By Bob Elliott
MONTREAL _ Alex Agostino was the first scout to draft a youngster named Russell Martin.
Alas poor Alex was not the first to sign him,
The former Montreal Expos drafted the infielder in the 35th round in the 2000, as Expos scouting director Jim Fleming also selected future major leaguers Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Jason Bay, Fred Lewis, Jeff Karstens, Wes Littleton and Shawn Hill.
Martin headed to Chipola College in Florida where Expos area scout Dave Dangler visited the next spring. In the draft-and-follow days a teams held player’s rights for 50 weeks after the draft.
“Dave told Russell we weren’t going to sign him, he was going into the draft again,” Agostino said Friday. “I remember Dave telling me the look Russell gave him … one of those ‘if looks could kill’ looks.
“Russell was always intense. It worked out for the best.”
Blue Jays president Paul Beeston and general manager Alex Anthopolous gave Martin the richest contract in franchise history (a five-year $82 million US deal) and Friday night at Olympic Stadium Expos and Blue Jays fans cheered as one when Martin came to bat in the first inning.
It was as if welcoming Andre Dawson, Rusty Staub, Tim Raines or hometown hero Denis Boucher had been introduced.
Martin was at Olympic Stadium to play for the first time since 1999 as a high schooler.
It was at the Olympic Stadium where scout Raimondo Callariworked him Martin, then an infielder and showed him proper foot work.
“Ray was a great infielder, good hands, he just couldn’t hit,” said Martin of Callari, who hit .212 in two seasons in the Expos system.
Martin told reporters he was trying to treat the game against the Cincinnati Reds like “just another game.” Far from it. He was in his home town. His father, also named Russell was playing the national anthem on his saxophone. He took the Metro from McGill to Pie IX and walked to the park.
“Monday in New York will be a breeze, this is more than opening day,” Martin said.
Asked how he’d feel seeing his father on the field pre game, Martin said “I don’t know if I’ll have the words to describe the emotions going through me … but it’s going to be incredible.
“This hasn’t really sunk in, maybe when I go to sleep.”
The catcher said he wasn’t qualified to say if Montreal needed a stadium first before getting a franchise, but alluded his “passion for the city says it would be a good idea.”
Now, Agostino now works for the Philadelphia Phillies and was headed for Boston Saturday night. He sat cheering with his wife Danielle, son Matteo and daughter Claudia like every other Montrealer when Martin came to the plate.
Martin caught Agostino’s eye playing for Les Ailes du Québec before he reached the Canadian Junior National Team.
“I wrote him up after one night I saw him at La Salle Park in Lachine,” said Agostino. “He was a bantam playing midget against juniors and squaring everything up, playing infield with a passion, he ran well. He was 5-foot-9, but he was a guy who loved to be on the field.”
When the Expos declined to sign Martin he went undrafted by the 29 other clubs and returned to Chipola for a second season.
“Russell was 17 playing against guys 19, that’s why the first year was tough for him,” Agostino said.
The next year the Los Angeles Dodgers took Martin in the 17th round.
“Some people scout stats, some size, they fall in love with 6-foot-4 guys, but the Expos didn’t understand we had a real gem in Russell, a home town guy and we were probably only talking $20,000, $25,000,” Agostino said.
Clarence Johns of the Dodgers chose Martin — one round after Dodgers scout Jim Chapman chose Montreal outfielder Sambu Ndungidi, who never made it out of rookie-ball, in 2002.
“So even the Dodgers thought more of a Montreal outfielder than Russell,” said Agostino.
Martin played second and third for the Canadian Junior National Team in 1999-2001 and was drafted from Chipola College in 2002.
From the Jr. team that June, Adam Loewen went fourth over-all in North America to the Baltimore Orioles. Teammates Chris Leroux, David Davidson, Shawn Bowman, Karl Mejholm, Aric Van Gaalen,Scott Mathieson, Ryan McGovern,James Avery, Chris Robinson, AdamPernasilici, Eric Wolfe, Tyler Williams and Ndungidi were also drafts.
“It’s not a perfect science, I see Dangler, who is a really good guy (now with the Miami Marlins) all the time. He calls me Double A, I call him Double D. We joke about Russell all the time — how the Expos missed badly Martin — we laugh about it now.
“It worked out. I’m not surprised. Russell Martin proved everyone was wrong.”
Proved them dead wrong.