ANAHEIM, Calif. – Russell Martin is in town, and his presence triggers thoughts of a movie.
“Escape From Alcatraz.”
Martin is a Yankee now. When he gets in his crouch behind the plate these days, it is in the uniform of Ruth and Gehrig, not Koufax and Reese.
Say it ain’t so, Joe.
Martin was the Dodgers’ All-Star catcher in 2007-08. Many considered him to be the best at his position in baseball in those seasons. He was a homegrown Dodgers draftee, part of the core built by the Dodgers minor league organization to take the fabled team to successes well into the second decade of this century.
He was humble, personable, hard-working. He was a catcher who could hit for power and steal bases. The fans loved him. So did the media. He was a small salve to the wound left in 1998, when the bumbling Fox management traded away likely Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza.
Then, last Aug. 3, he tagged up on a fly ball and tried to score.
“The catcher kind of deked me, acting like the ball wasn’t coming his way,” Martin said Friday before the Yankees played the host Angels. “Then, when we hit, I kind of turned to look back and see if he still had the ball and when I did that, I planted my right foot hard. Right away, it didn’t feel quite right.”
He stayed in the game for four innings.
“Ted Lilly was throwing, and he wasn’t likely to get me down and blocking things,” Martin said, laughing as he added, “but when they brought in Hong-Chi Kuo, it was time to get out of there.”
Quickly, the severity of the injury was evident. Some likened it to the hip injury that ended Bo Jackson’s pro football career. Surgery wasn’t the solution. Healing time was. That left Martin, who was used to leading the majors in games caught, fidgeting on the bench.
That also left the Dodgers in a quandary. Martin had slipped badly in 2009, and would finish with only five home runs in 331 at-bats in 2010.
“I sure wasn’t the best catcher in baseball those two years,” he said Friday.
But, according to Martin’s agent, Matt Colleran, doctors soon saw the injury, somewhat common in football but a rarity in baseball, as something not similar to Jackson’s and something that would heal and allow Martin to continue to squat and catch.
“There was no displacement in the bone,” Colleran said Friday, by telephone. “He just had to stay off of it and it had to heal, which it did.”
The Dodgers weren’t so sure. Or maybe the Dodgers weren’t so sure, at a certain price. As events have sadly come to prove, money matters above all else at Chavez Ravine these days.
Martin, not yet 28 and a staple of the franchise – but coming off two bad seasons – was offered a contract that wasn’t guaranteed. Had he taken it and stepped in a gopher hole in spring training, the Dodgers could have said goodbye and been responsible for just 45 days of pay. Hardly the way to treat one of your stars, recent slippage notwithstanding.
“The Dodgers offered a financial deal,” Colleran said, “that reflected that they thought they were taking a risk.”
Colleran also said that there was little doubt, through it all, where Martin wanted to be.
“He wanted things to work out with the Dodgers,” Colleran said, and Martin confirmed that. “I always thought I’d be with the Dodgers for a very long time,” he said.
Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti addressed it rather curiously in a recent article on ESPN.com. “There’s always more than meets the eye,” he said. “You have to watch it every day, you have to watch it with a discerning eye, and then you have to negotiate. It’s not just ‘How could they let him go?’ It’s far deeper than just one sentence.”
Once the Dodgers took themselves out of the game, Colleran said he got “lots of calls.” The Yankees, where their money-is-no-object approach stands as the flip side to all things Dodger Blue these days, got Martin for around $5 million. They also got him immediately excited with their stated expectation that he would catch at least 130 games.
And so, which team made the right call?
Martin already has nine homers and 27 runs batted in. He has started 44 of the team’s 55 games and leads the American League All-Star voting at catcher by about 250,000 votes.
Martin is playing for a team with fabled pinstripes, World Series expectations and no solvency issues.
He wanted to remain a Dodger. He has learned to be careful what you wish for.
A reporter who attends most Dodgers home games told Martin that there are many now that feature 20,000 empty seats. Another joked that, with the Yankees, at least he didn’t have to worry about his next paycheck bouncing.
Martin’s eyes got wide with disbelief. He knew it had become bad, but not that bad.
“That’s crazy,” he said.
Russell Martin is one of the lucky ones. And he didn’t even have to swim to safety.
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