TORONTO — Russell Martin’s absence was duly noted during Saturday’s post-game celebration in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse. There was nothing meant by it; while he’s no longer the life of the party as he often was in his early days — and late evenings — with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he’s not averse to seeing his teammates cut loose. Mark Buehrle stayed off to the side, too – and Josh Donaldson emerged as the media started to filter out.
“Winning the division is what it has to be all about. Winning the division is like gold,” Martin said Sunday. “We had a meeting before the game and it was decided we’d just have a little toast, that it would be about: ‘Hey, well done, now let’s go out and win the next game.’ So, I stayed for the toast with the guys, then left. I kind of thought that was going to be it.”
Martin is, in the words of his manager John Gibbons, “a very private guy,” and now at the age of 32 he will be making his eighth post-season appearance in 10 years. That private nature seems to have survived the seismic shift in the clubhouse brought about by the additions of the likes of David Price and Troy Tulowitzki and the return of the one-million-watt bulb that is Marcus Stroman.
Martin smiled when it was suggested he is on the verge of entering ‘grand old man of the game territory.’ But think about it: he has played in the game’s two biggest markets (Los Angeles and New York) for two of the most storied franchises, the Dodgers and Yankees. He was part of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates team that ended that franchise’s streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons — the longest stretch in North American professional sports history — and now he’s helped the Blue Jays end the longest streak of playoff-free seasons in North American sports. The Blue Jays can win the American League East because they owned the Yankees this season and Martin’s .300 average and five home runs against his former team was one of the biggest claims to ownership.
Martin has a tattoo that reads ‘World Citizen’ on the left side of his chest. Seems fitting in a baseball sense, too.
“I just feel like I’ve always had an ability to work well with what I have,” Martin said. “And in this case, I’m working with such an abundance of talent that I really feel as if I’m just enjoying the ride.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, Martin said that in some ways helping the Pirates end that streak resonated a little more. “I think the drought was probably felt a little more in Pittsburgh, to be honest,” said Martin. “The thing is, we’re talking about playing under .500 ball for 20 years. That’s what Pittsburgh was about. Here, at least, there were seasons over .500 — and always the idea that the Blue Jays were playing in a tough division, with tough teams. What is similar, though, is the energy you feel in the street and in the stadium. In both places, you really get the sense you’ve done something for the fans.”
There have been plenty of highlights for Blue Jays fans this season, and at times it has seemed as if their Canadian-born catcher has been something of an offensive afterthought. But Martin’s role in the destruction of the Yankees in a season where the division was ripe for the taking remains one of the most vital contributions made by any player — non-Josh Donaldson Division.
DISASTER IN WASHINGTON
The Blue Jays were very much one of the teams sniffing around Jonathan Papelbon at the trade deadline, but each time disparate voices in the room would say the same thing: “Yeah … but ….”
We saw why on Sunday when Papelbon attacked Washington Nationals teammate Bryce Harper, putting his hands around his neck after he ostensibly called out Harper for failing to run out a ball. Papelbon has become a disgrace; and while the Nationals are the biggest flop of the major league season alongside the Seattle Mariners, Harper is one of the faces of the game and as his team has foundered he has flirted with .400 in the month of September. (He also has 123 walks, tied with Ken Singleton for the most in a single season in franchise history, set in 1973, and any time you can get Ken Singleton’s name in your column is a good day, no?)
Nationals manager Matt Williams pulled Harper out of the game but Papelbon still pitched — getting roasted, appropriately. There will be big changes in personnel this off-season (the Blue Jays will make a play for Doug Fister, I’m told) and a new manager will be hired. This will be quite a job, and it will take somebody of, say, Terry Francona’s pedigree to pull it off.
Old school guys will probably admire Papelbon. The Washington media will surely side with Harper. But one thing everyone agrees with: Williams has been an unmitigated disaster as manager. Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell, one of our best, struck an appropriate tone after the incident: “As preseason World Series favourites who now won’t even make the playoffs, they have been cut slack for injuries, a shattered bullpen and novice managing. But for four consecutive years, they have also been accused of choking, sometimes by other teams, after each season ended in tatters. Now, photos for that caption.”
He also dropped this nugget, when the over-his-head Williams suggested the only response was to go out and win the next game: “Would the captain of the Titanic say: ‘We have to put that iceberg behind us and get ready for tomorrow?'”
What a joke.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
• Almost lost this past weekend were the two solid appearances by Aaron Sanchez out of the Blue Jays bullpen, which will be welcomed by manager John Gibbons who has made as one of the top items on his to-do list getting a read on where his eighth-inning guy is both mentally and physically. Sanchez has started to incorporate his cutter, a pitch that he was told to back off from after developing a lat strain.
• We consider the Los Angeles Dodgers to be one of the game’s marquee franchises yet get this: when the Dodgers clinch the National League West title it will mark the first time in franchise history that they have made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons.
• Speaking of the Dodgers, they will play two arch-rivals — the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres — down the stretch this week in an attempt to land home-field advantage for a National League Division Series matchup against the New York Mets. That’s vital, because if it lines up for the Dodgers they’ll be hosting games starting at 5 p.m. Pacific time — the Mets would likely be the prime-time game for the East — and get to run out Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in the late-day shadows at Dodger Stadium.
One Blue Jays player was heard saying he wanted to clinch at Camden Yards so the team could “tear that clubhouse apart,” a reference to the animosity that has existed between the Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles in recent seasons. Between Darren O’Day purposely hitting Jose Bautista or last season’s incident in which Marcus Stroman was essentially accused of being a punk by Orioles manager Buck Showalter after he threw at Caleb Joseph in retaliation — Showalter could be seen dismissively waving his hand in Stroman’s direction while Stroman smirked — not to mention the fact that the Blue Jays were the Orioles’ opponents when Baltimore clinched the AL East Division title last season, there’s plenty of ill will to be mined.
My hope is that the Blue Jays players take the party on to the field if as expected they are cheered on by a sizable contingent of travelling fans. Stroman, incidentally, pitches Tuesday. Say, you don’t think … nah. That would be too perfect.
Jeff Blair is host of the Jeff Blair Show from 9-11 and Baseball Central from 11-1 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan. He also appears frequently on Prime Time Sports With Bob McCown.