Indians of the Decade: The Superstars

The is the second entry in a series on the Indians of 2000-2009. The first can be found here


There's not a lot of argument as to who the Cleveland Indians' superstar position players of the last decade were: Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez. The first half of the decade was dominated by the last gasps of the 1990s, the final exhale coming with Jim Thome's explosive and, as near as I can tell, rarely mentioned 2002 season. 52 homeruns and nearly as many empty promises later we met 2003 and a lineup that could charitably be described as hilarious. Buried on that team, though, was Victor Martinez. In June of that year, SI described the young prospect in one of those buried sidebars, called "Coming Soon...", assumedly in Scorecard or Inside the MLB

The top prospect in the well-stocked Indians organization, Martinez, a 24-year-old switch-hitting catcher, was the league batting champ and MVP for Class A Kinston (N.C.) in 2001 and for Double A Akron last year. The 6'2", 185-pound Venezuelan struggled miserably early this season at Triple A Buffalo, hitting .225 in the first 7 weeks, but now that he's learned how to hit off-speed stuff, Martinez is again slicing up opposing pitchers. Last Friday night he hit two home runs, and through Sunday he had seven for the season and had raised his average to .313.

With Cleveland getting little production from starting catcher Josh Bard (.227,16 RBIs through Sunday), Martinez, who hit .281 in a 12-game stint with the Indians last September, will be called up soon. "Victor has been making a lot of progress offensively," says Cleveland manager Eric Wedge. "At some point in time we want to take a look at him. I don't have a specific time frame, but sometime this summer."

Remember that the next time you're itching for a Carlos Santana fix. Do you really believe he's got better bat to ball skills than a 24-year-old El Capitan?

Back in those pre-DSL days, that's all Victor Martinez was to most Indians' fans, even smart ones like yourself. Our hip, young manager Eric Wedge said he was going to be alright and other than that, we'd wait and see. The next season, Vic was named the starter, a title he wouldn't truly surrender until injuries forced him to do so for half of the 2008 season. Four seasons isn't a long time in baseball or in life but it was more than enough time to fall in love with Victor Martinez.

The year that Vic became a full-time starter he was an All-Star, powered into the game by red-hot months of May and June. Months like those, with an OPS over .900, would become staples of Martinez's career in Cleveland. He would often become locked in, hitting everything hard: Martinez spent about 30 months as a full-timer in Cleveland and his monthly OPS topped .900 in eleven of those. Of course, he would also OPS under .700 in seven months. Whether reflective of a reality of his hitting style or just a popular fan perception, Victor always seemed streaky but when he was hot, he scorched. 

In the winter of 2006, Ryan astutely pointed out that Victor's two full-time seasons were already two of the top ten seasons by a catcher in Indians' history. Martinez responded by putting up two more seasons in 2006 and 2007 that would've made that list and then bounced back from an injury-plagued 2008 to perform at a level that would've given him five of the top ten seasons in Indians' catcher history had he not been traded to Boston. Victor Martinez is the best catcher in Indians' history, no argument. 

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Despite his obvious statistical excellence, Victor's impact on the fans of the team went far past the playing field. This doesn't have to be rehashed in depth. Suffice to say that Martinez appeared the clear emotional core of each Indians' team since he arrived.

Fans took to Victor for reasons that made sense: he was very good and he was even better when it mattered. In 2005, the Indians were 15.0 games back on July 22 and Martinez was hitting only .246/.333/.390. The Indians torrid run began the next day and when the dust settled, Victor's line over his final 62 games was .380/.435/.583. His line in the 2007 playoffs was .318/.388/.500, including .353/.421/.588 against the Yankees. How could this guy not be everyone's favorite player? 

The answer, of course, is that when Jason Johnson wandered off the mound for a moment, Victor saw Grady Sizemore standing in the outfield. When you're on a team with Grady Sizemore, there's going to be some competition for the hearts of fans. 

When Sizemore became the first Indian to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated since (I believe) Albert Belle in 1996, he immediately became the national posterboy for the Indians in the oughts. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that; Grady is a supremely talented baseball player, ranked by WARP3 as the slam dunk best Tribe player of the decade. His numbers speak for themselves, even with the relative disappointments of the last two seasons. If Grady never reaches the peak that has been forecasted with him, he will more than likely add three more entries to this list before his current contract runs out. That list is all the Indians' CF, since expansion, that have OPS+'ed at least 120. It's a pathetic group, befitting a pathetic era of Indians' baseball but, barring further injuries, Sizemore will come to dominate it. 

And, lest we forget, there is still considerable upside in Sizemore. He is about to enter his physical peak and has shown a penchant for refining his game throughout his career; this is a player that could easily become one of the five best in baseball if he stays in CF, stays healthy, and improves just a bit. Grady's comparables have always been stunning and the list hasn't changed a great deal since the sterling performances of just a few years ago: he has stopped comparing most similarly to Duke Snider and has moved on to Barry Bonds. Another name on the list that's always sprung to mind for me is Carlos Beltran, a guy who took some big offensive steps forward in his mid-twenties. Point being, Sizemore still has time to turn into some kind of CF playing Scary Monster, even if the more likely outcome might be Jack Clark

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So, how to choose among these two stalwarts? If you're the analytical type, it doesn't seem to be a very hard decision. Sizemore was the superior player by nearly all statistical measures and Martinez, a player whose defensive reputation has suffered considerably since the 2006 season, doesn't make up any ground by donning the tools of ignorance. I'm not prepared to actually evaluate either's defense in a scientific fashion but I do feel comfortable saying that Sizemore was good enough in CF to, at the least, negate the positional value that Martinez offered. 

The numbers, though, are not the entire story here. Let me just make it clear that Sizemore has never done anything particularly wrong. It's just that, now nearly three years into being launched into superstardom by the mainstream media, Sizemore leaves something nebulous yet essential to be desired. Grady is, frankly, boring. In sharp contrast to his high-octane style of player on the field, he is a superstar with no personality, not even a fake, unsatisfying one. Try to think of one moment where you connected with Grady Sizemore the person, not Grady Sizemore the athlete. I can't think of a single instance. On the field, he is anything but dull, climbing walls and clubbing mammoth homeruns with aplomb. What does he mean off of it though? 

I'd originally intended to pull some part of that big SI article for this piece, something that would help flesh out who Grady Sizemore was, why we loved him so dearly. In doing so, I came to realize: I don't really love him dearly. I'm not sure I love him at all. I love that he plays for my team, that he's so athletically gifted and wears the Cleveland colors. But would I even be interested in talking to him? The quotes I found were astonishingly boring: 

"Good luck getting him to talk about himself. He's such a quiet guy who's only interested in playing baseball and doing what he can for the team."

-Roberto Hernandez

"There is a superstar player on our team, but if you walked into our clubhouse, you'd have no idea who it is. To watch him play day in and day out is a rare treat. All of us, from the front office to the players to the bat boys, are fortunate to see him every day. He is without a doubt one of the greatest players of our generation."

-Mark Shapiro

"He can do it all, but what's so great is he plays the game the right way and he gives your team energy every day. He's a dirtbag. He'll do whatever he can to beat you."

-John Gibbons

"I just want to go out on the field and play. I'm not comfortable in front of the camera. I don't like seeing this mug on TV."

-Grady Sizemore

"I was at the All-Star Game with him last year and I'm telling you, he did not say one word the entire time. Not one word. And it's not because he's a bad guy. He's just that quiet."

-Troy Glaus

It is one thing to be self-effacing or humble. It is another to go to an All-Star Game and not speak to most of your teammates. Perhaps Grady is cripplingly shy or just supernaturally softspoken. Whatever the reason, the end result is that Sizemore does nothing but play baseball extremely well and, in a world where sports is entertainment and quotes and stories are how legend is built, it's questionable as to whether or not that's enough to be the player of the decade for any team. The player of the decade ought to be someone that made me smile for great performance on the field and less obvious, quantifiable reasons. This is a subjective evaluation but, despite claims to the otherwise, sport is not math. Sport is narrative. Prior to this offseason, Grady's performance on the field was as exciting as his performance off the field was lifeless. The best he could offer was a vaguely interesting affection for an old car and old music. And, before December, maybe that would've been enough. 

And then, this happened, and, like Lieutenant Aldo Raine, that I cannot abide. The pictures, while harmlessly laughable, are not the sort of thing that legend is made of. If it were more of a runaway, if Grady had not sat out so much of 2009, if Grady's playoff OPS was 1.108 instead of .908 or if his performance in that summer of 2005 had been better than Victor's, if Grady had come out with a clever statement instead of threatening a lawsuit, or, and I know this is unfair, if Grady had been traded instead of Vic and had offered just as powerful an emotional response, then maybe Grady would be the one, great Indian of 2000-2009. But he wasn't and he didn't. He just played good baseball, flashed a great smile, and sat soundlessly at his All-Star Game locker.

On the other side of a ledger  we have this

 Victor Martinez sat in front of his locker one last time in the Indians' clubhouse Friday afternoon, with his 4-year-old son, Victor Jose, in his lap.

Martinez sobbed as he explained to his son that he had just been traded to the Red Sox.

"My wife has been talking to him a little bit," Martinez told reporters soon after. "He woke up this morning, and the first thing he said was, 'Daddy, are we still an Indian?'

"I told him, 'So far, yes,' and he started screaming, 'Yes! Yes!'"

Plenty of players talk about loving the team and the fans they play for, but Martinez lived it. And that was evident in the wake of the trade, as he spoke to reporters while wearing black sunglasses that hid red eyes.

"This is my house," he said. "I'm leaving my house."

-Castrovince

A player, a moment and an emotion that embodies much of what the last decade's narrative was for Cleveland Indians' fans. The era was defined by a handful of outstanding players, an abundance of character and heart, moments of greatness followed by years of sisyphean toil, and, more than anything, heroes leaving us behind

Victor embodies or symbolizes all of that. Grady, even for his occasionally Olympian performance, is not nearly as good a representative. Here's to Victor: the Indian of the decade in my eyes. And to Grady: hopefully the Indian of the next. 

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