* Russell Martin had a good eye from his way home from East York Hospital — spotting a flock of geese — to Scarborough, to growing up in Montreal, to making post-season play seven of his first nine seasons, to a return to the Olympic Stadium in a Blue Jays uniform.
By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
It was right after he was born.
Russell Martin’s parents, Suzanne Jeanson and Russell Martin, were bringing their newborn from East York Hospital to their home in Scarborough, Ont., for the first time. A flock of geese flew overhead, and that was when the elder Russell realized that he had something special on his hands, and he was going to have to do everything he could in order to challenge his son.
“I never noticed the geese until my little baby in my arms’ eyes picked them up,” he said. “All you’re doing is counting your blessings, you have a healthy son, his mother is in-house, you’re looking out at Lake Ontario, you’ve fixed up his room and you’ve got some mobiles in there, and you hope for the best for your child.
“But when he saw the geese before I did, I was impressed. Then after that, I kept challenging him, to see what he liked and how much effort he would want to make.”
By the time he was seven months old, the younger Martin was walking. Before he started running the bases at two years old, he was ice skating, and being chased around the rink by older little girls who were impressed by the tiny athlete. His parents nicknamed him Evel Knievel when he refused to ride his bicycle with training wheels on, despite the results.
“He had pads on his knees and his ankles and his arms, and he was getting all bruised up,” Jeanson said.
“He didn’t want any training wheels, so he just had to rough it up … He’s been a spirited type of person from the onset.”
He never ceased to surprise, and was a bundle of energy who was always a joy to watch. And then the Martins decided to give baseball a try.
“When he started smacking the baseballs, well I sort of got serious,” Martin’s father said. “One day, a lady came by when we were working out in the park and she watched us for a little while. She said, ‘Wow, if you guys keep doing that, he’ll end up in the major leagues someday.’
“It was something to think about.”
The young Russell was certainly thinking about it. While the woman in the park brought Major League Baseball to his father’s attention when he was just four years old, Jeanson was first introduced to the idea a couple years later at a parent-teacher interview with her son’s first-grade instructor, when the teacher told the mother, “Russell really knows where he’s going.”
“He’s six years old,” Jeanson said. “What did he tell you exactly? She said, ‘He says he’s going to be a professional baseball player and I’m sure he’s going to do it.’ And she was right, and so was he obviously.
“When he was in Grade 1 he already knew what he wanted to do. And then again, he had home work to do once in Grade 6 and he had to write down his life plan. He wrote that he was going to be a professional baseball player and that he was going to meet people from everywhere, like Hollywood and all that stuff.
“And that he would eventually marry and have two kids, so we’ll see what happens. But so far, so good.”
Martin’s parents cite differences as the reason they couldn’t make their relationship work, his father admitting that perhaps he is “not the easiest guy to deal with if you have feminine intention.” The two split when he was young, but they always had one thing in common – they wanted what was best for their son.
“What he got from me may have been a little bit extraordinary, but what he got from his mom was a little bit extraordinary, and I couldn’t have provided that,” Martin said. “When I look at my son and I see how well grounded he is, I really have to thank his mom for being the way she is and allowing me to have as much access to him early as I did.”
Having lost her own father early in her life, Jeanson didn’t want to take anything away from Russell’s relationship with his. She knew that what they had was special, and that the younger Russell was constantly learning and evolving through the challenges his father would provide. And the father had a great appreciation for the love his son has for his mom.
“One day when we were working out his mom came to pick him up,” his father said. “I had a routine – I would throw Russ six or seven or eight or nine balls and he would smack them out of the park. I would run out and pick them up and would make him run around the bases four or five times, and we would see who would get back to home base first.
“When his mom showed up and said, ‘Hi Russ,’ man, I’ve never seen that kid run so fast in all my life. Aside from everything dad is trying to do to help his son, mom shows up and here comes more juice than you could possibly believe. So me, [with] everything I was doing really had to recognize how much mom had to do with it, even if I’m not like mom.”
Eventually, the young baseball player outgrew his father’s challenges. Martin would lay awake at night trying to imagine anything he could do to make his son stronger or faster. He was inspired by the fact that the growing boy was making him work harder in order to challenge him each day, but suddenly he realized that he might need some help.
“When he got to be 12 and 13 I was advised in advance that I might want to pass him on to some other guys, because most dads really get in the way,” the father said. “I was lucky enough to be able to find an outstanding developer of talent in the province [of Quebec] named Ian Jordan.”
Jordan helped Russell put aside some of his bad baseball habits in order to create better ones, and envisioned a future for the player that his family might not have otherwise thought possible. He and a group of instructors that he had previously taught took some of the strain off of a father who was putting immense pressure on himself, and changed the future for the then-teenager.
“I could step back as a father and just go home and deal with some of my other issues,” he said. “He was able to develop in a way a lot of kids in this province don’t have the privilege to, and that was because Ian had those people tutored and they had a certain amount of excellence in baseball and in manhood and they could pass it on.
“Russ was not the only benefactor. There were many, but Russ has been able to take it to another level because he got started really young.”
He started at a young age in an array of sports, but baseball proved to be the one that the up-and-coming athlete was best at, or perhaps the one that was most encouraged. When he tried to follow in his father’s footsteps and play football, the man who had walked those same steps quickly quashed the idea.
“I’m pretty aware of what happened to some of the people around me when I was playing football,” he said. “When he said, ‘Come on dad, let me play football. I’m better than my friends,’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, maybe next year, we’re busy now.’ If you’ll pardon my French, no ‘effing’ way that was happening …
“And he expected too much when he was on the ice. When he played baseball he was king of the court and when he got on the ice he expected the same thing. I could see it. [With basketball] when he was 13, I stopped playing against him because he sent me in the house with some black and blue that I had for about five weeks.”
When his high school playing days at Polyvalente Edouard Montpetit were coming to an end, and it came time for Martin to be challenged further, it was Jordan who helped him with the decision to pursue a collegiate career in Marianna, Fla., at Chipola College.
“We had an offer [at a four-year school],” the father said. “It was Oklahoma or Texas … but when I mentioned it to Ian Jordan he said, ‘Listen, the bus rides are long, it’s hard to get your homework done, and it’s hard to keep everything together. If you go to Florida the bus rides are much shorter and there are some good people down there who make sure you get your education looked after.”
Coming from French-speaking schools, and a sport study program in Quebec where he had to maintain a high average in order to participate in the athletics that he wanted to, the English-first language junior college was an easy transition for the infielder.
“I had more ease with English,” he said. “French is a more complicated language when it comes to reading and writing so I had more difficulty in that department in school because I went to high school and elementary [school] in French.
“When I went to an English college in the States I thought man, I’m absorbing this information so much easier. I should have done it in high school too and I might have gotten a better college education or something.”
Along with his academic excellence, Martin hit .304/.436/.423 with three homers, nine doubles, one triple 47 runs scored and 28 RBIs in his first season at Chipola hitting in the same lineup as Jose Bautista. The next year, the powerhouse squad won it’s second consecutive Panhandle Conference championship, and he bettered his numbers to .324/.404/.478 with four homers, 18 doubles, one triple, 52 runs and 42 runs driven in.
“When Russ got down to Florida he really didn’t have any trouble with his studies or anything,” his father said. “He was mentioned at one point as being an academic all-star. That was nice to hear. It makes you real proud as a dad.”
When your son is Russell Martin, a Gold Glove award winner, and a three-time major league All-Star in his 10th season at the highest level, playing for the Toronto Blue Jays after stints with the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates, there must be a lot to be proud of.
“You’re proud, but you know that you still have to come up with another good day,” he said. “And then you have to have another good day after that. So as proud as you’d like to be, you still pray that you can just keep on going. It’s really quite humbling to tell you the truth.”
So what has impressed the backstop’s parents the most about their 32-year-old son?
“The best moments for me as a mom are that my son is a good person,” Jeanson said. “He’s hardworking, he’s honest, and he wants to help people. Of course he’s changed because you evolve as you grow, and everybody changes, but he’s still a good boy, as a mom would say. But he’s 32, so he’s really a man now.
“I’m proud that he’s a good person and that he has a lot of integrity. He’s very professional and his human qualities make me the most proud of him.”
Added his father: “It’s his concern for other people, his generosity, his willingness to share, his ability to engender other people’s trust. You know how hard that is, especially if you’re on the ball field.”
It’s those human qualities that Martin’s parents believe have allowed him the success that he’s been able to find on the field.
“He’s very good at giving, and at making you feel that you can do something,” Jeanson said. “He’s a great psychologist. He knows how the mind works and that helps him a lot to play with other people and to work with other people. He knows himself very well. I don’t know if all athletes are like that, but he’s very strong psychologically.”
There was a time when Martin’s psyche was tested.
On Aug. 3, 2010, one play marked the beginning of a downward spiral for the Dodgers catcher. Though it ended up only temporarily setting him back, it was the lowest point of Martin’s career and certainly seemed anything but temporary at the time.
“I already wasn’t having my best season,” he said. “I was starting to turn it back on though, and then on a play against San Diego at home in LA, I tagged up from third on a sac fly to centre field. It was a bang-bang play at the late and the catcher dekes like the ball’s not coming so I don’t slide. At the last second, he puts his knee out, goes to take me, I try to move away from the tag and hyperextend my leg while I’m going full speed.
“As I hyperextend my leg, I jam it, and it subluxes my femur bone and hits the back part of my hip and fractures that area, the little capsule area. That was six to eight weeks of non-weight bearing [recovery] and I lost a lot of strength in my hip at that point.
“Then I got non-tendered by the Dodgers [immediately becoming a free agent]. I ended up signing with the Yankees and that off-season I tore my MCL in my right knee, when I was recovering. Right when I was ready to go back to Arizona and start taking swings. The day before my flight I hurt my MCL.
“I got all the way up the mountain and then I fell all the way back down the mountain.”
That time was one of the biggest challenges ever presented to Martin, and it was just two days before the following season when he finally started to feel comfortable blocking and moving around behind the plate again. And then, of course, he had to learn a new pitching staff and prepare himself for life in pinstripes with the history and expectations that surrounded the Yankees organization.
He still managed to battle through it, despite the uncertainties with his rehabilitation because his injury was not common in baseball, and he had a great start to the season with New York. Martin hit .292/.378/.597 with six home runs, four doubles and 19 RBIs in the month of April, but the new Yankee then “faded as the season went along.”
“I didn’t feel like I stayed strong,” he said. “I still didn’t understand yet how important nutrition was and how important routine was. I learned that when I was over there.”
Martin shared a clubhouse with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and others. He enjoyed his time immensely, and being among that veteran presence at Yankee Stadium really helped him learn how to become a professional, how to take care of his business, and how to manage the wear and tear on his aging body.
“There’s so much stuff that I learned there that actually helped me in the next chapter, which is probably so far the most fun I’ve had playing baseball, with the Pittsburgh Pirates,” he said. “I went from being more of a young guy with the Yankees into more of a veteran role with the Pirates, kind of [helping to] change the culture of that franchise.”
New York made the post-season both years Martin was a member of the organization, but when you play with the Yankees, “it’s either you win a World Series or you’re not doing what you’re supposed to, right?”
That was a stark contrast from the attitude in the Pirates clubhouse, joining a franchise that was just hoping for a winning season and really nothing more.
“You go to spring training and you feel a sense of almost pressure to get over .500,” Martin said. “In my mind, I’m used to playing playoff baseball. I’m getting ready for playoff baseball in my mind. And it’s really not that I made that team that much better. I feel like maybe I filled a void in that position that probably needed the most help.
“The talent was there, the guys just didn’t know how good they were.”
The beginning of the 2013 season was a learning period for the team in Pittsburgh, as they began to realize just what they were capable of.
“It wasn’t right off the bat,” Martin said. “The season started and we knew we were good, [but] it took a couple months and we thought man, we’re hanging in there. Our bullpen was really strong, starting pitching, we got some guys back from the [disabled] list, Charlie Morton, Francisco Liriano came back in May, so our starting five became really strong. Jeff Locke was an all-star that year, so he had a great year for us.
The most memorable moment for Martin in what was a magical season for the Pirates was the wild-card matchup against the Cincinnati Reds. For the first time in more than two decades, Pittsburgh hosted a post-season game.
By the time the catcher came up to the plate in the second inning, the standing-room-only crowd at PNC Park had started chanting Johnny Cueto’s name, rattling the opposing pitcher. Before he could throw the 2-1 pitch, a 95-mile-an-hour fastball, the right-hander dropped the ball, riling up the fans and unknowingly preparing them for what came next.
“The fans are chanting, ‘Cue-TO, Cue-TO’, he drops the ball, and then the next pitch I hit a home run,” Martin said. “That’s the fairy tale almost. The crowd goes wild.
“Twenty years of waiting for a playoff game is a long time for the people of Pittsburgh. They were amped, they were ready, and the city was completely electric. It almost felt like there was an earthquake in the stadium when it happened.”
When the Blue Jays inked Martin to a five-year, $82 million contract – the largest free-agent contract the organization has dealt – the idea seemed to be that perhaps he could help to bring those winning ways home with him north of the border. For Martin, he was happy for a chance to keep doing what he’s been doing.
“The way I see the game, it’s pretty simple,” he said. “You have an opportunity to play a game that you love, and whether you’re playing to represent your country or playing professional baseball, all the guys on the team should be pulling on the same side of the field [and] trying to win that game that day.
“So for me, no matter what the league is, where I’m playing, what I’m doing, I enjoy competing and playing to win. It doesn’t matter the level I’m at, I’ve been the same way forever. I just cherish the opportunity … I just try and enjoy the moment, enjoy the opportunity, and I hope it’s fun.”
Even before the regular season commenced, the Blue Jays opening the year in New York against one of Martin’s former teams, Toronto gave him something to remember, a moment in time that he will certainly cherish as his career continues.
He got a chance to play at home, when the Blue Jays hosted the Cincinnati Reds at Olympic Stadium – former home of the Montreal Expos – for the team’s final two exhibition games of the spring.
“That was my team growing up,” Martin said at spring training in Dunedin, Fla. “If I didn’t have that team there, I might have had a different dream. The dream as a kid was definitely to play for the Expos and to be able to play in Montreal in front of my family.”
Though his native city no longer has a big-league team calling it home, Martin got to live that dream – at least in part – when Toronto played their second set of spring training games there in two years.
Jeanson was on hand, with Martin’s 25-year-old sister Vivianne. Martin’s father performed the Canadian and American national anthems on his saxophone before the first matchup, something that he believes has changed his life forever.
“I’m still walking on air,” the father said. “And I’m trying to get my feet on the ground because that’s what I’m used to, and I’m still walking on air. Every time somebody talks to me and they mention something, and I have to go back and share a moment or two – or 10 or 20 – with them, I end up walking on air again. I just sort of can’t get back down.
“I would expect that life has changed considerably. Every so often you get a major change and you sort of have to get adjusted to it because it’s not going to be the same as it was before. I think that’s what I’m going through.”
The entire Martin family shares a love for music. Vivianne is studying to be a classical singer, and mother and father have a particular affinity for jazz that they passed onto their son, who enjoys several genres. The father used his talents to support himself and his son while Martin was growing up, busking at Metro stations while the young athlete was at school, before they would take to the fields.
“The thing was, I could pick my hours and I could look after him,” he said. “It wasn’t like I could buy a car and go on vacation, but when it was time to take him to the ballpark, it was my time. When I had to go to work to make enough money to get us through the next couple days, I could do that too.”
As the father began to recall a different time, and the gratitude he had for the people who helped support him and his family during the days that don’t seem so long ago now, his emotions took over.
“I was pretty grateful to all those hardworking people going through the Metro, really,” he said through tears. “They kept us going. Someone mentioned it to me one day when they went through, they said, ‘Wow, you’re just playing your heart out.’
“I was pretty happy to be able to select my time to go ahead and make enough money that I needed to keep going, and I thank Montreal for that.”
Montreal thanked the Martin family as well, offering rousing ovations for the Blue Jays catcher, and enjoying the uniqueness of the father-son bond on the field in front of them during the first matchup’s pre-game ceremonies, and also when Toronto manager John Gibbons sent the father out to the mound in the second game to take his son off the field.
“It means a lot to him to play where he saw his baseball idols when he was young,” Jeanson said. “And to share this with his dad must be a very special moment for him too.”
Added Martin: “Once we lost the Expos I didn’t think it was going to be a possibility. And now it’s a dream that’s going to be coming true. Hopefully one day there can be another major-league team there … I have a lot of memories attached to that building.”
With the Blue Jays season underway, many fans north of the border are looking forward to the new memories Martin might make, hoping he can quickly attach himself to his new surroundings and the squad in Toronto. The charismatic Canadian catcher is prepared for whatever might come his way, looking forward to the idea of the pressure that might away his new team.
“Guys react differently under pressure,” he said. “Some guys view pressure as an opportunity and other people kind of stiffen up in moments of pressure. I don’t know if it’s just my characteristic, [but] I know a lot of Canadians in general who are pretty tough.
“A lot of people talk about hockey mentality. I don’t know, you can call it that if you want to. It’s something you learn and something you’re always working on. It’s not something that’s guaranteed.”