Martin’s demise came from within
The new generation of Dodgers twice had been to the brink of the World Series. The young men, most of whom met while teenagers, were convinced they were the future as well as the present, an idea that assumed its hollow swagger when Manny Ramirez(notes) was hitting home runs.
Martin, of course, was the catcher, so in the middle of everything, hitting all over the lineup, tending to the pitching staff, running the bases with abandon.
This was an athlete who happened to play baseball, a ballplayer who happened to play catcher, a kid barreling into his prime and already decorated with All-Star appearances and a Gold Glove.
Scattered over the field, they were the reincarnation of Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey, Matt Kemp(notes) in center, James Loney(notes) at first, late-comer Andre Ethier(notes) in right, Andy La Roche coming at third, Chad Billingsley(notes) or Jonathan Broxton(notes) on the mound, and Martin, the Canadian-born third baseman having taken so easily to a new position, at catcher.
“Then,” he said, “slowly the business side takes over.”
And it’s sad, really, to hear Russell Martin say that, to release himself from the responsibility of why he’s here and not there.
Since being non-tendered by the Dodgers, a decision team management agonized and debated over, Martin has hinted at off-field distractions and offered vague explanations for why he’d become so ordinary before he’d turned even 28.
He’d been so tough, so game. He’d played to every corner of every inning, until the ball stopped rolling.
And then, for whatever reason, he didn’t. He kept changing body types. He wore down. His blew out his hip mid-summer because he miscalculated a play at the plate, when he needed to go in hard and aggressive and instead went in soft.
He was never soft.
Martin wore the rigors of the game like a shield, because of where he came from and how much ground he’d covered to make it. Grady Little and Joe Torre, former catchers themselves, played him to exhaustion, and Martin asked for more.
His explanation: “I’ve had people tell me I couldn’t do this or that my whole life.”
Then, little by little, he began proving them right.
He couldn’t hit for average or power like he had. He couldn’t steal a base. He couldn’t get his body over to block a ball in the dirt when a backhanded swipe at it would do.
And so the notion that business took over, beyond the fact the Dodgers would rather not commit millions to a player in apparent steady decline, lacks the one ideal that had always made Russell Martin Russell Martin: Accountability.
The fact is, he played himself here, to New York, to a job holding the door for prospect Jesus Montero(notes), to a season in which he must prove he is not sliding into a journeyman’s career of Sunday starts.
Not that his current job is so terrible. It’s not. He’s a Yankee, so a winner by association. He’ll be paid a healthy $4 million. There is no better place for a man to retake his work’s bearings, and to stop whimpering about what went wrong, because here no one will listen. The Yankees didn’t raise Martin like the Dodgers did, and so won’t agonize over the decision to ask him to leave. For one, they have options better than Rod Barajas(notes), the 35-year-old drifter who took Martin’s job in L.A.
I don’t know why Martin went skittering away from what made him a good ballplayer. I get the sense he does, and I don’t think he believes he’s not a Dodger because Frank McCourt wouldn’t (or couldn’t) afford him. And that’s Martin’s only hope, that he gets it, that he understands career revival lies within himself and not in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ accountant’s head.
He said he’s in great shape, that the labral tear in his hip is healed and won’t hinder him, and that his surgically repaired knee soon will be fine. He was expected to catch his first game for the Yankees on Friday night against the Boston Red Sox. Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman will watch closely in the coming weeks, because if Martin’s hip or knee won’t hold up, then they’ll have to consider more of the 21-year-old Montero, the serviceable Francisco Cervelli(notes), or the 22-year-old Austin Romine, who’s never caught a game above Double-A, or the 39-year-old Jorge Posada(notes), currently slated for DH duty.
Martin, for his part, explained that he is “passionate about being out there,” that he feels “a lot more positive” than he did in his final months or years as a Dodger, and that, you know, “Not that I got complacent, but it almost got to the point I wasn’t having fun.”
He amended that, adding, “I was grinding, man. I wasn’t having any fun.”
He’d lost the faith of his employers, and then a couple months to the hip injury, and finally his job. Now he’s fortunate to be where he is.
“All I want to do,” he said, “is go out there and prove, ‘Look, you guys made a mistake.’ ”
Those guys didn’t make the mistake, however.
Martin will wear a knee brace in the short term, which is much less obtrusive than a crutch, but not as sturdy either. The brotherhood is gone. There is only Russell Martin and what – and who – he plans on being.
“I need to prove myself to myself,” he finally said, and that sounds a lot closer to the truth.