, contributed to the Indians' dramatic drop-off last season. Cleveland, which had come within one win of a World Series trip in 2007, slid to third in the AL Central and finished 81-81.
But the outlook for 2009 is as bright as Martinez's smile.
It would be difficult to find a major leaguer who enjoys his job as much as Martinez. Whether he's heading to the batting cage, strapping on his shinguards to catch Cy Young winner Cliff Lee in the bullpen, or joking around with teammates, the 30-year-old does it with unbridled joy.
New Indians closer Kerry Wood has been around Martinez for a few weeks, but he's already been infected by the catcher's enthusiasm.
"He's got that feeling we all had as kids," Wood said. "He hates the rainouts and can't wait to get on the field to play. It's refreshing."
The Indians don't have an official captain. If they did, Martinez would be enlisted first.
"He's a very emotional person and a very emotional player," manager Eric Wedge said. "He's very passionate. He feels our winning and losing, as much, if not more than anybody in our clubhouse."
Martinez, who posted career highs in homers (25) and RBIs (114) in 2007, started strong last season. Despite partially tearing his hamstring on opening day, he batted .350 with nine RBIs in April. But his numbers began to dip as his elbow worsened, and he batted just .221 in May.
After a frustrating at-bat in Chicago on May 22, Martinez vented his frustration by kicking a bucket in the Indians' dugout, only to get his foot stuck - a lighthearted and symbolic moment in a forgettable season.
Martinez was hurting badly, but the kid who grew up playing baseball long into the Venezuelan nights, kept playing. On June 11, he surrendered to the pain. He was pulled from a game in Minnesota, and two days later he had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, a procedure that would keep him out of the lineup until late August.
For Martinez, who caught at least 140 games every season from 2004-07, there was some satisfaction in pushing as long and as hard as he did.
"I gave the best I could," he said. "When I went and had the surgery done, I was happy at the same time because I knew I gave everything I got."
Martinez's absence last season gave his backup, Kelly Shoppach, a chance to shine. While Martinez remains Cleveland's primary catcher, he could find himself at first base quite.
Not a problem, he says. Whatever the team needs. Not having baseball reminded Matinez of how fortunate he is to get paid to play a game he can't imagine being without. As he sat in the clubhouse, Martinez, a father of two, felt like a lucky man.
"I just love this game," he says. "You look around, and we're blessed to be here, wearing a big league uniform with nice shoes, nice batting gloves, looking good. What else can you ask? You just need to go out and enjoy it. I never take anything for granted. Nobody knows better than me how hard it was to get myself in this position. So that's why I enjoy every day. When I get up and put that big league uniform on, I'm going to give the best I've got."33.43631 -112.3583