In bright, warm sunshine on Tuesday, Russell Martin took grounders during batting practice at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring-training site while wearing his catcher’s mitt, unintentionally applying sweet irony to the torrent of criticism that’s been levelled at him for excusing himself from Canada’s roster for the World Baseball Classic.
Martin asked to play shortstop for Canada during the WBC, and when the request was denied by both the Pirates and Baseball Canada, he dropped out. In the aftermath of his decision, a normally patriotic player has been cast as public enemy No. 1, erstwhile teammates Justin Morneau and Brett Lawrie ripping him publicly and manager Ernie Whitt throwing in another jab on Tuesday.
Canada plays Italy, Mexico and the United States in the round robin portion this weekend, starting Friday.
“It would probably hurt me more if they didn’t care,” Martin said after a four-hour workout, while sipping soup on a stool in front of his locker at McKechnie Field. “For them to react that way, I understand, but I just knew I wasn’t ready to go out and catch 27 innings of baseball. I just didn’t think my body would get through it and ironically I didn’t get through the first game of spring training.”
Martin’s arm came up sore and he hasn’t played since that game, sitting out Pittsburgh’s 10-0 win over Spain in an exhibition game Tuesday. Pirates GM Neal Huntington said Tuesday the injury would have blocked Martin from playing anyway, but by then the controversy had broken out.
“It’s a shame,” Huntington said. “In our due diligence, we found he was a great teammate and a great person. It’s unfortunate he’s going through what he is going through, and the role we played in it by not letting him play shortstop. We share some of the burden. Unfortunately, he’s had to wear it pretty good.”
Morneau, the Minnesota Twins’ first baseman, criticized Martin’s decision a week ago, and on Saturday, Lawrie, the Toronto Blue Jays’ third baseman, stirred the pot by saying he would play any position if that’s what it took to play for country. On Martin, Lawrie said: “It’s a little bit different just because the ultimatum was there that if he wasn’t going to be able to play shortstop, he wasn’t going to come, and in my mind that’s not right, that’s weak.”
Martin had heard about Lawrie calling his decision “weak,” but hadn’t seen the actual comment until reading it from a writer’s notebook on Tuesday.
“That’s what he said? It’s just somebody voicing their opinion on something,” Martin said. “If I had anything to say to Lawrie, I would probably give him a call and talk to him personally. To me, that’s the only way to do it.”
Martin turned down a three-year, $20-million (all currency U.S.) contract extension from the New York Yankees last spring and became a free agent in the off-season. The Pirates signed him for $17-million to play catcher over two years, with a $2-million bonus.
“Lawrie, he’s caught before and he knows how it is,” Martin said. “If I would have felt 100 per cent, I would have happily went to the WBC, but knowing myself, knowing my body, I just felt it wasn’t a smart idea to go there, compete at that level, and risk getting hurt when a team has just given me the biggest contract I’ve had. I have to prepare to catch 162 games and just felt that going into this tournament would put me at risk for being able to do that.”
In his comments, Morneau said: “It’s hard to see guys turn it down. That wouldn’t be my choice. But when we get there, we’ll be there with somebody who wants to be there, who’s going to be honoured to put the jersey on.”
Martin shucked off the comment Tuesday: “Honestly, I don’t care what people think, I care about what I know is right. If I get criticized for that, so be it. I’m not going to criticize Morneau for taking time off because he’s had some concussions. I won’t do that because I understand it,” said Martin, who sustained a concussion in Double-A baseball when run over at the plate, trying to apply a tag.
Morneau also pointed out the potential damage caused by the loss of Martin’s proven right-handed bat from a lineup that is left-hand heavy. Martin hit .211 with 21 home runs for the Yankees last season, and owns a career .260 batting average. Martin’s ability to grind out at-bats, to make a pitcher work, and his power potential were among the asset that attracted the Pirates. In batting practice Tuesday, Martin stroked a line drive over the left-field fence and kissed the barrel of his bat afterward.
Martin subtly criticized Baseball Canada on Tuesday for not being more open about the conversations that had been taking place before the decision became final.
“I let them know in advance I wasn’t going to catch,” Martin said. “I was having conversations with [GM] Greg Hamilton. The players didn’t know and that’s why they got caught off-guard when this came out. But the guys making up the team, they knew, not months before, but not two days before the deadline either. They were aware. I respect everyone’s opinion, and I understand the criticism, but I would respect them even more if they got their facts straight.”
His comments were sent to Jim Baba, director general of Baseball Canada, in an e-mail, but he didn’t immediately respond.
Chris Robinson and John Suomi will catch for Canada, Whitt said, adding that he would have liked Martin to inform Baseball Canada of his decision earlier. Martin said he’s already offered to help prepare Robinson, 28, who is in the Baltimore system, by going over the opponent lineups.
“Morneau’s a passionate guy and he wants the best team out there, and they feel they have the best team with me out there,” Martin said. “I see it as giving someone else an opportunity to get out there and show his talents.”
Martin also pointed out what is obvious to baseball fans – the WBC isn’t showcasing players at their best. It’s early in the spring when pitch counts will be restricted, and most of the contending teams have seen their rosters depleted by big-name dropouts. The Dominican Republic, for instance, is without Jose Bautista, David Ortiz and Albert Pujols as they recover from injuries.
The controversy around Martin taints his folk-hero persona perhaps for the first time. A garrulous type who is fully bilingual, Martin grew up the product of parents who separated around the time he learned to walk, a Franco-Manitoban mother who is white, and an Anglophone father from Quebec who is black. He split time at his mother’s house near Ottawa, and his father’s in the Notre-Dame-de-Gr�ce area of Montreal where he learned to play baseball. His father, a saxophonist also named Russell, supported the family by busking in the Montreal subways in his son’s early days.
After becoming an all-star with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Martin joined the Yankees for two years before moving over to Pittsburgh in December. The Pirates signed him as an offensive upgrade from Rod Barajas, and for his clubhouse presence on a team with youth and skill. The Pirates were 16 games over .500on August 8 last season, but lost 35 of the last 50 games to finish below .500 for a 20th consecutive season. Huntington believes Martin’s exposure to the Los Angeles and New York environments will allow him to help teammates manage expectations.
Travis Snider, traded from Toronto to Pittsburgh last year, sits two lockers away from Martin.
“He’s not a guy who’s always going to be drilling people; he’s a guy that’s going to be building people up,” Snider said. The vibe I’ve picked up from him is positivity. We try to start the day out with a smile and a laugh, because we’re both in a relatively new place. He’s going to bring a lot of knowledge and a lot of leadership to this team, and it’s exciting for all of us.
Martin said as soon as he made the decision to opt out of the WBC, he felt instant relief and knew it was the right thing to do. Martin appreciates the patriotic feelings behind the criticism. He gets revved up watching Canadians succeed at the Olympics too.
“I wanted to get to the league to take care of my family – my mom, my dad, my sisters. That’s what I base my decision on,” he said. “I’m not worried that somebody is going to criticize me for not going to the WBC.”
With this piece, Tom Maloney moves into a new role covering baseball for The Globe and Mail. Follow his work from spring training through the final pitch of the World Series in The Globe and Mail and at tgam.ca/sports