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Lots on plate of catcher

Martinez handles what he's thrown

Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez chases down a runner during a drill yesterday. Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez chases down a runner during a drill yesterday. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 2, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Victor Martinez was a reluctant catcher when the Cleveland Indians sent him to the Instructional League in the fall of 1998. Signed as a shortstop out of Venezuela two years earlier, he considered quitting when the team told him to get behind the plate.

His mother, Margot, who was raising three other children alone back home while working as a nurse, talked him out of it.

The first pitcher Martinez caught - he forgets the name - threw a 92-mile-per-hour fastball. “I can handle this,’’ Martinez thought to himself. “It’s not so bad.’’

Then Martinez noticed a hulking lefthander warming up, his pitches almost too fast to track. It was the first time Martinez saw CC Sabathia, and he did the only thing he could think of.

He ran and hid.

“I didn’t want to catch that guy,’’ Martinez said. “He was throwing 98 and 99. I knew I couldn’t handle that.’’

But there was no choice, and in time Martinez and Sabathia became partners on the field and eventually good friends. They played together briefly in the minors, then for seven seasons with the Indians. Martinez became an All-Star and Sabathia a Cy Young Award winner.

Those were the experiences Martinez drew on when he faced the challenge of being traded to the Red Sox in the midst of a pennant race last season and had to learn a new pitching staff overnight. They are what help him now as Martinez dives into his first spring training with the Sox.

“CC let me take charge of the game for him. He let me call the pitches and it was only a few times he shook me off. He put all his trust in me and, man, that meant a lot,’’ Martinez said. “That makes me feel great when I get behind the plate. After catching him, it was easier to catch everybody else.’’

Sabathia also was traded, leaving Cleveland for Milwaukee, then signing with the Yankees as a free agent before last season. But being two of the centerpiece players in baseball’s greatest rivalry has not changed the friendship he and Martinez share.

“To me, he’s as good as it gets,’’ Sabathia said. “I’ve known him for so long, we’ve been friends for a long time.’’

Sabathia thinks the Red Sox made the right decision committing to Martinez as their catcher, saying his defensive skills are better than he is generally given credit for.

“I think it definitely gets undervalued and overlooked. He’s worked hard at it, because early in his career, he wasn’t that good,’’ Sabathia said. “He had to work at it and he’s gotten a lot better.

“It was easy to talk to him and the communication was great. In between innings on the bench, he always wants to know if he’s getting it right. The biggest thing for a pitcher is that you’re on the same page with your catcher. It’s reassuring.’’

Red Sox catching instructor Gary Tuck thought Martinez responded well to the transition between teams last season. For a catcher, he said, there is no tougher situation.

“He was unbelievable,’’ Tuck said. “He was aware of a lot of the guys from playing against us. But catching them is a different story.’’

Martinez also benefited from the grace shown by Jason Varitek, who helped educate the player brought in to take his job. That has continued in spring training, with Tuck assigning the duo to work together on the field.

Tuck said it reminds him of his time as a Yankees coach, when veteran catcher Joe Girardi helped ease the switch to Jorge Posada without complaint.

“Jason, I can’t say enough about him as a player and as a person,’’ Martinez said. “Jason helped me a lot and he really did a great job updating me with the pitching staff. That is still happening now. He never takes anything for granted.’’

Martinez also quickly became a presence in the clubhouse, forceful enough to confront even veteran players when he perceived a lack of intensity in their approach. It was the same way he influenced the Indians.

“He’s a big-time leader,’’ Sabathia said. “You can see the passion that he plays with and how much he cares. That’s just him.’’

Martinez and Sabathia met as opponents for the first time last April 16 when the Indians played the Yankees in New York.

“I don’t know how to describe my feelings when I saw him in the pinstripes,’’ Martinez said. “I was happy for him but at the same time, a little sad. I don’t know if you could call this the worst moment for me, but when I stepped in the box and I looked at him, all I could remember was that I used to look at him from being in the squat behind the plate.’’

Martinez tipped his cap to Sabathia, a gesture that was returned. Neither man could remember having done that before.

Sabathia struck Martinez out on five pitches. But Martinez had a single later in the game, which Cleveland won.

The two probably will next meet Opening Day at Fenway Park April 4, presuming Sabathia starts for the Yankees.

“I have so much respect for him,’’ Martinez said. “Catching CC was one of the greatest things that happened to me in baseball. But those days with Cleveland are over. I catch for the Red Sox now. This is my team.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com.

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