Buck Martinez handles his own publicity.
Last month, as he was standing for a rare idle moment in the Toronto Blue Jays’ dugout a few hours before game time, a reporter approached to ask if he might be interested in sitting for an interview at some point. It’s been a weird few years for him, after all, not least because last April he announced he would be stepping aside for a while to be treated for cancer. Okay, sure, he said. He’d talk. And then, when asked who at Sportsnet, the radio and TV network that employs him, might co-ordinate the encounter, he responded: “Nah. Just text me.”
This is noteworthy, because Buck – sorry, it’ll take a moment to adjust to the newspaper convention of referring to him by his last name – is usually a consummate team player. Co-workers praise his mentorship and remark on how he looks out for others. Change Up: How to Make the Great Game of Baseball Even Better, a 2016 book he co-wrote with journalist Dan Robson, bemoaned how the sport, with its veneration of statistics spotlighting individual achievement, had elbowed out traditional values such as team cohesion or personal sacrifice for the greater good.
He knows his job – calling play-by-play next to Pat Tabler, or doing colour commentary next to Dan Shulman, for Sportsnet TV broadcasts of Jays games – is to “be a conduit of the game to the fans,” to “sell the product.” And he is a gifted salesman, regularly hearkening back, in a delivery that is so old-timey you’d swear it’s being piped in through a transistor radio, to his years as a player or a manager in the majors, to give the audience a broader context for whichever game they’re watching.
Still, when Martinez, 73, does sit down for an interview, little cracks appear in his upbeat assessment of the state of the game. His three months away from the ballpark, undergoing treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and then recovering at his Florida home with his wife, Arlene, at his side, seem to have put him in a reflective mood. And though he hasn’t yet made any firm decisions about his future, he drops a quiet bombshell toward the end of the encounter, floating the possibility that he will call it quits after this season.
If that’s the case, it will surely be a shock to the system – for him and us. Martinez has been a part of Toronto baseball for about 34 of the past 42 seasons. His involvement with the game goes back even further, to signing with the Philadelphia Phillies in June, 1967, at age 18, putting him on a path that led to 17 seasons in the majors for the Kansas City Royals, the Milwaukee Brewers, and, from 1981 to 1986, the Jays.
After hanging up his catcher’s mitt, he transitioned to broadcasting Jays games for TSN, served as manager of the team for 1 1/2 lacklustre seasons in 2001 and 2002, left town (because who wouldn’t, after that?) to join the broadcast team covering the Baltimore Orioles, and, in 2010, signed with Sportsnet to cover the Jays. His exhortation of well-hit shots to “Get up, ball! Get up!” and clear the home-run fence, is iconic.
Martinez has made the broadcasting look and sound relaxed, but that ease is belied by the shoe-leather reporting he pursues all season long. When the Jays take the field for afternoon practice, reporters will often clump together, passing the time. Martinez saunters around, Moleskine notebook and pen in hand, circulating like a pollinating bee from player to manager to trainer, picking up snippets of information, then, if there is time, moving on to the visitor’s dugout for the same slow dance. During the pregame media availability in the office of Jays interim manager John Schneider, Martinez is often found on the black leather couch right next to Schneider’s desk, like a familiar late-night talk show guest who is actually the host, throwing softball questions and scribbling notes.
“My goal is to bring something new to the broadcast every night that somebody doesn’t know,” he says. “And I have to introduce myself to players, because they don’t know I played. I’m this old white-haired guy that wanders around in sport coats, and they go, ‘Wow, who’s that guy?’”
He’s sitting now on a folding chair in a barren TV studio on the 300-level of the Rogers Centre that’s open to the stadium. As he speaks, the roof begins its magic act, opening up to let in natural light for a photo shoot of the team down on the field.
The Sportsnet booth next door is Martinez’s usual domain, but the network won’t be carrying tonight’s game, a matchup between the Jays and the Orioles. The broadcast is instead being handled by Apple, the US$2-trillion tech company that, in a sign of the times, last spring scooped up seven years’ worth of rights to a collection of Friday night MLB games for a reported US$85-million a season.
Martinez is used to changes in the broadcasting landscape (though perhaps none as potentially consequential as deep-pocketed streamers getting into the business of live sports), and has made adjustments to his patter over the years. “People used to sit down and watch nine innings, because there was only one game on,” he says. “Now, they go channel surfing, they look at MLB for highlights, they look at recaps and cut-ins and different things. So I don’t have any concern about saying something a couple of times during the game. There’s not a fan out there who is going to say, ‘Ooh, he said that in the fifth inning.’ They’re not watching that consistently. So you’re basically speaking to a new crowd almost every inning.”
Not that he needs to repeat anything: He’s got more than enough material. And he holds on to his notebooks, has stacks of them. “I always keep them, and I think, Why am I keeping these things? I never go back and look at ‘em. Just like school books, I never go back and look at ‘em. But I take notes in my score book, and I use a full-season score book so I can go back to April and see, ‘This is what happened in this inning with that guy’. You can do that online, obviously, but I have notes in my score book that I would have written about a play maybe: ‘Bad jump.’ ‘Misplayed it.’ Red stars for good defensive plays. Things like that.”
He doesn’t ever plan in advance to say anything in particular. But, “if I see Bo [Bichette] doing a particular play, I’ll know where he prepped for that play, and why he can make that play so consistently, because I’ve watched him, I’ve asked him, ‘What do you do on this play?’ But everything I get on a given night might not come up.
“So it’s just prep. Maybe it’s the next game, maybe it’s the next week, maybe it’s the next month.”
And then, after he uses an anecdote, he’ll check it off in his book.
In an interview, Shulman said that Martinez, with whom he’d partnered from 1995 to 2000 and again since 2016, “told me my very first year, ‘If we can make this sound like two guys sitting at a bar, watching a ball game, we’ll be okay’.” He added, “I think we both try to keep it conversational. We don’t plan things. We both want to inform, but we also both want to entertain.”
This week, Martinez drew a lot of attention and praise from fans for a lengthy lecture that stretched the entire bottom half of the seventh inning, chastising a couple of Jays for some sloppy play. “You know, you just wonder, everything in the game today is about the players and the phrase, ‘Let the kids play,’” he said to Shulman, who held off on the play-by-play calls while Martinez unloaded. “Years ago, if a player did something like that, a veteran teammate would sit ‘em down, would say, ‘Hey man, you just cost us the game by that effort. We can’t have you doin’ that.’”
If it was on point, it also touched on some of the same criticisms Martinez made in Change Up, a culture of deference to star players, which breeds a lack of discipline – and bad baseball.
Does he still stand by what he wrote? “The game is different,” Martinez shrugs. “It’s the game that it is today, and I have to deliver the game.” His words are mild, but there’s an undertone of – what? urgency? anger? “And I am not going to change the game. Somebody – an active player – told me, ‘I don’t understand broadcasters who criticize the way the game is today.’ And he’s right. We’re selling this product. So do the best you can at selling this product. Is it the way I remember baseball? No. You know, there’s no stealing, there’s no hit-and-running, there’s no home-plate collisions, there’s no double plays being broken up – there’s none of that. But that’s the way the game is now. And that’s the way everybody wants it.”
Is it, though?
“The audience wants that, or else we wouldn’t pay for it,” he replies. “They say, well, there’s no way that Mike Trout’s worth $35-million! Well he is, because the Angels are paying it. So who are we to say that he’s not worth it? Is he as good as Willie Mays? Nah. And, you know, Willie Mays made $12,500 when he won the MVP and hit 51 home runs. But that was a lot of money then. It’s all relative. But no, I don’t have any problems with the game.”
Still, he continues. “I mean, yeah, there are things that I look at and go, ‘Wow, we wouldn’t have done it like that.’ But that’s the way they do things, and that’s the way players play. And you know, you have walk-up music [for batters as they strut from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box], and you have branding and you have coloured shoes now and you have all kinds of things. And you know, only the Yankees control things. And the Yankees don’t have alternate uniforms, they don’t have [alternate colour scheme] City Connect uniforms, they don’t have beards and goatees, they don’t have long hair. And they still win!” He chuckles, gives a knowing smile.
He’s getting tired now, he admits – while he’s certainly feeling stronger, he still doesn’t have the stamina he did before his diagnosis of a type of head and neck cancer known as a squamous cell carcinoma. He received six weeks of an innovative treatment known as proton beam therapy, along with chemotherapy. Happily, though the tumour was located at the base of his tongue, it didn’t affect his voice.
His illness gave him a new perspective, especially after he heard from so many fans who have struggled with cancer themselves or dealt with its ravages in their family.
“It made me realize that you don’t need to sweat the small stuff,” he says. “I’m 73 years old. I’ve had a phenomenal life. I’ve been very fortunate in many, many regards. Never been sick, and I know how fortunate I am, and I look at life a little differently now. I’m not concerned about it, I’m not worried about it. I just understand that I’ve been privileged and I will appreciate every opportunity I have going forward.”
He’s not certain exactly what that means. His current contract is up at the end of the season. Will he be back?
“I don’t know,” he says, quietly.
This is a surprise. I try to keep the moment light, and joke that perhaps he’s negotiating with Rogers, the owner of Sportsnet (and the Jays) through the pages of The Globe and Mail.
“Nah, nah, nah,” he says. “It has nothing to do with Rogers. It’s just me. You know, I’ve been through a lot. And, you know, my wife and I have had a lot of discussions about it. I don’t know.” He mentions that, the following Monday, he’s due to fly to Houston for three days of medical follow-ups.
When his illness hit, he admits he wondered, ‘Maybe this is a sign that I should change.’” Still, he adds, “I haven’t given it much thought after that.” But when asked what he’s been reading lately, he mentions The Chicken Runs at Midnight: A Daughter’s Message from Heaven That Changed a Father’s Heart and Won a World Series. It’s a tear-jerker memoir about Rich Donnelly, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Florida Marlins coach, and his daughter, Amy, who died of cancer at age 18.
“It’s a pretty heavy story,” Martinez says. “He had been so dedicated to baseball that he overlooked his family, until [his daughter died]. Aww, it’s a great read. Really a good story.”
So, okay, fine. Let’s talk this through for a moment. If Martinez does leave, how would he like to be remembered? “As a guy that did the Blue Jays broadcasts for a long time.”
He’s not joking, or being performatively modest. One of the highlights of his career, after all, was being a part of the Emmy-winning ESPN broadcast in September, 1995, covering Cal Ripken, Jr. besting Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games. Longevity is underrated.
“Longevity comes along with competence. Comes along with credibility, and it comes along with performance,” he says. “People aren’t allowed to do things for a long time if they’re not performing, and that’s what always got me about people talking about the Hall of Fame: ‘Well, he was just an accumulator, because he played 25 years.’ Well, he played 25 years because he could, and there’s no charity in professional sports. So, you know, they’re not just letting Jim Kaat pitch for 25 years because he’s a nice guy. And you know, that’s the way I feel about broadcasting.”
We wind up our interview, and he strolls off, back to the hotel where he stays when he’s in Toronto, to change into more comfortable clothes. A couple of hours later, the infield is buzzing. The Jays are in the midst of batting practice, the Orioles are doing some odd loping calisthenics, and a few dozen fans in assorted Jays jerseys – Bautista, Guerrero, Tulowitzki, Donaldson – wait eagerly for autographs from their current heroes.
Amid this sea of colourful humanity, you can spot Martinez – and his shock of white hair – from the outfield. He’s near the visitors’ dugout, dressed in a canary yellow sport coat, black jeans, and white running shoes, clutching a notebook, and he’s trading stories with the Orioles manager, Brandon Hyde. As you get closer, you can see that Martinez is smiling. Summer is still in the air, though it’s fading now. He looks like he could do this forever.