Buck Martinez sounds like baseball. Or rather, if you’ve been a Toronto Blue Jays fan at any point since the early 1990s, baseball sounds like Buck Martinez. His distinctive voice, somehow both deep and nasal, is a summertime companion, a constant weeknight presence from April through October. In some ways, he’s more familiar than the players themselves — you know his animated calls, the way his tenor lifts at the start of a new story, the way he growls at a home run ball the whole way out of the park. And what you hear in that voice is the epitome of fandom, pure and simple. He’s a hometown fan, a Blue Jay through and through.
Martinez first came to Toronto in 1981, after 11 seasons as a catcher with the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers. He’d end his career here five years later, after an infamous play that broke his leg blocking home plate. He never really left though, going on to call Jays games for most of the next three decades — he even managed the club for a season and a half from 2001 to 2002. But more than that, he’s an honest lover of the game. You get the sense he’d be doing this even if he weren’t getting paid for it, the best armchair commentator you’d ever find. You also know that when he has an opinion on the game that’s become his life, you should take it seriously. In his new book, Change Up: How to Make the Great Game of Baseball Even Better, he offers a considered treatise on the state of the sport right now. We caught up with him at his home in Florida to do the one thing he loves more than anything else: talk baseball.
So you’ve written a book about how to improve the game of baseball. Why now? What’s wrong with the game?
I’m not saying the game is injured or flawed or anything. I’m just talking about how you make it even better. We’re in a society now that wants shortcuts — Instagram and texting and quick fixes. Baseball has fallen into that. The fundamentals aren’t expressed as much. I was talking to [former Blue Jays GM] Pat Gillick in the process of doing interviews. We were sitting in his office in the Phillies complex in Clearwater, Fl., and he goes, “Look, it’s one o’clock and nobody’s working out.” The fields were empty. They’d already done their work in the course of two or three hours and were gone for the day. That never used to be the case. There was always something to be done on the baseball field. We’re dealing with an era where the athletes are better than they ever have been — they’re bigger, faster, better. They’re more informed. They take great care of themselves physically and nutritionally. But at the same time, there has been a lack of attention to the fundamentals: the practice of infield, the practice of catchers throwing to second, the practice of throwing home. Skills have diminished as a result.
There’s so much money involved in the game now — for players especially. Can it really change?
You raise a great point: why change now if everything’s in great shape? That’s the challenge. I think the reason for writing the book is to point out how we’ve gone through cycles. It starts with Branch Rickey [the Brooklyn Dodgers GM who signed Jackie Robinson] developing the farm system, which is still in place. Organizations that continue to be successful year in and year out — the Yankees, the Cardinals, the Giants, the Dodgers — have returned to fundamentals like athleticism and team concept. The biggest hurdle these days for general managers and coaches is to get the players to realize that winning is still the ultimate challenge in professional sports. But their vision gets so clouded by the cheques they receive every two weeks. For the benefit of the game as a whole and for the benefit of the fans, if we were to get back to a more fundamental approach to the game, you would allow teams to compete more consistently year in and year out.
The game seems to be shifting more and more the other way, though. They’re even talking about bringing the designated hitter to the National League. Will that hurt?
It’s interesting, because they’re even talking about changing the strike zone, which makes no sense at all. It’s a product once again of this Cliff Notes era. We don’t ask, “How about the hitters bunt or slap the ball the other way to counteract the shift?” Instead we hear David Ortiz and all these great hitters complain that the shift is killing them. Well, how about going the other way? But no, they continue to bang their head against the wall. So now instead of making changes to counteract reduced offence, the Commissioner says, “How about we try making the strike zone smaller?” It makes me want to scream. That’s why games are so long to begin with. You want to speed up the game, open up the strike zone and make hitters protect the plate. They’ll cut down on their strike out rates and the game will move along more quickly. Shortening the strike zone will be a disaster.
Are there any old-school, fundamentals-preaching guys still around?
There certainly are. Look at a team like the Kansas City Royals and their general manager Dayton Moore. Or look at [GM] Brian Sabean at the Giants. They’re preaching great pitching and defence — and it always works. No matter if the sabermetricians try to come up with a new stat, it always comes down to pitching and defence. Keep the other team from scoring and you’re going to be in the game. I think that’s what Kansas City proved last year in the World Series.
The biggest hurdle is to get the players to realize that winning is still the ultimate challenge. But their vision gets so clouded by the cheques they receive every two weeks.
What about players? It seems rarer and rarer to see guys who look like they’re having any fun out there.
For a while, fun had eluded the game. One thing we’re seeing now — and it’s across the board in hockey, in football, and now in baseball — you’ve got the bat flip, you’ve got the dab, you’ve got the celebration after three points. There’s a lot of expression, and I think it’s good. The fans love it. A lot of old-school people say, well Cam Newton shouldn’t do this, or Steph Curry shouldn’t do that. And John Scott, what a great NHL All-Star game he had, scoring two goals after the league tried to talk him out of playing. Good for him. It’s a reminder that these games are for the fans — they’re 100 per cent entertainment. Obviously the topic of discussion all throughout the post season and into the spring was José Bautista’s bat flip. Well, you know what? Tom Lawless flipped the bat in the World Series when he hit a home run against Frank Viola. And Tom Lawless wasn’t even a regular player. It’s been going on forever, because it’s an emotional game. That’s why people love it.
Who did you look up to as a kid?
There was only one, and that was Willie Mays. I idolized Willie Mays. I saw my first game in 1951, and he was the epitome of baseball. He could run, he could hit, he could throw, and he loved to play the game. He was so enthusiastic. Even at Seals Stadium where the Giants first played when they went to San Fran- cisco, you could hear his high-pitched shrill voice over the crowd when he was hollering to some teammates. Never got a chance to play against him, but I’ve met him and I’ve told him on several occasions how much I admired him.
So how’d you end up a catcher?
I was physically limited. [Laughs.] I couldn’t play anything else. I couldn’t run. I was a pudgy eight-year-old in little league and the coach gave me my cup and said, “You’re a catcher.” I enjoyed that you’re involved in every play. I think everybody marvels at how many major league managers are former catchers, but I think it makes a lot of sense. You’re the only person on the field that sees the whole game in front of them. You’re involved in every aspect of the game from spring training into the regular season. You meet with the pitching coach when he’s talking to his pitchers. You meet with the baserunning coach when he’s talking to his players. Hitting, defence, the other team’s strengths and weaknesses. I played 17 years and was never noted for being a good hitter. But because I played good defence and was able to get the most out of a pitcher, I was able to have a long career.
Is that true of broadcasters, too? You and [Sportsnet co-anchor] Pat Tabler are both former catchers, for example.
I think the same reason. Jim McCarver and Bob Bradley. Bob Eucher, the radio voice of the Brewers. It just gives you that perspective. I remember years ago people were critical of me as an analyst because I broke down a meeting on the mound between a pitcher and a catcher. They said, “How do you know what he’s saying?” Well, I was in those meetings for 17 years. I have a pretty good idea what he’s saying.
A 10-year-old might be seeing his first major league baseball game, and you can have an impact on him by playing hard.
We’ve talked a lot about old-school guys. Who are your favourite players in the game right now?
I’ll tell you what, the Blue Jays have a lot of them. The fans ought to be very proud to have them. I had the honour of managing Derek Jeter in 2006 during the World Baseball Classic, and he took so much pride in how he presented himself. To my mind, that’s the epitome. Guys like him always had the attitude that there might be someone in the stands who’s never seen them play before, so they should always represent themselves well. Over the course of 162 games it’s very easy to take a day off. But if you think about it, that 10-year-old might be seeing his first major league baseball game, and you can have an impact on him by playing hard.
I like that you bring it all back to that. Fundamentals. So any predictions for this year?
I think it’s going to be another great season. Like I said, they got a taste of the candy. Russell Martin told me a great thing a few weeks ago. He said, “You know, I’ve been on winning teams” — I think he’s been in the post-season nine times in his career — “and winning is fun no matter when you do it. But it’s really fun when you do it with your friends.” He was referring to the 2015 Blue Jays. And I think that speaks volumes about where they’re headed.