THE LAST WORD
L.A. Dodgers catcher Russell Martin
Born in East York, ON, and raised in the Montreal suburb of Notre-Dame-de-Grace, Russell Martin has emerged over the past two seasons as one of the top young stars in all of baseball. The rare breed of catcher who is strong defensively and wields both power at the plate and speed on the basepaths, Martin helped lead the Los Angeles Dodgers to the postseason in his rookie 2006 season, then proceeded to get voted the National League starting catcher at the 2007MLB All-Star Game. The 24-year-old is currently preparing for Spring Training, now less than two short months away.
Do you really have a chance to rest during the off-season? Can you relax for a while with spring training opening in February?
Some players take a month or two off after the season to rest up but I don’t. Two weeks after the end of the season I was in the gym, working out to keep in shape and working on the areas of my game that I have to improve upon.
What is it like to play for the L.A. Dodgers?
It’s a privilege to play for that team in that city. The Dodgers have the same prestige and tradition in the baseball world that the Canadiens do in hockey. Our fans are just as passionate as Habs fans and really want the team to win.
You had a banner year in 2007 – Starting in the All-Star Game, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger award. Do you feel any additional pressure going into next year?
When you love what you do there’s never really any pressure. I still can’t really believe that they’re paying me money to play. I had a good year statistically, yes, but I take a lot more pride in what I’ve been able to do behind the plate, working with the pitchers and doing the little things. It’s an often-overlooked aspect of the catcher’s role but it’s essential part of the job.
Are there celebrities at all the Dodgers games? Do you find it a distraction?
It’s not much of a distraction. I’ve seen Tom Hanks and Pamela Anderson, among others, a few times. The novelty wears off quickly and we just concentrate on what we have to do, win.
Who was your favorite catcher, growing up?
Since I played third base before being converted into a catcher, my earliest heroes were mostly position players like Ozzie Smith and Ken Griffey Jr. Among catchers, I really liked Gary Carter.
How many times a year do you get back to Montreal?
It’s more like I leave for close to nine months. I hope that it’ll be 10 months because that would mean we made the playoffs. It’s bizarre, I get recognized on the street in LA where there are celebrities on every corner but in Montreal I can stroll around completely incognito. Maybe it’s because I wear a mask when I play. (laughs)
Are there any closet hockey fans in major league baseball?
One of our pitchers Derek Lowe is probably the biggest hockey nut on the team, along with me. He’s from Detroit so he’s a red Wings fanatic. Other than that it’s pretty quiet. The guys are so focussed on baseball that they don’t have time for hockey.
Were you a Habs fan as a kid?
I liked the Canadiens when I was a kid but wasn’t a super fan like most of my friends were. This year, however – I don’t know why but I really like the team. Maybe it’s because they came up together through the system but there seems to be good chemistry on the team.
How many NHL games do you attend a year?
I haven’t missed very many Habs games since I returned from Los Angeles. I was there the night they retired Larry Robinson’s number. He was such a force, a real machine. He looked even bigger than the guys who were wearing skates. What’s more, it was obvious how much he appreciated everything that was going on, just as he seems to appreciate his family and enjoy his former teammates.
Who is you favorite present day NHLer?
Alex Kovalev. That guy’s hands are just sick! I don’t know how he makes those plays with the puck. Anze Kopitar from the Kings isn’t too bad either. We see him a lot on the highlights on TV.
Since the baseball season opens at the same time as the hockey playoffs begin, do you have a chance to follow the NHL postseason?
I only watch if the Canadiens are in them. However I did go to a Ducks-Wings playoff game last spring. The atmosphere isn’t the same as it is here. It’s not that Americans or Southerners don’t understand hockey but rather that they have so many sports alternatives to choose from. It’s definitely not the same feeling.
You and Éric Gagné were the first Canadian battery. What was that experience like?
I’ve always admired Éric Gagné. It was certainly a special moment, one of the highlights of my career, so far. I came away with mixed emotions though. It was a bittersweet experience. He was grimacing and I could see that he was hurting on the mound. That was the game that he suffered his injury in. I felt badly about that even though it was a historic moment for Canadian baseball and something I was proud to be a part of.
Do you think that major league baseball can rise from its Montreal ashes?
I don’t know if the interest is still there. Maybe it would have taken a new downtown ballpark or a star from Quebec. (laughs) I came along two years too late. My friend, Ivan Niaccarata, who was drafted by the Expos (and played for the Quebec Capitales), and I could have saved baseball in Montreal.
Did you ever dream of wearing the Expos powder blue uniform?
I was a big expos fan when I was young. I went with my father as often as I could. Like kids who play hockey dream of wearing the Canadiens sweater, I wanted to play for the Expos at Olympic Stadium in front of my friends and family.
In a Vanity Fair article Shia LaBoeuf, the star of Transformers and the next Indiana Jones mentioned that he had one of your autographed jerseys, that you were his favorite player and that you were going to be a superstar. Quite the compliment, isn’t it? What’s it like to have your very own Hollywood groupies?
This is the first I’ve heard of it. It’s really funny that in a town full of stars I can have my own fans. It really hasn’t sunk in yet.
What masked man’s job is the tougher – goaltender or catcher?
Without a doubt, the goaltender’s. The action is so fast and they have to maintain their concentration and cover every angle because the slightest error can be so costly. It’s amazing to see them work.
You played hockey when you were younger. Was the hardest hit you ever took on the ice or at the plate?
Since the highest level hockey I played was Bantam A, it would have to be behind the plate. There wasn’t any contact at that level of hockey. Not intentional, anyway. (laughs)
Is trash talk better in hockey or in baseball?
Hockey, by a mile. It lends itself more to it because it’s a sport where there is more contact and aggressively. In baseball there aren’t a lot of players to “exchange pleasantries” with in the heat of the action. Sure, a hitter might say something to the pitcher but even that is pretty tame and pointless.
Follow Russell and the Dodgers all season long at dodgers.mlb.com or look back at his formative years playing ball in NDG at www.ndgbaseball.org/russell_martin.htm
This article, written by Alexandre Harvey, was published in CANADIENS magazine Vol. 22 No. 3. See table of contents
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