Five years, eighty-two million dollars. To think it all started for Russell Martin with clubhouse tequila shots with Nomar Garciaparra.
Martin will be unveiled as the newest member of the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday in an afternoon news conference, and it’s already clear that he’ll be expected to exercise influence on the field and off it, in a clubhouse that manager John Gibbons has publicly admitted wasn’t entirely a close-knit unit.
Martin’s impact on a game offensively and defensively is easily detailed by advanced analytics — you’ll hear as much about pitch-framing today as anything else — but his abilities as an instigator/governor/participant in clubhouse life depend on word of mouth.
And word of mouth is good, whether it was A.J. Burnett telling me in an interview two years ago that Martin’s presence behind the plate had helped rejuvenate his career and postpone retirement — Burnett’s had two more contracts after that season — to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick being told about how Martin walked around the clubhouse on his hands for yuks (“like Cirque de Soleil,” according to manager Clint Hurdle), to Vance Worley describing Martin on the field as a guy who will “set up early … set up late … deke one thing to get the batter thinking and then he’ll jump around and he’s in another spot.”
Gibbons described his team on occasion this past season as being “dead-assed.” That’s expected to change, effective today. Bringing in somebody like Martin and disposing of Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus and Anthony Gose — in a bizarre set of circumstances, those latter two players somehow glommed together and there were those within the Blue Jays coaching staff who worried that Rasmus was a lousy influence — is seen to be a start.
Martin has been something of a renaissance man — and a bit of a survivor, too. This is his third free-agent deal but his first big-bucks contract, and that’s at least in part due to mid-career uncertainty about his durability and production.
Martin has a track record of being able to function in clubhouses full of big personalities. He broke into the game in 2006 with a Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse dominated by the likes of Garciaparra and Jeff Kent. Later, Luis Gonzalez came into the equation. Martin was a liked and effective presence in Derek Jeter’s New York Yankees clubhouse and managed to exercise influence in a Pirates clubhouse that included MVP Andrew McCutcheon.
That Dodgers group was, uh, something else, as Martin learned quickly. They had lost five games in a row and called up Martin to make his major-league debut going into a Cinco de Mayo tilt at Dodger Stadium against the Milwaukee Brewers, and a friend of Garciaparra’s had given him a bottle of tequila. So Garciaparra put two and two together and figured the team should do shots in order to break the losing streak. Martin, 23 and on the verge of going 2-for-4 in what would be the first of 121 games in his rookie season, sat there with a bemused expression and looked up as Josh Rawitch — now with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but back then the Dodgers’ public relations director — sidled over and said, “Don’t worry. It’s not like this happens every day.”
One year later, Martin was in the process of earning his first all-star berth with Gonzalez as a teammate. Gonzalez, now a special assistant to the president with the Diamondbacks, would finish with 354 home runs and 2,591 hits and delivered the World Series-winning single for the Arizona Diamondbacks over Derek Jeter’s head in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, developing along the way a reputation as a popular, supportive teammate. Martin became a frequent lunch companion, and it was Gonzalez who took him aside one day after he’d wrenched a shoulder diving head first into a base and told him it was time to practice a little prevention.
“Russ was a guy who was impossible not to like,” said Gonzalez, who was in Mexico on Wednesday conducting a baseball clinic for kids. “I just liked everything about him — the way he played the game, the way he approached everything. He was a maximum effort guy who just wanted to win, no different than what he seems like now when I watch him play.”
Gonzalez credited Martin with having a veteran’s sensibilities even at a young age.
“Those Dodgers teams were veteran teams,” he said. “It was full of a lot of guys who’d played the game at a high level for a long time. And yet he still took control of things. He fit right into his job — and that’s not easy to do when you have a veteran team and a staff of older guys who have an idea about what they want to do. But Russ … man, he took it full on and embraced it as an opportunity.”
Gonzalez thinks that returning to Canada — Martin was born in East York, Ont., but grew up in Montreal where his father was a musician of some note both in clubs and in subway stations — makes a great deal of sense for Martin.
“It’s great for both the Blue Jays and Russ,” Gonzalez said. “Plus, I think playing on astro-turf is going to help his offensive numbers. Those hard, line-drives he hits up the middle are going to turn into doubles at the Rogers Centre.”
The first time I interviewed Russell Martin was in Vero Beach, Fla., at Dodgers spring training. It was for a story on another Quebecois, Eric Gagne, whom had taken Martin — a Dodgers farm-hand — under his wing. The Dodgers manager at the time was Jim Tracy, a wonderful, quirky man who had been a bench coach for Felipe Alou, and Tracy told me then: “You’ll be writing a lot about that guy (Martin) some day. Who knows? Maybe he’ll be with the Blue Jays or something.”
Maybe becomes reality in a few hours, bringing a new sheriff to town. The Blue Jays have added free agents before, but this feels like one of those Pat Gillick-type additions — a little food for the numbers guys, a little food for the folks who worry about makeup. The quantifiable and non-quantifiable, and it just sort of feels right, doesn’t it?