Before every game, after warming up that day's pitcher in the bullpen, Indians catcher Victor Martinez walks into the dugout and shakes the hand of every teammate. Every handshake is different, 24 handshakes for 24 players, all happening minutes before the game.
"It's his way of getting everyone fired up,'' said Indians second baseman Ronnie Belliard. Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia said "with me, it's just a high-five because I'm so tall. He said he's cooking up a new one for me. He's so full of energy.'' Outfielder Matt Lawton laughed. "I'm amazed how he can keep them all straight. I'm sure he uses them in winter ball, mine is probably the same as the left fielder on the Venezuelan team. We yell every time we shake hands. I have no idea what we're yelling because it's in Spanish.''
Spanish or English, high fives or low fives, it is one of Martinez's ways of leading this team. The Indians are young and learning and really good and really bad, as proven by the last few weeks when they won 10 out of 11 games to pull within one of the division-leading Twins, then directly followed with nine losses in 10 games to fall eight games out.
The Indians need a leader, and Martinez, 25, came to camp this spring and started doing it. "We talked to him about it in the offseason,'' said Indians manager Eric Wedge. "He was all for it. He has been very assertive. That's very rare for a player that young to lead so early.''
He is leading mostly with his play. Through Wednesday, he was hitting .287 with 20 home runs, 93 RBI, 30 doubles, a .510 slugging percentage and nearly as many walks (49) as strikeouts (52). He had 63 RBI in the first half, made the All-Star team and became the youngest catcher since Mike Piazza in 1994 to have that many RBI at the break. "Ever since he was moved into the four hole, he has been killing me, he's got me running all around the bases every time I get on,'' said Lawton, laughing again. "I'm too old for that.''
When a catcher is that productive, hitting in the middle of the order, it is a bonus. When a catcher is that productive, and is a team leader, it's a double bonus. Veteran baseball men will tell you that having a catcher as a team leader is ideal because he is so involved in the game, and because a catcher's toughness -- or sometimes, the lack of it -- sets the tone for the team.
A catcher can't lead properly if he's not good behind the plate, or doesn't take pride in calling a game. "Being a defensive catcher is very special to me,'' said Martinez, who is helped on daily basis by four members of the coaching staff who are former catchers, including Wedge. "Even if I go 0-for-4, if I helped my pitcher that day, I have helped my team. What makes me the happiest is when I shake our pitcher's hand after a game that he has thrown very well.''
Martinez showed his leadership in a game Aug. 3 in Toronto. Indians reliever Rick White, one of the few veteran players on the team, walked home the go-ahead run in the eighth inning. The pitch was close, but home plate umpire Marvin Hudson called it a ball (it was slightly low). White threw his hands in the air and screamed at Hudson. Martinez stuck up for his pitcher, argued with Hudson and was ejected from the game. It may not have helped in that game, but surely it won the respect of teammates to support a veteran pitcher.
That is Martinez, who is mature beyond his years, yet playful with teammates whether he's shaking their hands, or joking around with them in the outfield playing catch left-handed -- he is ambidextrous. That all-round, consistent personality is one reason why the Indians are considering breaking tradition this winter and offering Martinez a long-term contract even though he's in his first full season. "What I like best about him is that he's willing to learn,'' said Tigers catcher Pudge Rodriguez. "He's like me at that age because he's always listening.'' This spring, Martinez approached Rodriguez, his idol, and shook his hand. "I am Victor, I am a catcher,'' Martinez said. "I don't know if he knew who I was.''
He knew. Now everyone knows who he is. And everyone on the Indians knows his handshake.