MLB reports: Imagine living the life of Russell Martin. The starting catcher for the New York Yankees. Nine games into the 2011 season, having a .300 batting average, three home runs, eight RBIs, two stolen bases and a .977 OPS. At the tender age of twenty-eight years older, with two all-star game appearances, a gold glove and silver slugger award under this belt, the world should be at Martin’s feet. Any person that had not followed baseball for the last couple of years and saw these statistics would be in awe of Martin. The second coming of Munson or Berra they may ask? Certainly would seem so, as Martin’s star appears to have been rekindled to its peak levels from 2006 and 2007. However the road for Martin from baseball obscurity to stardom, to bottoming out and a rebirth is a rocky and fascinating one to say the least. I present to you an inside look into Russell Martin, catcher for the New York Yankees.
My first real exposure to Russell Martin was in March 2006. As Major League Baseball was gearing up for it’s ever World Baseball Classic (“WBC”), all of the countries involved finalizing and tweaking their rosters in anticipation of the inaugural event. Residing in Toronto, I was reading a great deal of information and stories on the Canadian contingent. News travelled that the expected starting catcher for Canada, a relatively unknown 17th round draft pick in 2002 for the Los Angeles Dodgers by name of Russell Martin had declined his roster spot at the last minute. Reports indicated that Martin felt that going into spring training he had a strong chance of winning a spot on the Dodgers roster and did not want to hurt his chances by camp and auditioning for his spot in front of the Dodgers’ brass. Dioner Navarro, the catching incumbent, was seen as a declining player and the chance to unseat him was too great for Martin to pass up. Max St. Pierre and Pete LaForest were the catching tandem for Canada in 2006 that came within a hair of advancing to the second round (only the runs allowed to South Africa in a blowout win sealed their fate). Martin ended up making his major league debut on May 5, 2006 and took a stranglehold of the starting catching position for the next five years in LA.
While Canadian fans were clearly disappointed with his decision, Martin obviously made the right choice for his career. While representing one’s country in international play is an honor and somewhat of an obligation, fighting for one’s livelihood and paycheque when it is unsettled takes the ultimate priority. In the 2009 edition of the WBC, Martin kept his word to play for his country and finally suited up for Canada for the first round in Toronto in front of his hometown crowd. After almost upsetting the United States in game one, Martin and his Canadian teammates went down fairly quietly in another WBC first round exit. But with his Dodgers catching role firmly secure, it was a thrill to watch Martin play in the 2009 WBC and perform at a high level. Having attended all the first round games in Toronto personally, my scouting report is that Martin played an excellent series. He showed tremendous hustle and heart, playing solid defense behind the plate and grinding out at-bats. Russell Martin left a tremendous impression on me during that series has lasted with me to this date.
Before getting into Martin’s playing career with the Dodgers, I wanted to share several interesting inside perspectives on Russell Martin, the person. Born in Ontario, Martin grew up in Quebec and lived for a period in France. Coming from talented bloodlines, his mother is an actress and singer while his father is a saxophone player. Martin’s full name is actually Russell Nathan Jeans on Coltrane Martin Junior. His father named him after the famous jazz musician John Coltrane. Martin for the 2009 season changed the name on the back of his jersey from “Martin” to “J. Martin”. Hailed as a classy move, Martin was paying homage to his mother as an inspiration and force in his life. From honoring his mother and country, to playing with heart and inspiration to win both a gold glove and silver slugger in 2007, Martin appeared to have everything on his side. That is where the move from Los Angeles to New York is a confusing and unsettled story, even to-date.
From all accounts, Russell Martin, the baseball player, was on top of the world in 2006 and 2007. From earning the starting catching job on the Dodgers to become one of the top two-way catchers in the game in 2007, Martin appeared to be able to do no wrong. 2008 appeared to be a blip for Martin, as his OPS dropped from .843 to .781. Going into the 2009 season, Martin was seen at 26 to be a player just coming into his own and due for a huge rebound. Looking back at 2009 and 2010, everything that had gone so right for Martin quickly soured. Somehow in the span of two years Martin became a scapegoat and noted malcontent in Los Angeles. From a gold glove catcher, Martin began to be known through baseball circles as lazy and unmotivated behind the plate. While previously seen as a growing leader on his team, Martin and the other younger stars on the Dodgers were labeled as disrespectful and cancerous in the clubhouse. While playing nearly full seasons and being durable from 2007-2009, Martin tore the labrum in right hip in 2010 and cast a doubt over his future in the game. From a catcher that was walk ninety times in 2008 and steal twenty-one and eighteen bases respectively in 2007 and 2008, the Russell Martin of the last two seasons appeared to have little pop or spark in his game. At 5’10” and 230 lbs, Martin went from a stocky and agile catcher to an out-of-shape player on the decline. All at the tender age of twenty-eight. Clearly a change was in order.
The Dodgers, not always known for protecting their prized prospects well, had traded away highly regarded up-and-coming catcher Carlos Santana to the Cleveland Indians for the seasoned veteran third baseman Casey Blake. The logic at the time? The Indians gave the Dodgers the choice of absorbing salary or giving up a top prospect. The Dodgers chose to sacrifice Santana and save a couple of dollars. Having had the loss of Santana still fresh in fans’ minds, the Dodgers chose not to tender Martin a contract after the 2010 season in the fear that his hip had not recovered and to save approximately six million dollars in salary. Now a free agent in the last offseason, Martin had the choice of signing with any team of his liking.
The top noted suitors for Martin’s services all lied in the AL East: The Boston Red Sox, the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees. Reports had indicated that other suitors were calling on Martin but looking at him at third base rather than catcher. After being drafted at the hot corner and moved to catcher early in his career, some teams apparently were nervous about Martin’s abilities behind the plate. The three finalist teams for Martin were apparently comfortable enough the former gold glover still had abilities to catch in the majors and all offered him apparently deals in the one year, four million dollar range. Toronto was Martin’s hometown but had a strong up-and-coming catcher themselves by the name of J.P. Arencebia. Sensing apparently the roadblock in Toronto, Martin from all accounts narrowed his choice to his best opportunity at a full-time catching gig and to win, the Red Sox and the Yankees. A tough decision I’m sure, the lure of the big apple and pinstripes was too much for Martin to turn down. With Jorge Posada newly installed as the designated hitter and the Yankees have catching prospects themselves that were not seen as ready, Martin finally with the Yankees in December, 2010. The baseball world had no idea what to expect from Martin and anticipated his debut in the Bronx in 2011.
Off to a solid start to the year, all reports have been solid thus far on Martin. Showing a strong presence behind the plate and with the Yankee sluggers protecting him in the lineup, his bat has been reborn. I see Martin’s keys to success as keeping quiet, playing hard and going back to the basics that led to his successes back in 2006 and 2007. In an environment filled with hundreds of reporters, Martin will need to be careful of what he says in New York. It was one thing to be a confident rookie in Los Angeles, as that type of attitude quickly became seen as cocky and arrogant in later years and would be no different in New York. As long as Martin plays hard and lets the Yankee veterans police the clubhouse, we could see Martin reinvigorate himself back to being one of the top catchers in the game. With a track record like Martin’s, it is difficult to predict where Martin will be in the next year or two, let alone ten years. But given what has been seen so far, I am confident to say that I see good things happening for him. It has been a wild ride for Russell Martin; let’s hope for his sake that consistency becomes his new calling card.
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