When Russell Martin signed with the Blue Jays this off-season, Toronto sports writers wet their pants a little. Martin and the Blue Jays were made for each other. The narrative was perfect. It wrote itself.
Here it is, in a nutshell: Russell Martin is a Canadian success story. He was born in a Toronto suburb and spent his formative years in Montreal, cheering on the hometown Expos. He’s fluently bilingual (it also helps that he spent some of his childhood in Paris). And, more importantly, he’s a three-time All-Star (twice in the National League with the Los Angeles Dodgers, once in the American League with the New York Yankees), a Gold Glove- and Silver Slugger-winner, a nine-year veteran with a proven track record. He likes to win. And he’s finally coming home.
“I’m a competitor. It’s about being in battle. And I think that’s why I’ve had success.”
His signing was a big deal for the Blue Jays. It’s now been more than 20 years since the team won its last World Series title — or even made the playoffs. With Kansas City’s miraculous post-season birth last year, that’s the longest drought in the entirety of Major League Baseball. It’s not that the Jays have been bad, exactly. Just middling. Perennial non-contenders in a tough division in a tough league. There have been glimmers of hope — major off-season deals, a parade of stars, brief flashes of brilliance followed by long stretches of sloppiness — all of which have faded, fast.
That’s why the Blue Jays shelled out $82-million over five years to get Martin — the largest contract the team has offered since locking down star outfielder Jose Bautista, and the second-largest contract in team history. To save face, to save fans, to save the future of Canadian baseball, the Jays needed to make a splash. Russell Martin, prodigal son, isn’t just that splash — he could be a freaking tsunami in Toronto, if all goes well.
Then again, it’s Toronto. Remember Vernon Wells? B.J. Ryan? How about Reyes, Buehrle, Dickey, et. al.? When does all ever go well, or even according to plan?
It’s a good thing Russell Martin thrives on pressure. “I’m a competitor. It’s not about the winning part. It’s about being in battle,” he says. “And I think that’s why I’ve had success.”
It’s worth talking about that success for a minute. Part of Martin’s appeal, for a team like the Blue Jays right now, is that he knows how to win. Call it luck, call it hard work, call it being in the right place at the right time, but he seems to pack victory with him in his suitcase. He can’t not win.
Martin has been to the playoffs seven times in his nine major league seasons. If you’re counting: that’s three times with the Dodgers, twice with the Yankees and, crucially, twice with the Pittsburgh Pirates who, until Martin came on board two years ago, hadn’t had a winning season in two decades, and looked an awful lot like the 2015 Blue Jays.
That is, both teams were basically losers, made up of no-name players on both sides of the age spectrum with little substance in between, and little understanding of what it takes to make it past September. It’s unfair to say that Martin single-handedly turned things around for Pittsburgh — but that hasn’t stopped many sports writers from trying. Martin’s challenge, warranted or not, is to have yet another career season, and to make history essentially repeat itself.
“In Pittsburgh and now in Toronto, I was thinking, ‘Just watch what happens,’” he says. “I don’t ever speak that way, but I was thinking it in the back of my mind. Please tell me I can’t do something so I can go ahead and show you that I can.”
That’s the other thing about Russell Martin: he’s really, honestly Canadian. Just check out that attempt at trash talk, tempered by “pleases” and caveats, polite as heck. In fact, with his scraggly beard and solid catcher’s physique, you wouldn’t be wrong to confuse him for a hockey player. Not that you should ever confuse him for a hockey player.
“Please tell me I can’t do something so I can go ahead and show you that I can.”
“Hockey just wasn’t as good,” he says, in answer to why he never played the national game. “I could always skate really well, but you put me in possession of the puck and it felt like everything slowed down. I didn’t work at it. I didn’t have the passion for it. Baseball was always the most fun I ever had.”
And why not? The kid was a natural. He tells stories of shagging flies with neighbourhood kids in Montreal, or doing carefully crafted drills with his dad, a jazz saxophonist by trade and a lover of the game of baseball, who imparted that love onto his son at a very early age. “I have pictures of myself at two years old, with a little Expos hat and a little red bat you can get from Canadian Tire,” says Martin. “I knew right away baseball was my favourite sport.”
Martin took to it instantly, playing throughout his childhood and into college. He grew up idolizing guys like Ozzie Smith and Roberto Alomar — “guys who looked natural playing the game, and like they were having fun.” His heroes were sprightly, athletic infielders, and so was he. Martin came up as a shortstop. He was even drafted as one. He only became a catcher to fill a need for the Dodgers and get more playing time. (Ironically, his first stint as a full-time big league catcher was as a replacement for then-injured Dioner Navarro, the man whose starting job he’s once again taking here in Toronto.) He took to that naturally, too, and became a brilliant pitch framer, a better game caller. At catcher, Martin is effortlessly in control — even, as he’s shown this spring, when it comes to catching R.A. Dickey’s notoriously uncatchable knuckleball.
None of that’s to say he doesn’t work. Hard. His workout regimen is fine-tuned and relentless (save for a few breaks to jet ski and soak in the Florida sun during spring training). He lifts weights to house music — “that’s my energy drink” — and monitors everything he eats. He makes sure he’s in peak physical form because in baseball, sometimes that’s the only thing you can control.
That’s especially true of Toronto baseball. Before the Jays even made it out of spring training this season, freak accidents sidelined Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders (for a few weeks) and pitcher Marcus Stroman (for the year). Some critics have already written the team off completely.
It’s a long season: injuries happen, mistakes happen, losing happens. And though it can be hard to remember, winning happens, too. But Russell Martin’s not taking chances. “Whatever happens, you can’t blame how you prepared,” he says. “And I’m prepared.
“I just want to get up there and win some baseball games.”
That’s certainly the idea. If nothing else, it would make for a great story.