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02/20/09 4:45 PM EST

Tribe's Martinez driven by love of game

Catcher recovering from injury-riddled 2008 with a smile

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Asked what keeps him smiling through the duration of a long baseball season, Victor Martinez only smiles wider.

"I just love this game," he says. "You look around, and we're blessed to be here, wearing a big league uniform with nice shoes, nice batting gloves, looking good. What else can you ask? You just need to go out and enjoy it."

But even the exuberant Martinez didn't enjoy it last year.

From the hamstring injury he suffered on Opening Day to the elbow soreness that became unbearable by mid-June, the 2008 season is one he'd like to forget. Perhaps no moment sums up his season better than that night he unleashed his frustration by kicking an unsuspecting bucket of sunflower seeds in the visitor's dugout at U.S. Cellular Field and got his foot caught inside.

While the partially torn hamstring would have been enough to send some players to the disabled list, Martinez fought on. Then the elbow flared up in May, and he still kept playing. His numbers, like the Indians' place in the standings, were taking a nosedive.

"It was pretty painful," he says now. "It was pretty bad."

Finally, the pain became unbearable. Martinez, batting .278 with no homers and 21 RBIs at the time, was placed on the DL on June 11, had surgery to remove bone chips from the elbow and wasn't heard from again until the end of August.

Up until that point, Martinez, even at his worst on the field, was a rock for the Indians off it. His enthusiasm and ever-present smile had a way of keeping the team loose in tough times. Heck, even the bucket-kicking incident drew laughs in the midst of an otherwise dreary loss to the White Sox.

"We lost a lot more than just him as a player," manager Eric Wedge says.

But nobody lost more than Martinez himself. The lengthy stretch of reporting to the ballpark during the day for rehab and going home at night further hammered home the notion of just how much he loves playing.

"It was so tough that I wasn't even watching the games on TV," he says. "When you see your teammates playing hard every day, you want to be a part of it. It was something that was taken from my hands."

Something else might be taken from Martinez's hands this season. Though he's come into camp fully recovered from the elbow and hamstring woes, Martinez stands to lose some playing time behind the plate to backup Kelly Shoppach, who took advantage of Martinez's absence and turned in 21 homers and 55 RBIs in 112 games.

The 30-year-old Martinez will, of course, retain his regular spot in the lineup, as he has the versatility to move to first base on the days Shoppach starts. Catching, though, is his first love and first preference.

But if the Indians decide they are a better team with Shoppach behind the plate and Martinez at first, Martinez is all for it.

"Everybody in this room has the same goal," he says. "You have to give your best effort and try to win every game."

The Indians have enough respect for Martinez -- the closest thing they have to a team captain -- to involve him with the process. As they evaluate the performance of Shoppach and first baseman Ryan Garko and decide on a nightly basis which bat should remain in the lineup, they'll keep Martinez informed of their thought process.

"He's earned that," Wedge says.

Martinez has also earned the respect of his teammates, Shoppach included.

"I've never seen a guy get so excited to play 162 times and not take any breaks," Shoppach says. "You can't help but learn from that. There's a reason he's a leader and plays with the passion he does, because he brings it to the field every night. How he does it is a mystery, but I've never been around a guy who wanted to play so much and wanted to win so much."

To Martinez, it's no mystery. It's rather simple, really. As a kid growing up in Venezuela, getting chased around the house by his mother, Martinez began using baseball as an outlet for his energy.

Now, the sport pays the bills and exposes him to all the best the big leagues have to offer.

"I never take it for granted," Martinez says. "Nobody knows better than me how hard it was to get myself in this position. That's why I enjoy it every day when I wake up and put that big league uniform on. I give it the best I've got."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.