Rick Sutcliffe, the big right-handed pitcher of the 1980s, once spoke of winning the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award, which he did in 1987.
“You know what that tells you? It tells you that you were terrible the year before.”
The Tigers’ Victor Martinez is running away with this year’s American League Comeback Player of the Year Award. If it’s anything less than unanimous, then they may as well stop giving out the thing.
But Martinez wasn’t terrible the year before this one—he didn’t have a year before this one.
Martinez—they call him V-Mart—is having one of the greatest seasons in recent Tigers history, but nobody outside of the team’s fan base knows about it. Hell, sometimes it seems like the folks who are Tigers fans don’t know about it—or at least, they’re not talking about it.
Martinez is playing on the same team as Miguel Cabrera, which this year is like being one of Jesus’ disciples. You kind of get lost in the shuffle.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Martinez is authoring a season that will look more impressive as it gets further in the past.
They say that hitting a baseball with any degree of success is one of the hardest things to do in sports. Try doing it after taking a year off.
Victor Martinez didn’t exactly take a year off, to be accurate. The year was ripped from him.
Let’s wind the clocks back to January, 2012.
The news slugged Tigers fans in the back of the neck. It was a rabbit punch—a cheap shot that no one saw coming.
The winter was in full swing, baseball’s spring training reporting dates still more than a month away. Hockey dominated the news, the Red Wings season about half finished. The Lions had been eliminated from the playoffs. The Pistons were again sunk into irrelevance, which was becoming another winter tradition.
Then the news came over today’s version of “the wire”—the Internet.
Victor Martinez had hurt himself. Badly. It was early, but things didn’t look so good. The sometimes catcher, mostly DH who batted .330 and had 103 RBI in 2011 had perhaps suffered a season-ending injury—some three months before the season even started.
He was working out and something went wrong, the stories that blazed through Twitter’s news feeds like a California brush fire, said.
It was something the matter with his knee.
I have always found it ironic that, despite some of the physical gyrations and unusual moves that athletes engage in during game play, it is sometimes the mundane, the routine, that fells them.
Norm Nixon, a leading point guard in the NBA in the late-1970s, early-1980s, popped his Achilles tendon while out for a jog. The injury pretty much ended Nixon’s career, which figured to have several years still left.
In a 1977 game, Bob Lanier, the Pistons’ Hall of Fame center, received a pass and went to bring the basketball toward his big body when an opposing player slapped at the ball, trying to knock it away. It was a typical defensive move that occurs dozens of times in any given NBA game. But this slap instead hit Lanier’s hand square, breaking it, and putting Big Bob out of action for weeks.
Mickey Mantle, cruising in for a “routine” fly ball in the 1951 World Series, tripped over an exposed drain pipe at Yankee Stadium and badly hurt his knee.
Al Kaline, after striking out in 1967, slammed his bat angrily into the rack and broke his finger. Kaline missed many crucial weeks of a heated pennant race, which the Tigers ultimately lost.
Now here was Victor Martinez, working out on his own in January, when his foot planted in the grass but had trouble unplanting. Martinez tore up a knee.
The word went across the Internet and Tigers fans swallowed back their hearts.
As the story developed, the news was the worst.
Martinez would need surgery and would miss most of, if not all of, the 2012 season. Just like that.
The mind-numbing news, coming from out of the blue in the depths of winter, was too much for Tigers fans to comprehend. It would have been bad enough if the injury occurred during a game. But it happened while Martinez was working out, by himself, spring training still more than a month hence.
Martinez did indeed miss all of the 2012 season, despite false glimmers of hope that he could make it back in time for a playoff push. Despite the Tigers signing Prince Fielder after Martinez hurt himself, the team was still in a dogfight with the Chicago White Sox for division supremacy—a race where Martinez’s involvement would likely have separated the Tigers from the White Sox long before late September.
The last thing Martinez needed in 2013 was a slow start. Surely the whispers would start: that at age 34, it was folly to think that the Tigers could expect anything near the Martinez of 2011, after he lost a year to injury.
Yet a slow start is exactly what happened. Martinez was batting in the low-.200s in May, when talk radio—that bastion of wisdom—was soiled with calls for the Tigers to bench Martinez. Some blowhards wanted V-Mart out of Detroit altogether.
I remember watching a game on television in June, when Martinez started to perk up a little bit. Still, his average was below .250. FSD analyst Rod Allen said, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if Martinez was back around .300 by the end of the year.”
I thought Allen to be merely spewing out propaganda as a homer shill.
Well, look who was right, after all.
Martinez has lifted his batting average, which was like an anchor, all the way to “around .300,” just as Rod Allen prophesized.
Martinez’s recovery from an awful first two months, at age 34, especially considering that the resurrection came after losing an entire year to injury, when there were calls for his head in May, is nothing short of amazing.
Martinez is on pace to hit .300, drive in 80+ runs, and his bat is considered so valuable to the Tigers’ cause that the team is seriously considering playing him at catcher in World Series road games, where the designated hitter doesn’t exist.
This isn’t a comeback, it’s a reincarnation.
They shouldn’t call it the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award. It should be renamed the Victor Martinez Trophy.
Like, right now.