2016 Canadian draft list
Letters of Intent
By Bob Elliott
In the spring of 1999 the Blue Jays acquired Dave Hollins from the Anaheim Angels.
Manager Jim Fregosi said the same things about Hollins and his leadership qualities that Jays are saying privately about their newly-signed catcher.
“Lead? He wants me to be a leader?” repeated Hollins when told of his manager’s comments. “I’m not coming in and telling guys who have been for years what to do. I’m trying to make the team.”
So, is it wrong for the Jays to expect Russell Martin to walk into the Dunedin clubhouse and have an impact?
“He was a respected guy in our clubhouse his first year in 2011,” said New York Yankee third base coach Robbie Thomson from snowbound Stratford. “The two years he spent with us he did everything you’d look for from a leader. Everything.”
Thomson said Martin prepared for games by working with pitchers, competed every day, played hurt, played his butt off and showed the same leadership skills as Jorge Posada.
“Russell’s not afraid to tap someone on the shoulder,” said Thomson as in ‘hey that’s not the way we do things here.’
Since Thomson was responsible for the Yankees defensive alignments he sat in on pre-game pitchers and catchers meetings and said Martin would often speak his mind.
“He has an idea what his guy has going into a game,” Thomson said. “His pitchers trust him. He helped Ivan Nova, he helped them all. Let me put it a better way: I don’t know of anyone he didn’t help. He knows opposing guys strengths and weaknesses.
“No, it’s not a lot to expect for his first year.”
Lots of compliments, the kind you would expect when one Canadian is asked about another Canadian.
Martin grew up in Montreal. Thomson is from mean streets of Corunna, Ont.
Upper and Lower Canada bonded at Yankee Stadium: 97 wins in 2011 before losing in the AL Division Series to the Detroit Tigers and 95 wins the next year, losing to the Tigers in the AL Championship Series.
And after Thomson spoke about Martin playing hard every day and playing through injuries he dropped the supreme compliment on Martin. Outside of putting up a monument for anyone who has ever been to the Bronx … much less someone like Thomson, who has five World Series wins.
“He’s like Derek Jeter,” Thomson said.
“Players saw Jeter take extra batting practice, they took extra BP. They saw Jeter runs balls out every time, they ran balls out every time. Russell conducted himself the same way.”
And now the Jays, 21 years and counting without an October appearance, have step one of their master off-season plan: Martin.
“I’m happy to see a Canadian come home. Russell Martin brings that Canadian intensity to a team and I love it,” said Thomson.
Jeff Johnson saw it first hand when Martin came to his Chipola College Indians program — along with Ivan Naccarata, still Martin’s good pal today and Eric Bernier — as a third baseman in 2001 in the Florida Panhandle. Johnson had a two-way sophomore — he’d hit line drive and then close out games — Jose Bautista on that team.
The next year Johnson had a drafted catcher sign late and was without a back up.
“I told Russell to try catching, who knows it might help down the road, think he caught about 14 games,” said Johnson from sunny Marianna, Fla. “Before we went to state we had a workout for scouts. Jeff Mathis was a high school senior in the area. Russell looked very athletic back there. I told Clarence Johns (Los Angeles Dodgers) to make sure he took a look at Russell.
“Clarence took hold of it.”
Martin was one of 13 Indians drafted — going in the 17th round to Johns and the Dodgers — from that 2002 team which went 46-10. He played third at rookie-class Gulf Coast League and was converted to a catcher at instructional league that fall.
“With us, Russell led by example,” Johnson said, “he wasn’t a big talking guy but he was always in the weight room, always in the cage.
He has an air of confidence. He’ll help their young arms. He did it with Pittsburgh and their young guys. As you get older, you get wiser.
“He frames pitches as well as anyone. He can get his pitcher an extra two, three inches on border line pitches. Young pitchers need that.”
Johnson says he’s headed for Toronto to see Bautista and Martin (“they’re similar, they draw people to them,”) play this season. He points out how Adam Loewen (Chipola, class of 2003) was with the Jays in 2011 and Ricardo Nanita (class of 2002) made triple-A in the Jays system.
“From the outside looking in, they need a closer and another bat, but Russell is a very valuable piece,” said Johnson. “Do you think I could tote the bags for the season?
“I’d carry them for $1.5 million?”