Too Soon, the Victor Martinez Era Ends

In case anyone is having trouble understanding the deep sobbing of Indians fans over the departure of Victor Martinez, here are a few of the things that Martinez represented and embodied in his time here:  Hope and faith.  Great hitting, situational and otherwise.  A new beginning.  A slugging, switch-hitting catcher, the kind of player you build a team around.  Leadership in the clubhouse and on the field.  The possibility of a small-market club getting over on big-market clubs.  Genuine devotion to his team.

Victor Martinez was the total package; he was family.  An era in Cleveland Indians history ended this week, and though it featured a half-dozen major stars, this era belonged to Victor Martinez.  He authored the greatest season ever by an Indians catcher in 2007.  In fact, he owns three of the five best seasons by an Indians catcher, and this year, he was on his way to notching a fifth entry in the top 10.  He is the greatest catcher in franchise history — this cannot be disputed with any seriousness, and in fact, with all due respect to Alomar and O'Neill and everyone in between, there isn't even a close second.

It is a cruel world in which the Indians do everything right with a player, and the player does everything right for the Indians, yet he's still out the door after just six short years in the majors.  Until the past week, few dared to see this move coming.  This love affair — among team, player, city and fans — was going to end someday, but we assumed we had another year and a half at the very least.  In our hearts, if not in our brains, we all wanted it to last much longer.

It is, simply, too soon.

In June 1996, the Indians drafted Paul Rigdon, Sean DePaula, John McDonald, Mike Bacsik, and David Riske, among many others. In July 1996, they signed 16-year-old switch-hitting shortstop Victor Martinez out of Cuidad Bolivar, Venezuela.  It was a sign of the times; Latin American signings loomed large over draft picks in this era across baseball, and especialy for the Indians.  In an alternate universe, Martinez became the slowest-running shortstop in big-league history.  One suspects the Indians never worried about whether Martinez would hit enough to be a middle infielder, but rather, they saw a player whose unique physical gifts and raw intelligence could make him an outstanding catcher.  Martinez had that knack for getting good wood, certainly, but he was also a fascinating athletic specimen who not only could switch-hit but also switch-throw, as he often shagged balls in the outfield and threw them back in left-handed.

Martinez looked like a good prospect when he debuted with the short-season Scrappers in 1999, but he really opened eyes in 2001, when he emerged as the Carolina League's best player at age 22, posting an 882 OPS, and he was also voted the league's best defensive catcher by opposing coaches and managers.  He followed that up with a jaw-dropping season for the Aeros in 2002, during which he lead the Eastern League in OPS by over 100 points.

There is a generation of Indians fans who more or less discovered the minor leagues in 2002.  Information about baseball (and especially about sabermetrics) exploded on the Internet through the late '90s, as the Indians dominated their division and made multiple postseason appearances.  As the decade drew to a close, the Indians farm system was so bad that it was becoming a punchline within the industry, but we knew nothing about that.  As John Hart planned his timely exit, the Dolan family okayed one last glorious charge for the Jacobs Era Indians, deficit spending to one more division title in 2001.  After one more first-round exit for the Vizquel-Thome cohort, changes would have to be made, as the old talent got older while the young talent simply wasn't there.

By the time the Indians traded Robbie Alomar to the Mets in December 2001, Baseball America had started to provide significant content online, including their constantly cited rankings — rankings by organization, rankings by position, rankings by league — you name it, they had a ranking for it — which gave us some kind of concrete sense of how valuable guys like Alex Escobar and Billy Traber were.  The Baseball Cube had increasingly complete minor league stats for prior seasons.  And while milb.com wasn't yet up and running, most minor league clubs had their own websites, where fans around the world could go to check the box scores and track the progress of special prospects, the guys we hoped would be our future stars.

So when the Indians made The Trade on June 29, 2002, we all scurried to BaseballAmerica.com to find out how Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lee measured up (and oh, yeah, might have glanced at that other guy, too, but only for a second), and in the weeks that followed, we got in the habit of looking at those Bisons and Aeros box scores every day.  The season was in shambles, but unlike the fans of a decade earlier, we were conditioned to believe that another great era could be just around the corner.  So every morning we just had to know, how are our future Belle-Baerga-Loftons doing today?

Much to our surprise, the most impressive player we found in those box scores was not a new acquisition, but rather a shockingly impressive prospect named Victor Martinez.  This switch-hitting catcher was — by far — the best hitter in his league.  Not super-young, but young enough.  A slugging catcher, and rated as a good-to-great defender to boot, Victor Martinez was too good to be true.  It turned out that the farm system hadn't been completely devoid of talent.  We had at least one home-grown gem, one guy worth believing in.  More than any other one player — and notably more than Escobar, Phillips or Lee — Martinez put up the numbers in 2002 that told us that another Era of Champions was not only possible, but worth getting excited about.

I mean, it was a 993 OPS!  By a catcher!  Are you kidding me?  Obviously we were going to have another Great Team, because what better way to start building a Great Team than by grooming a slugging catcher?

One thing you can say about Victor's career in the majors — and perhaps the key to why he is so beloved — is that he never once disappointed in his six years with the club.  Oh, sure, he spent some time on the DL, including the bulk of 2008, and he had his deep slumps, but those never lasted more than a month or so.  In his first full season, he overcame a slow start in the first 10 games to post a 1015 OPS over the next 60, earning his first All-Star appearance in the process.  He shattered the club record for RBI by a catcher with 101, and perhaps most surprising, he settled in as the club's cleanup hitter.  More than that, he emerged incredibly quickly as the glue that made a group of players feel like a winning team.  He played with passion, joy and persistence, always smiling or shouting, and he famously had a different handshake for every single player in the clubhouse.  By the middle of that first full season, he was as close to a team captain as the Indians would have this decade.

He was rewarded the following April with a five-year guaranteed deal, locking in his services through the 2010 season — and clearly, we all felt, this was more than enough time for us to reap the rewards of his superstardom.  Before Grady Sizemore had even won a starting job with the Indians, Martinez was already locked in — on the field and off, in the box scores and under contract — as the cornerstone of the new-look Indians.  That year, Martinez went on to be the key player in an improbable 67-34 surge that took the team to the brink of the postseason, posting an OPS of 900 in June, 916 in July, 1058 in August, 925 in September — and yes, a 902 OPS in that final, horrendous week.

In 2007, Martinez again took center stage as the MVP of one of the best teams in the majors.  Best player, you ask skeptically, on a team with two legit Cy Young candidates?  Yes, Victor was that squad's MVP — in part because he called 63 of the 67 games those two Cy contenders started, in part because he started a staggering 142 games at catcher that season, in part because he handled a shakey relief corps and helped them get the job done far more often than they should have been able to, and last but not least, because he was simply the best hitter on that team.  (Go ahead, look it up.)

Fans of all generations remember that 2007 squad as their favorite Indians team ever.  The season ended in disappointment, as 61 out of the last 61 have, but that team delivered dozens of great moments, and through it all, we had the persistent sense that this wasn't just a great group of ballplayers, but a group of great guys as well.  We've heard from Shapiro so often — admittedly, too often — that the Indians aspired not just to win a championship, but to win with a certain kind of player, with a certain kind of person.  Victor was everything Shapiro ever wanted a Cleveland Indian to be — not only a stellar performer but also a great teammate, devoted to his family at home and his family at the ballpark.  The pain in both men's voices spoke volumes this week.  Not only is this not what the fans wanted, it isn't what either one of them wanted.  What they wanted was a championship not just for the Indians, and not just for Victor Martinez, but for the Victor Martinez Indians.  Our favorites.

They came close.  That era is done now.  It ended quickly and harshly this week, the moment Cliff Lee was traded, the moment the Indians started focusing on a season beyond Victor's contract, which almost certainly, prudently, meant a season beyond when Victor could be a star player on a small-market club competing for a championship.  He was our best and greatest hope in 2002, the leader of our revival in 2004 and 2005, and the best player on our favorite team in 2007.  It ended far too soon.

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