It's a baseball story, certainly, but it's also a story of compassion. Because when Patti and her husband, Bob, opened their home to Victor Martinez in 1999, they also opened their hearts. The connection that ensued between host family and Minor League ballplayer at that time lasts to this very day.
"They're my family," Martinez said of the Bixlers.
And when Martinez's Red Sox came to Cleveland to face the Indians this week, the family was happily reunited.
A happy home
The short-season Class A Mahoning Valley Scrappers played their inaugural season at Eastwood Field in '99, and Bob, a commercial loan officer for J.P. Morgan Chase, and Patti were in attendance for one of the team's first games.
"We were sitting next to some people who were rooting rather convincingly for one of the players," Bob said. "We knew these people in the community, and we asked them, 'Do you know this young man?' They said, 'He's staying at our house. We're hosting him.'"
The Bixlers, who had housed foreign-exchange students and church parishioners in the past, were instantly intrigued. When the game ended, they went to the Scrappers' clubhouse to make themselves available to any players in need of a place to crash for the summer. They encountered four Venezuelan players who were about to make a two-mile trek toward their apartment.
"It was," Martinez recalled, "a pretty long walk back to the place. And then I remember this lady outside saying she was going to take us home."
That would be Patti, who Martinez now affectionately refers to as "Mom."
Unable to house all four, the Bixlers, who had three kids of their own, arranged for Bob's sister to take in one player and his sister's friend to host another. Martinez and pitcher Dennis Malave stayed with the Bixlers.
Malave, though, didn't stay long. He was promoted to Class A Columbus in the South Atlantic League, and the Bixlers were left alone with Martinez, who barely knew a word of English, aside from "McDonald's." So they taught him the language through Post-It notes left on various items in the house, and they taught him some other ins and outs of life in America, as well.
"One time, we were driving, and I asked, 'Have you ever heard of a Chinese fire drill?'" Patti said with a smile. "I said, 'When I stop the car, we're all going to get out and run around and then jump back in.' I got in the backseat, and Victor was stuck driving. He goes, 'Mom! What am I supposed to do?' I said, 'Drive the car!'"
Hey, it was only a mile back to the house, but Martinez was officially one step closer to one day driving himself to the ballpark.
Martinez's time in the New York-Penn League didn't extend beyond that summer. He made it to high Class A Kinston the following year and opened 2002 at Double-A Akron.
"I knew he was a good ballplayer when I watched him play," Bob said. "But nobody asked for or hoped for anybody in our house to be successful. We just opened our home because we would want somebody to do the same for our kids if they were abroad."
Even as he made the quick ascent to the Major Leagues, Martinez never forgot the family that took him in at the most impressionable stage of his career. And he showed just how much that family meant to him the night of his big league debut against the Blue Jays.
"It was Sept. 10, 2002," Bob said reverently. "He had called Patti and me and said, 'Mom and Dad, come to the game and see me play.'"
But the Bixlers had other priorities. Their son, Ryan, was in the hospital having one of 16 surgical procedures that would be performed to address a cyst on his brain.
Still, the nurses at University Hospital and even Ryan himself kept encouraging Bob and Patti to go to the game. Ryan, though, had just one request: Could they ask Victor to come see him in the hospital?
Surely, it seemed, that was out of the question, because Martinez had his priorities, as well. He started behind the plate for the Tribe that night and contributed a two-run single -- his first Major League hit and RBI.
When the Bixlers came down to the clubhouse to congratulate Victor after the game, they told him they had to get back to the hospital. Patti asked him if he might be willing to come.
"Let's go," Martinez said with no hesitation.
They piled into the Bixlers' van -- Bob and Patti, Victor and his wife, Margaret. A family bonded together in support of a loved one.
"It was awesome getting to have him come to my hospital room," Ryan remembered. "He could have gone out and partied and done anything he wanted, but he chose to come see me at the hospital."
A lasting bond
Seven years later, Ryan would return the favor.
Martinez was devastated when the Indians traded him to the Red Sox on July 31, 2009. He loved the organization and loved the city where Victor Jose and daughter Maria Victoria were born.
The Bixlers were devastated, too.
"Don't quote what I have to say about it," Patti said.
Martinez was due to join his new teammates in Baltimore the next day.
"He called me on the way to the airport," Ryan said. "I told him, 'I want to be there for you. If you leave me two tickets to the game, I'll drive out.' So I drove out with three buddies of mine to go see the game."
Families bond together in those kinds of moments. And nothing that's happened in Martinez's career -- not the All-Star Games or multiyear deal or prominent trade -- has made him forget his family in Howland.
That point was proven this week, when little Victor Jose climbed into Bob's bed and woke up his grandpa. Unbeknownst to Bob, Patti and Margaret had arranged for the Martinez family to stay with the Bixlers during the four-game series between the Red Sox and Tribe. Victor eschewed the ritzy team hotel for the bed he used to sleep in when he was a 20-year-old Minor Leaguer getting his first taste of life in the States.
"We went down in the basement," Bob said, "and looked at all the pictures and pennants from 1999, and Victor said, 'Wow, daddy, 11 years ago!'"
The next morning, Patti fixed Victor three homemade egg McMuffins -- the same breakfast he used to have each morning in that summer of '99. Only this time, she had her grandkids over, as well.
"They're our family," she said. "It's just nice to have them come home and visit us."