Russell Martin on return to L.A., Blue Jays exit, possible retirement

Russell Martin sits down with Arash Madani to talk about how all the stops and teams he has played for in his professional baseball career has affected him and why the 2019 Los Angeles Dodgers are the runaway team of the season.

LOS ANGELES – Back with the Los Angeles Dodgers where his career first started, Russell Martin is contemplating the end of his playing days.

At 36, the longtime Canadian catcher is loving his second stint out on the West Coast, finding contentment as a part-time player on the National League’s best team. He’s full of praise for young backstop Will Smith, who’ll be doing the heavy lifting come playoff time, and understands his small role on an immensely talented roster, even if a part of him wishes he was a bigger part of things.

All that is on his mind with the five-year, $82-million deal he originally signed with the Toronto Blue Jays set to expire this fall. Right now, he’s unsure if he wants another contract to follow.

“I know I can do it physically. It’s going to be, do I have the desire? Am I going to enjoy myself doing it? I don’t know,” Martin says in the Dodgers dugout after batting practice.

“I’m going to have to see how this one plays out. I really enjoy the game – but I enjoy playing the game. I really like competing. Being on a team like this is fun, but if I wasn’t on a winning team, I’d have to be really selective on where I would go. I’d have to have that perfect fit and who knows if that’s going to be available. There are a lot of things that are going to come into play in the decision. This could possibly be my last year. I don’t know. It could be. We’ll see.”

For now, there’s still lots of the season left to enjoy, especially with a Dodgers club he describes as “probably the best team I’ve ever been on.” Despite nine trips to the post-season, he’s yet to appear in a World Series, and a championship in his 14th season sure would make for a fitting way to exit.

Martin still brings plenty to the table, although his contributions are now weighted toward the game-calling/savvy experience end of things rather than production side. At 386 innings logged behind the plate over 49 contests, he’s on pace for the smallest catching workload of his career, well off the 994 innings he caught in 2015 and the 1,069.1 frames he carried in 2016 when he was a pillar supporting the Blue Jays’ consecutive runs to the American League Championship Series.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

There’s a reason why the Blue Jays sent $16.4 million of his $20 million salary this year, along with Martin, to the Dodgers for minor-leaguers Andrew Sopko and Ronny Brito.

Still, his role in helping transform the Blue Jays from perennial also-ran to legitimate World Series threat can’t be overstated. Often forgotten in the annals of the 2015 season is the seventh-inning homer he hit Sept. 23 to seal a 4-0 win over the New York Yankees that effectively killed off the Bronx Bombers in the AL East.

More frequently remembered is the freak play during Game 5 of the ALDS with the Texas Rangers, when his routine relay back to the mound struck the outstretched arm of Shin-Soo Choo, allowing Rougned Odor to score the go-ahead run in the seventh inning. Bedlam followed, first among the umpires, and later in the stands, making Jose Bautista’s bat-flip homer in the bottom half all the more memorable.

“It pretty much saved my butt,” Martin says of the electric drive.

“The way (the Choo play) happened, it wasn’t super dramatic. Everyone was kind of confused. The umpire (Dale Scott) sent (Odor) back to third base, he lifted his arm, called time and I didn’t even know what the rule was. It would have been a shame to lose a game like that when it really has nothing to do with the game of baseball. I made a mistake, but did I make a mistake? I’ve thrown the ball back the same way every single time, and he just happened to stretch his arm out, a fluke thing.

“But as the story goes, Bautista was going to put his stamp on it, like I can’t let my guy go down like that. It set up that moment to be more dramatic. Who knows why certain things happen. Maybe that happened because something more special was going to happen in the end.”

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One of the most memorable shots from the pandemonium that ensued was of Martin in the dugout with hands clasped to the heavens. Reminded, he laughs heartily.

“It was unbelievable, man,” he says. “That one felt good.”

Less good were the 2017 and ’18 seasons with the Blue Jays, the latter of which he finished tethered to the bench so Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire could get reps. As a tribute to Martin’s professionalism after he was sidelined, John Gibbons let him manage the season finale.

By then, the die was cast for his future, or lack thereof with the Blue Jays, and while Martin says he “didn’t have any expectations” entering the off-season, GM Ross Atkins was “pretty upfront with the fact that they wanted to rebuild, going young and using young players.”

“When you have a veteran catcher in the last year of his contract and getting paid a lot of money, it doesn’t really make sense to keep that kind of guy around,” Martin concedes. “So I understood the business side of it, but anytime you leave somewhere you’re leaving all the friendships that you’ve had over the years. That was definitely tough.”

His fate wasn’t settled until January, and his future came down to the Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies. Atkins phoned to tell him there was a possibility of a deal and “within a day or even that day, he was like, ‘I think it’s going to be the Dodgers.'”

“It was kind of nice to get back to a place where it all started,” says Martin.

“Kind of crazy. When the Dodgers first non-tendered me (after the 2010 season), it was devastating. I was shocked. I hurt my hip and didn’t really know what was going to happen. … They made a business decision and I was gone. It always kind of stung a little bit because it was the first time in my life I had a ‘We don’t want you anymore,’ kind of thing. I never really wanted to leave. This is a beautiful place, man. L.A. is awesome, the weather is great, the fans are great. Great place to play baseball.”

And, perhaps, a great place to cap an accomplished career, too.

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