TORONTO — When Austin Martin was drafted fifth overall by the Toronto Blue Jays last month, he thought of a lot of people who helped him reach that moment. His college coach at Vanderbilt University, the esteemed and well-decorated Tim Corbin. His high school coach, Gil Morales, who he won a Florida state championship with in 2015. And Ryan Keith.
Keith was a graduate of the same high school Martin attended — Trinity Christian in Jacksonville, Fla. — who eventually went on to helm the school’s football team and chip in as a strength coach on the baseball side. Martin worked with him throughout high school, which overlapped with Keith’s battle with ALS, the motor neuron disease that eats away at the muscular system.
“I watched his body just deteriorate,” Martin says. “But his mental was still there the entire time. He would wake up at four in the morning, show up to the field just to make sure that we get better. He was always there on time. Never made an excuse. Never complained about anything. He definitely made a big impact on my life.”
Keith lost his battle with ALS at the age of 38 in March, 2017, as Martin was finishing his senior year and getting ready to go off to Vanderbilt. Ask him now to list some of the biggest influences in his life, and Keith’s name comes quickly to mind.
“He was amazing,” Martin says. “He was just one of those people that you only meet once in your life. That was definitely my biggest influence.”
Martin, who signed a contract with the Blue Jays this week, putting him one step closer to fulfilling his dream of playing big-league ball, has no shortage of inspiration to look to over his 21 years.
His mother, Daisy Riutort, was a 20-year-old gas station attendant when she gave birth to him. His father, Christopher Martin, was still in college and would go on to become an air traffic controller. Martin credits the work ethic he witnessed in both his parents at a young age — Daisy is now a nurse — for fostering his diligence, and a childhood spent battling over everything with his cousins for developing the competitiveness.
“My parents had me at a young age,” says Martin, who has two younger sisters, Jenessa and Leilani. “They were both working and doing school at the same time. My grandma was really watching me. So, I’d be around my cousins and I’d have a bunch of older cousins that would love to beat up on me and stuff. We’d always play games and compete. I had to earn everything. They weren’t going to let me win just to be nice.”
That’s how this aggressive, uncompromising ballplayer came to be, growing into the quick-twitch spark plug we’ve seen in college highlight tapes driving balls all over the yard with eye black smeared down either side of his face.
But aside from the big bat speed and exit velocities, one of Martin’s most impressive attributes as a hitter is his strike zone management and pitch selection, which allowed him to walk more times than he struck out over his college career. That, coupled with batting averages close to .400 in his sophomore and junior years, let Martin reach base in 47 per cent of his 665 college plate appearances. When he gets his pitch, he knows what to do with it.
But Martin’s approach isn’t a complicated one. He’s looking for a fastball, as all hitters are. And he’s confident he’s quick enough to react to a hung breaking ball and punish it. He isn’t honed in on one part of the plate. He isn’t changing much with two strikes. He’s just trusting his eyes, his hands, and his bat speed to let him get to a pitch he can hit.
“I think hitting is complicated enough as it is. So, I just try to simplify everything,” Martin says. “There’s no certain zone that I’m looking for. Just a ball that I know that I’ll be able to have a good chance of putting the barrel on — I’m definitely going to swing at that. I definitely take a mentality of attacking the pitcher while I’m in the box and owning the box. It’s my AB.”
Announced as a shortstop by the Blue Jays on draft night, Martin played first base through high school, before picking up second, third and centre field at Vanderbilt. He’s never actually played short but he has proven throughout college that his athleticism will carry him at a variety of positions. It’s no doubt the Blue Jays will try to take advantage of that versatility and Martin says he has no preference as to what position he plays — provided it’s on the field.
“I remember having a conversation with my high school coach my freshman fall at Vanderbilt,” Martin says. “He was asking me, ‘Where have you been playing? Where do you want to play?’ And I remember telling him I just want to get in the lineup. Wherever they want me on the field, I’ll play. I just want to play ball. I’ve always had that mentality.”
Like Bo Bichette’s parents started him in tennis, Martin’s started him in soccer. Everyone in his family plays it. His dad, his cousins. But when Martin was 18 months old, he began tossing the soccer ball in the air and swinging at it with a stick. Just like Bichette began swinging at tennis balls with the butt end of his racquet. By four, Martin was playing tee-ball.
You know the rest. Now he’s a professional, out to prove he’s ready for the next level with a $7,000,825 signing bonus to his name. (Of course, thanks to this season’s new draft rules, Martin will only see $100,000 of that bonus within the next 30 days, receiving the rest in two lump-sum payments due on the first day of July in 2021 and 2022.)
That process will begin as soon as this weekend at Rogers Centre when Martin is added to the Blue Jays 60-man player pool. The only remaining hurdle for him to pass is producing a second negative COVID-19 test, a requirement agreed to with the Canadian government to allow the Blue Jays to hold training camp in Toronto.
He’s certainly itching to get back to work. The pandemic shut Vanderbilt’s season down after only 18 games — 16 of which Martin played in. That was mid-March and he hasn’t been in a baseball environment since. He kept working out and lifting during the pandemic, but it’s been a while since he’s faced live pitching or had to read a hot grounder off a bat.
“I really just want to get back into that baseball mode. Just waking up early, working out. Getting on the field, taking ground balls, hitting. Everything about it is what I miss,” he says. “I’m just most excited to get up there and get things rolling.”
Martin was excited on draft night, too, as he fell to the Blue Jays after being expected to go as high as second overall. Coming into the night, Martin wanted to be selected by either the Miami Marlins — who held the third pick — or the Blue Jays, who he’d heard great things about from his friend Phillip Clarke, a one-time Vanderbilt teammate who the Blue Jays selected in the ninth round of the 2019 Draft.
Clarke played 37 games as a catcher and designated hitter with the Vancouver Canadians last season, and provided Martin plenty of information about not only playing for the Blue Jays organization, but the country of Canada.
“He just said that it’s a great atmosphere. The country is just beautiful and very nice,” Martin says. “I was watching videos of the stadium during the playoffs when Jose Bautista hit that home run. That place exploded. And I just got excited, man. It was crazy.”
Martin will soon be living in that same building, finally back in a baseball environment, rubbing shoulders with current big-leaguers and future teammates, putting himself back on track to reaching the highest level. That’s expected to happen quickly, regardless of the setback in his development the pandemic has caused. Maybe next season, maybe the year after. What’s important now is that Martin finally gets to start on his way.
“Definitely a weird year this year. But I look at it as a positive thing, having the opportunity to be around those big-league guys,” he says. “I’m just trying to gain knowledge. I think it’s cool that I’m getting a little taste of it. I get to see how they operate, what they do. And just pick brains. I just want to learn. I just want to learn and take full advantage of this experience while I can.”