HIGH SCHOOL DREAMS AND VICTOR MARTINEZ
WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER, I wanted to be a sportwriter. It seemed natural enough, particularly because I was an athlete who ate drank and slept sports. After I won my very first award for writing as a sophomore, I was hooked—and declared to anyone who would listen that this would be my job in the future—there was no doubt about it.
I still remember the article; and it is true that the feeling of that first award has never been surpassed; not by film awards, Emmy nominations...nothing. It just so happens that I wrote about a kid named Scott Patterson, who was the leader of the Lakewood High School basketball team at the time.
“Seven minutes had elapsed since senior co-captain Scott Patterson wondered how—just how in the world—he made a 40 foot jump shot that won the championship for Lakewood,” the story began.
Scott Patterson and I were never friends, but I recall taking photographs of that game for our newspaper, The Lakewood High Times, and being in the thick of the post-game crush afterward. “Leaning against a wall in the Lakewood locker room,” I continued, “Scott was trapped—surrounded by reporters and well-wishers, each of whom could not believe what they had witnessed a few short minutes before.”
Patterson had been expected to lead the Rangers to the championship that year, based on his unbelievable shooting from the year before... but that is not what materialized in his senior year. Only once had he scored 13 points or higher. He was not the same player defensively, and kept getting beat off the dribble. Not surprisingly, Scott was down. Fame—even at the high school level—can become a cruel mistress, and Patterson's season of dreams had become a nightmare.
I AM REMINDED OF THESE HIGH SCHOOL DREAMS because of an article I read today by ESPNs Gordon Edes, one of the finest baseball writers around. It served to remind me why I am a writer—and why I wanted so desperately to become a sportswriter back then.
Before 24-hour TV sports and the hyping of sports figures as celebrities, sports encompassed something far more innocent. For athletes—and sportswriters—“the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” were only part of the story. In the off-season, most pro athletes stayed in the cities in which they played. They sold cars, worked in steel mills and sold insurance. They were part of the fabric of the entire town—not just their teams—and it was nice to know that these men were just “one of us.”
Okay, perhaps not “one of us,” but at least accessible to us.
In a masterful article written today by Edes, a few of those memories came flowing back as he wrote of Victor Martinez, the former Cleveland Indian catcher who is now with the Boston Red Sox. Last year when he was traded, Martinez was so distraught that he could not speak with reporters. He cried—and then gathered himself to face the bright lights.
Then he cried again. Those of us who knew Victor understood. He wanted to stay in Cleveland. He loved it here... and wanted to raise his family here. Inexplicably, as Cleveland teams are wont to do, the Indians traded one of the few who wanted to stay.
WHEN VICTOR MARTINEZ was drafted by the Cleveland baseball team, he did not speak a word of English. He arrived in Ohio from Venezuela and was assigned to play for the minor league Class A baseball team, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, deep in the rust belt near Youngstown, Ohio. They played ball behind a shopping mall and as the story goes, walked two miles to and from games and stayed in a dilapidated motel.
But then Patti Bixler walked into his life.
As Edes writes, Martinez “had no idea who Patti Bixler was or what she was saying when she approached four Scrappers after one of their first games,” but when she discovered that the boys were walking—and where they were staying, she said, "Go home and get the van," to her husband, Bob. "We're taking these four boys home with us."
Bob's reaction? "You're not taking four boys home with us," he said.
"Oh, yes, we are," Patti said. "Two of them will stay with us, and we'll find homes for the other two."
Patti, Bob, and their son Ryan helped teach Victor Martinez the English language and how to manage his money. . .but they taught him so much more. They showed him the love of family.
"They're like my mom and dad," Martinez told Edes last night as Victor returned to Cleveland for the first time since being traded.
“By the end of that first summer, Martinez's English had improved dramatically,” Edes writes. The next season, he was in Kinston, N.C., where he hurt his shoulder, spent two months on the disabled list and then spent the rest of the summer in Columbus, Ga. The Bixlers went to see him play in both places. They returned the next summer to Kinston, where this time he won the Carolina League batting title, and they celebrated when he returned to Ohio to play for the Indians' Double-A team in Akron.
And then came his major league debut.
"Sept. 10, 2002," Bob said Monday night.
It was a night that none of them would soon forget, for very different reasons.
Ryan Bixler was 16 at the time and in the hospital, which was nothing new for him. He had cysts on his brain and had had so many operations that it was hard to keep track. "I think this was my 12th or maybe my 13th operation," he said. "I've had 16 in all."
That day, Martinez was called up to the big leagues. That night, Martinez hit a two-run single, knocking out the Jays' starting pitcher, before making the final out of the game. Bob and Patti Bixler sought him out afterward. Patti said, 'Victor, if you would, Ryan would love for you to come to the hospital.'
"He said, 'Mom, let's go.' I said, 'Are you kidding me?"'
All of them -- Bob and Patti, Victor and Margaret -- piled into Bob's car. Victor made sure he brought along the ball he'd kept as a memento of his first big league hit and the lineup card that he'd been given by interim manager Joel Skinner.
"As soon as he got to the hospital, he sat on the bed with Ryan, and for a couple of hours they played video games," Patti said. "That's what he did for the night of his debut."
The day after Martinez was traded this past summer, Ryan called him. That night, the Red Sox were scheduled to play the Orioles in Baltimore. "If you want to leave us tickets to the game so you will have a familiar face there, we'll come," he said.
Ryan and three of his buddies hopped in a car and drove to Baltimore, six hours away. You do those things for family.”
The Edes story catapulted me back—if for but a brief time— to the days when I wanted to become a sportwriter. Even then, I guess, I knew that the best stories are human ones. . .and that the best sports has to offer has little to do with who wins and loses on the field.
I learned about life's poetry at an early age. . .and though it seems I write about injustice—sometimes far too often, my roots are easy to spot.
“Scott Patterson walked out of the locker room. His hair uncombed, his shoes untied, Scott lumbered around the corner of the gymnasium. Before he could raise his head, he was greeted by a thunderous ovation from the fans who stood applauding and cheering his name.
He couldn't help smiling.
It had been a tough season—the worst that he could could have imagined, in fact. But now, Scott beamed at the sound he had been so unaccustomed to hearing.
It was a miracle shot, in more ways than one. . .a miracle shot indeed.”
Last night, after the Red Sox defeated the Indians, Victor Martinez drove "home" to Mahoning Valley to sleep at the home of his adopted family—even though it is sixty miles away. And today, for this old sportswriter, all is well with the world.