V-Mart reflects on health scare, hints at retirement
Veteran slugger savors each moment with family after heart surgery
Victor Martinez can see his father, in the faintest flashes of memory.
In one such snapshot, Guillermo Martinez is holding a broomstick behind his neck as he twists from side to side, loosening up his chest and abdominal muscles. In another, Guillermo is napping on a hammock, and Victor and his brother are swaying in the suspended bed back and forth, giggling as loose change falls out their dad's pants pockets.
"Then we'd start tapping him on the head," Martinez remembers with a big grin, "telling him, 'Get up! Get up!'"
And then there's the third memory that springs to mind. The one when a 7-year-old Victor comes home from school to find his father's body being hauled away.
Guillermo passed away from a heart attack at age 66. Because the recollections of his father are so few and so fleeting, and ultimately, so painful, the 39-year-old Victor has dedicated his adult life to spending as many moments with his own children -- son, Victor Jose, and daughters Maria Victoria, Barbara and Camila -- as his baseball career would possibly allow. When Victor Jose, the oldest child, reached school age in 2010, Martinez actually considered quitting baseball, until somebody explained to him the possibility of having his kids home-schooled so they could go wherever his baseball travels took him, and Martinez then decided to home-school his kids.
As a result, 13-year-old Victor Jose has basically grown up in a Major League clubhouse, his presence coloring the better part of Martinez's extraordinarily productive 16 years in the bigs, including this 2018 season that is, in all likelihood, Martinez's last.
"You know," the Tigers designated hitter said with a satisfied smile, "it's been a pretty beautiful ride."
That ride, though, nearly ended abruptly last summer, when Martinez, perhaps as a matter dictated by DNA, began having serious heart issues of his own. The experience was scary, but it has given him an even deeper appreciation for his place in the game and his role as a dad.
Bottom of the seventh, two out, tie game, runner aboard, and the guy on the mound at Comerica Park was throwing about 100 mph. It was the kind of situation the skilled, switch-hitting Martinez, who in this moment last June 15 was seven hits away from his 2,000th, has thrived in a time or two. And he would come through here, too, albeit with the help of a fielding foible.
Jumbo Diaz tried to sneak one of those fiery fastballs past Martinez for strike three, and he fouled the pitch back to prolong the at-bat. Then, Diaz went to the slider, and Martinez sent a bouncing ball to the left-hand side that ate up shortstop Daniel Robertson, allowing Martinez to reach and the go-ahead run to score.
But while Robertson was visibly frustrated with the error, Martinez was the one with his head down, hands upon his knees as he tried to gather himself at first base.
"My heart's beating fast," a sweating, shaking Martinez said to first-base coach Omar Vizquel.
Vizquel placed his hand on Martinez's chest and felt the rapid thump.
"Do you want to run?" Vizquel asked.
"No, no," Martinez replied, "I want to get out."
The Tigers summoned a pinch-runner, as Martinez made the slow trek back to the dugout.
"I felt like I was going to fall over," he says now.
Later that night, as the Tigers celebrated what became a walk-off win on a Jose Cabrera homer, Martinez was taken for testing at the Detroit Medical Center, where he stayed overnight.
"My heart rate was still like 160 to 170," he says. "They had to electroshock me to bring it down."
The next day, the note on the transaction wire was unusual and alarming:
*Victor Martinez placed on 10-day disabled list (irregular heartbeat)
"It's a little bit scary," then-manager Brad Ausmus told reporters. "It's not something at his age that you generally consider an issue or worry about."
Martinez's family history had him worried. When his father passed away, it was the third time he suffered a heart attack, so it wasn't hard for Martinez to connect the dots, to go down the dark mental road of imagining his kids enduring the same loss he had suffered as a child. Martinez's initial time on the DL was brief (he was back in the lineup by June 28), but the recurring arrhythmia caught up with him again after a game in late August, when his heart was racing uncontrollably in the clubhouse.
This time, a cardiac ablation -- a procedure in which tissue allowing incorrect electrical signals is scarred or destroyed to prevent abnormal heart rhythms -- was recommended.
"The doctor told me some basketball players and other professional athletes have come back from it and had a pretty normal life," Martinez says. "But as simple as they say it can be, it's the heart, you know? I was definitely really nervous."
Martinez's surgery last August ended his season but saved his life. His doctor told him he could begin working out as soon as 10 days post-op, but the offseason allowed him to take it slow. He began ramping up his physical activity in December, and by that point he had no doubts that he would be able to fulfill the final year of his contract with the Tigers.
From the team perspective, doling out regular at-bats to a 39-year-old designated hitter might not be ideal for a rebuilding ballclub. But in his offseason conversations with general manager Al Avila, Martinez was adamant that he could show up to Spring Training healthy and contribute. And he proved as much with a strong spring in which his bat looked rejuvenated, even if his hair had noticeably grayed.
Age and creaky knees limit Martinez's ceiling, but he still shows flashes of the All-Star of old, such as his going 3-for-4 with a homer-- his first of the season -- with two RBIs vs. the Orioles in the Tigers' 4-2 win on Tuesday night. In 48 plate appearances across 12 games, Martinez is 13-for-42 with that one homer, four doubles, four walks and eight RBIs.
"I'm so thankful to God to be in this position," he says. "When I first got this thing [the heart issue] and I was waiting for all these charts, and first going through the process of it, there were points where I thought I might not be able to play."
It's impossible to know if Martinez is past the heart problem. His doctors told him roughly 80 percent of people who have the ablation don't need a second one, and so far he -- just like Indians manager Terry Francona, who had the same procedure last July -- falls within that range of 80 percent, much to the relief of the many people in baseball who know Martinez to be, well, all heart.
"I think he's so special to everybody around here," says Francona, who managed Martinez in Boston. "He says he feels great, so that's good. I certainly don't want him to get a bunch of hits and beat us, but he's such a great kid. Everybody loves him."
Martinez knows he's fortunate to still have a spot in this game. And though he stops short of definitively declaring 2018 to be his final season, he speaks like a man at peace with the approaching finish line.
"Honestly? I'm ready," he says. "I've got no regrets. I know I left everything in this game. I think the biggest problem for athletes is they don't know what to do after baseball. That won't be my problem."
In Okeechobee, Fla., about an hour and 20 minutes from Martinez's home, there is a 2,500-acre cattle farm he owns called "Victoria's Ranch." There, Martinez, following in the footsteps of his uncles in his native Venezuela and his wife Margret's family, breeds and raises roughly 700 Angus cows before selling them around 6-8 months old. In the bustling Tigers clubhouse, Martinez pulls out his phone and smiles as he watches a video he took while riding one of his 18 horses through the fields, herding the cattle from one pasture to another.
It's peaceful out there, a place where a man who has spent his life hunting hits in front of screaming sports fans can bask in the quiet interrupted only by mooing cows. And Martinez's love of life on the farm has been passed down to his kids, who visit with him and learn how to take care of the animals.
"It's beautiful," he says again.
Soon, baseball will no longer be a daily part of their lives, but Victoria's Ranch is another place for Martinez to teach his kids about work ethic. To bond with them. To give them a lasting image of their dad at his most content.
"I want to make sure I enjoy my kids," he says, "because you just never know."