LAKELAND, Fla. Victor Martinez tore up his left knee while doing agility drills last winter, had micro-fracture surgery to repair the damage, and tried unsuccessfully to rush back in time for the Tigers pennant chase.
Then he also was unsuccessful in attempting to watch his team on television during a World Series he could not play in. And it was for reasons beyond the sweep by the Giants.
I watched a little bit here and a little bit there, Martinez said after Thursdays workout at TigerTown.
He paused, looked down and then looked me in the eye, saying, That part really killed me. Its what I work for. Hopefully, God will give me another chance with the Tigers this year to make something happen in the World Series.
Every game, you just want to be there, playing. It was the worst year of my career, but it was the best year of my life. I was able to go to bed with my kids and wake up with my kids every day. I really enjoyed that.
Martinez and his wife, Margret, have two children. Victor Jose, 8, and Maria, 5, often come with their parents to games in Lakeland. Its a short drive down Interstate 4 from Orlando, where they live. Seeing them every day in a summer for the first time was the silver lining for a hitter focused on rehabilitation.
You see your team in the hunt and its tough, Martinez said.
He started hitting last July, but gave it up when Tigers head athletic trainer Kevin Rand and specialists decided it was unwise to risk his future for any short-term gain.
Now, I am glad I did not do that, Martinez, 34, said. It would have been a stupid thing to try to come back then. Now Im ready to go, and thankful.
He was cleared to begin hitting again in November. When did Martinez, a switch-hitter, know that his swing was back?
It was two or three weeks ago, he said. It was great something I cant explain. I cant tell you how happy and great I felt.
Was getting his stroke back a bit like riding a bike again?
Yes, sir, Martinez said.
And he rides a baseball to all fields with the best of them.
Victor is one of the best approach hitters I have ever seen, said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. He has an uncanny knack of knowing what a pitcher is trying to do to him. A pitcher can make a pretty good pitch to Victor, and he can still get a hit off it.
Hes quietly one of the smartest hitters Ive ever known. Magglio (Ordonez) and (Miguel) Cabrera probably fit into that (category). And (Prince) Fielder has a pretty good idea of the strike zone.
Fielder will once again bat cleanup to provide protection for Cabrera. But now, for the first time, Martinez will bat fifth behind Fielder to almost certainly cut down on his walks.
Its exciting just to have him back on the team, period, said Fielder, when asked about seeing more strikes.
Martinez, in the third season of a four-year contract for 50 million, finished fourth in the American League with a .330 average in 2011. He also was eighth with a .380 on-base percentage, tied for 10th with 103 RBI, and was the second-toughest hitter to strike out with one every 11.7 plate appearances.
The man can rake and cover the plate.
I mentioned that Fielder was looking forward to having his bat back in the lineup.
Prince and Cabrera in front of me in the batting order, Martinez said, before pausing. Thats great, but sad. You hope they leave something for you.
He laughed heartily at the thought of having a dynamic duo that combined for 247 RBI last year batting in front of him.
You just never know whats going to happen, Martinez said. But Id like to knock in 100 runs.
He says hes ready to get at it, but is wearing a knee brace for peace of mind.
Ill get rid of it by Opening Day, Martinez said. I just want to make sure everything is smooth. Its more a mental thing. There is nothing I havent done except catch a bullpen and block baseballs.
Martinez was an All-Star catcher for the Indians and Red Sox before Detroit signed him to be the primary designated hitter and back up Alex Avila. But, with switch-hitting veteran Brayan Pena signed to spell Avila at catcher, Leyland is looking to use Martinez strictly as an emergency catcher.
Hopefully, I will do those things catching before the end of spring training, Martinez said. I want to be ready just in case Im needed there.
He said he will do whatever is necessary for the Tigers to win it all. Martinez missed last years World Series with the injury and came within one win of the Series with the 2007 Indians. His team had a 3-1 lead in the ALCS before losing three straight to the Red Sox that year.
Ive never played in the World Series, said Martinez softly. Thats why I play the game. I pray God gives me the chance to be in the World Series.