TORONTO — Once the pandemonium triggered by Jose Bautista’s iconic bat flip homer in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS against the Texas Rangers had started to settle, Russell Martin stood up in the Toronto Blue Jays dugout, clasped his hands together and raised them to the sky.
Given that in the preceding half-inning it was his return throw to the mound which struck Shin-Soo Choo’s bat and allowed Rougned Odor to score the go-ahead run, the Canadian catcher had ample reason to thank the heavens.
A freak error, on a play you may very well never see again, almost sullied his first season, and perhaps his entire tenure, with the Blue Jays. What an injustice that would have been for a player that was perhaps more instrumental than any other in ending the club’s post-season drought dating back to 1993.
Instead, Martin returns to the Los Angeles Dodgers (along with $16.4 million of his $20-million salary in 2019) following Friday’s trade for a pair of minor-leaguers having been the bedrock of the 2015-16 playoff teams that rekindled a love of baseball in this country.
Remember that it was his seventh-inning homer on Sept. 23, 2015 that sealed a 4-0 win over New York that effectively killed off the Yankees in the AL East. And though Josh Donaldson was the American League MVP that season, Martin’s steely determination was among the most pivotal and transformative forces as the Blue Jays evolved from underachieving also-rans to legit contenders.
“He was an integral part of the playoff runs,” pitching coach Pete Walker said via text. “Brought a combination of knowledge and grit that was contagious. Pitchers trusted him and he was all about winning, never personal stats. Will miss him.”
Added former first base coach Tim Leiper: “Winning was just part of who he was. It wasn’t OK to be just good enough. He brought a much higher expectation to who we were as a team.”
None of that should be lost as Martin becomes the latest member of those playoff teams to be jettisoned amid the club’s teardown to a new future.
The Toronto-born, Montreal-raised backstop’s signing to an $82-million, five-year deal as a free agent was a bold play by former GM Alex Anthopoulos, who after the 2014 season was determined to rewire his team’s heartbeat. After an initial pursuit of Victor Martinez, who ended up re-signing with the Detroit Tigers, Martin became the club’s prime target, valued for his presence, determination, defence and bat.
“It’s very rare you have a player that will check off every box,” Anthopoulos said after handing Martin the largest free-agent contract in club history. “I’ve never been as comfortable with a signing as I’ve been with this one, just because of everything he brings.”
Anthopoulos also described Martin as “the key to our off-season,” and more impact moves followed from there, most notably the acquisition of Donaldson from the Oakland Athletics.
By the time the season started, it was clear the team’s personality had changed dramatically.
Former manager John Gibbons continually pointed to the new edge his team played with, and a greater sense of accountability that came along with it. As Bautista once put it, “We have a common goal and that’s to win, and we might have some guys in here now that are maybe an uptick or two more competitive than some guys that have been here in the past.”
At the heart of it was Martin, who arrived having made the playoffs in seven of his nine seasons, his impact on both the pitching staffs of those clubs and their lineups at the plate integral to the overall success.
Regardless of whether he felt good or bad, he showed up and played tough and played hard.
“I told him on the phone he’s one of the toughest individuals I’ve ever watched play the game of baseball,” general manager Ross Atkins, who took over from Anthopoulos following the 2015 season, said on a conference call to discuss the trade.
Inevitably, the toll of catching 12,947.2 innings in the big leagues, combined with the menace of age, led to decline in his performance over the past two seasons, a rollback that’s coincided with the Blue Jays’ struggles as a whole.
Edwin Encarnacion left after the 2016 season, Bautista after 2017, Donaldson was traded Aug. 31, Gibbons was fired at season’s end and Troy Tulowitzki was released in November. Martin was the last member of that famous Sports Illustrated cover shot featuring the Blue Jays in September 2015 remaining until Friday (David Price, who departed as a free agent after the ‘15 season, was also in the pic).
The starting catcher’s job is now the promising Danny Jansen’s to lose. Fellow prospect Reese McGuire is in position to challenge him. Luke Maile is set up to serve as the experienced backup, an extension of last September, when the club essentially asked Martin to sit on the sidelines for a month.
Unselfishly, he did, he and the Blue Jays simultaneously disengaging from one another, with Gibbons making sure to pay tribute to Martin by letting him manage the season’s final game.
Martin could, perhaps, have been kept around to provide mentorship to the next generation of Blue Jays, but the soon-to-be 36-year-old instead returns to the Dodgers for another shot at the playoffs.
“Watching players as talented as Russ Martin play the game, and how instinctual he is, how thoughtful he is and helping pitchers along as a leader is powerful for our young players,” Atkins said of weighing the possibility of keeping Martin versus dealing him to open up roster space. “At the same time, so is playing and so is development in the major leagues, so there’s some trade-off there. The impact that he has had will be a lasting one on Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire and Luke Maile, and certainly on all of our pitching.”
Now, Martin’s departure, on the heels of the preceding departures, leaves a void for the new generation to fill. Justin Smoak, Kendrys Morales and Kevin Pillar are the among the few grownups that remain, and along with Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Ken Giles, have to be wondering when their time with the Blue Jays will be up.
Players who have been around know the deal and understand what the front office is trying to do. The Blue Jays are working toward a new future that will be built around Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the rest of the kids, and while they may be able to offer some guidance, it’s the youngsters who will ultimately decide what kind of team, culturally, the next core will become.
“Those guys are solid veteran presences,” Atkins said of Morales, Smoak and Pillar. “Clayton Richard and Matt Shoemaker have incredible reputations, Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman have certainly been around the block and want to contribute to that environment. I think we have enough of (veteran presence) to really create a great culture and environment.”
At the same time, Atkins acknowledged that “we’ve got significant work to do in our organization to build around that depth, the players that transition. When our young talent does transition and is realizing their potential at the major-league level, it’s going to be extremely exciting in this country.”
Maybe even as exciting as it used to be, when Martin was at the heart of making it all happen.