Banged Up, Worn Down, Heading Home

Revue de presse

By DAVID WALDSTEIN, New York Times, published: November 7, 2012

Russell Martin MONTREAL — Dressed in black — from his headphones and commando sweater to his canvas shoes — Russell Martin all but sneaked out of the clubhouse at Comerica Park on Oct. 18, the ache of a too-sudden, season-ending loss just starting to take hold.

As he walked past an open door in the hallway, Manager Joe Girardi’s voice beckoned him inside. Martin slowly changed course and veered into the office, where the manager sat slumped in a chair.

Photo ci-dessus : Russell Martin in Old Montreal. He returns to the city, where he grew up and honed his skills, after each season to visit family and friends and unwind from the rigors of baseball. (Photo : Christinne Muschi for The New York Times)

“Hey, Russ,” Girardi said. “I just wanted to thank you. You gave it everything you had.”

Martin was unsure what to say.

“I’m sorry, Skip,” he managed to mumble. “I’m sorry.”

It was a blanket apology for the loss, and for his own shortage of hits over the previous eight games, the final four of which amounted to a shattering sweep by the Tigers in the American League Championship Series.

“Don’t say that,” Girardi snapped. “Don’t say it. You did everything you could.”

Martin had done a lot — if not always with his bat, then behind the plate. He had hit a ninth-inning home run in the first game of the postseason off Baltimore Orioles closer Jim Johnson, a shot that propelled the Yankees to a victory. And he had also caught C. C. Sabathia’s 121-pitch masterpiece in Game 5 of the series against the Orioles.

But he batted only .161 over the course of the postseason, joining his stagnant teammates in a hitting funk.

Still, Martin was a dependable presence behind home plate, guiding his pitchers to a 2.76 earned run average in the postseason. He caught all but the last two innings of the Yankees’ 88 postseason innings. That included a streak when he caught every inning of five playoff games in five straight days, three of which went at least 12 innings. The 55 innings in five consecutive days established a postseason record.

“And what people didn’t know is how banged up he is,” Girardi said of Martin. “Both of his thumbs were jammed. He could barely hold the bat.”

Russell Martin

Photo ci-dessus : Russell Martin, who played with an injured thumb, getting attention during the A.L.C.S (Photo Mike Cassese/Reuters)

After their brief meeting, Martin and Girardi hugged quickly, and then Martin resumed his slow march out to the tunnel below the stadium, with the celebrations from the Tigers’ victory still echoing from above, and he boarded the team bus.

The ensuing ride, a 30-minute trek from downtown Detroit north to the suburb of Birmingham, made no impression on Martin at all. When it was over, he could not remember where he sat, who sat next to him, what he listened to on his headphones, or what he saw out the window.

“It’s a blank,” he said several days later in a coffee shop in his hometown, Montreal. “I don’t remember anything from that ride at all.”

When the bus arrived back at the hotel, Martin went up to Nick Swisher’s suite. Mark Teixeira and Dave Robertson were also there, a group of dejected, dispirited Yankees gathering to debrief the sudden and unexpected loss from which they were all still numb.

A few beers and some chicken strips numbed them more but produced no epiphanies.

“We talked about everything,” Martin said. “The game, the series, the season, all the missed opportunities.”

The missed opportunities were, of course, all the empty at-bats with players left on base, the failure to follow up Raul Ibanez’s thrilling home run against the Tigers in Game 1 and the inability to win a game in that series.

“You could say it was pretty gloomy,” Martin recalled of the wake in Swisher’s room. “But it was good to be there with my boys and just kind of let it all roll out.”

1,133 Innings Caught
After a few hours, Martin returned to his room for his last night of postgame sleep in the 2012 season.

Including the playoffs, he had caught 1,133 innings in 137 games, roughly 20,000 pitches. He met for dozens of hours with Larry Rothschild, the Yankees’ pitching coach, and pitchers in scouting meetings, pored over days of scouting tapes and spent more than 100 hours in the knee-taxing catcher’s crouch.

There had been a dozen collisions at home plate; hot, sweaty days in Baltimore and Kansas City; extra innings in Washington and Boston; day games after night games in Toronto and St. Petersburg; long flights; little sleep; and a tense final month when the outcome of the regular season seemed to hang on every game, each at-bat and every pitch.

And then the playoffs.

Russell Martin

Photo ci-dessus : Yankees catcher Russell Martin tagging out Mike Trout of the Angels in the third inning of their game on May 29 in Anaheim, Calif.

Trout, who had tripled, tried to score from third on a chopped ball to third baseman Eric Chavez with the infield in. (Credit: Alex Gallardo/Reuters)

It would take more than one night of sleep to recover from all that. And indeed, the next day the pain set in. For weeks, if not months, Martin had ignored all the bruises, scrapes, aches and sprains. He had used adrenaline and excitement to suppress the mounting fatigue and exhaustion. But on the morning of Oct. 19, that all changed.

“You name it, it ached,” he said. “I could barely lift my legs, they felt so heavy. Heavy, heavy legs. I guess I had just refused to think about it while we were playing. Once it all ends, you finally allow your body to feel it.”

Martin got his things together and dragged himself down into the lobby of the hotel. It was strangely quiet there, and on the bus ride to the airport, too. An impending free agent, Martin looked around at his teammates gathered there. He considered them his brothers. He asked himself: “Is this the last time we will be teammates? Is this the last time I’ll see this guy, or that guy?”

“I looked around and I didn’t know. Would they be here? Would I? It was so different. We had been together since Feb. 15, my 30th birthday, and now it was just over.”

Back in New York, Martin, who had rented an apartment in the same Manhattan building as Andruw Jones, rode home from the airport in the passenger seat of Jones’s car. Jones was the last Yankee teammate he would see.

For the next three days, Martin hibernated, doing little more than sleeping, watching television and playing video games, allowing his mind to not think for a change.

“It’s not just the physical fatigue, it’s the mental strain, too,” he said. “You spend eight months trying to stay positive, staying organized in your mind — remember what pitches he’s thrown, what pitches the guy has seen, what he’s taken good swings at, and then calculating the risk-reward. You’re so keyed in. It’s like studying for an exam, and then poof, you’re done.”

Driving to Montreal
The next day he began packing his stuff, and on the evening of Oct. 23 he loaded up his black Mercedes S.U.V. and drove north of the border to his hometown. His companion on the drive was Ivan Naccarata, a former Mets farmhand with whom he forged a lasting friendship at their Montreal high school.

Six hours later they were home, in Montreal, where Martin goes after each baseball season to visit family and friends and unwind in one of the world’s more cosmopolitan cities, and an underrated bastion of baseball.

“Êtes-vous ouvert plus longtemps?” Martin asked an employee of Olive and Gourmando, a cafe in Old Montreal. He wanted to know if the cafe was open longer. He says it has the best coffee in North America.

There is a side of Martin that shines in Montreal. It is his town, from Longue-Pointe to Boulevard Saint-Laurent and Old Montreal, where he owns a condominium that his father, Russell Martin Sr., now lives in. It is the town where he grew up, went to high school and spoke French daily.

Russell Martin

Photo ci-dessus : Russell Martin Sr. with his sax at home in Old Montreal. On the wall is a photo of his son, who was drafted by the Expos in the 35th round in 2000 and made it to the majors with the Dodgers in 2006. (Photo Christinne Muschi for The New York Times)

It is also the city where he honed his baseball skills and watched Expos games at Olympic Stadium. As a senior in high school in 1999, he tacked a poster on his bedroom wall depicting a proposed new downtown baseball stadium, the one that was never built for the team that no longer exists.

“It was my dream to play in that stadium,” Martin said. “I used to joke with Ivan, if we had signed with the Expos, maybe we could have saved baseball in Montreal. Maybe we would be playing here right now.”

Martin was joking. Sort of.

At the time of the players’ strike in 1994, the Expos were in first place in the National League East and baseball in the city was something close to thriving. The average home attendance at the concrete stadium was a respectable 24,543, almost 3,000 more than the Mets’ home. But after the strike, the team declined, attendance sank, and Major League Baseball could not wait to relocate the Expos to a different city.

Martin was drafted by the Expos as a third baseman in the 35th round of the 2000 draft. Naccarata was drafted by Montreal five rounds later. Both were insulted.

“In my mind, I was a first-round draft pick,” Martin said. “I was like, how can these people not see it? I wasn’t going in the 35th round.”

Instead, Martin went on to Chipola Junior College in Florida. But had he signed with Montreal, and soared through its system as he would with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he might have become a hero in Montreal, perhaps popular enough to draw enough fans to build that stadium, and keep the team where it was born. Or so he thinks, with a wink and a smile.

By the time Martin made it to the big leagues with the Dodgers in 2006, the Expos had been the Washington Nationals for more than a year, and baseball in Montreal was a memory.

Now, as the sun went down in Old Montreal in late October, Martin might have been the only major leaguer in town. Dressed in gray slacks and a dark blue pullover sweater, he hopped back into his car and made the mile drive to a trendy Italian restaurant called Buonanotte. There he ran into the father of a close friend, received a hug from a manager who knew him and settled in at the bar to half-watch Game 1 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Tigers.

Because of the lockout in the N.H.L., the Canadiens, Martin’s favorite team, were not playing. Watching baseball was hard.

“No hockey is killing me,” he said.

Night Out With Friends
Soon Martin was joined by close friends, the brothers Hughes and Dave Appleby. Hughes Appleby was Martin’s high school baseball teammate at Ecole secondaire Édouard-Montpetit in Montreal, and Dave lived with Martin in Los Angeles when he played for the Dodgers, and helped him manage his life away from home.

The friends chatted away in French and told stories, like the time in high school that Martin hit a ball so ridiculously far, even the half-dozen major league scouts in the stands clapped. After an hour or so they moved on to L’Appartement, a loud, hip Montreal supper club where the Montreal-born tennis star Aleksandra Wozniak sat with friends at a nearby table.

Soon the conversation shifted to the season that just ended, and the Applebys tried to figure out what went wrong so quickly.

Watching Martin play on television from across the border, it seemed, to his friends, that the Yankees had played valiantly in September to hold on to first place, only to then have to fight off the Orioles in the playoffs.

“Did they just get tired at the end?” Dave wondered aloud.

Martin never conceded to fatigue during the season, and he insisted that exhaustion did not play a role in the postseason fade to black. But he has had trouble analyzing or making sense of his full season — one that began with an incomprehensible slump in the first half of the season that was so severe he was batting. 176 on July 6.

“I would be surprised if anyone worked harder than I did in the game,” he said. “So I just couldn’t figure it out. It didn’t make any sense at all.”

Martin may have worked out too much in the off-season, becoming too muscle-bound and stiff. He said that as the second half unfolded, and he naturally lost some of his body mass because of the rigors of the season, he could feel himself becoming more flexible, more relaxed. The hits started to fall. A welcome irony, then — coming alive when he should have been wearing down.

In the second half of the season, Martin hit a healthier .242 with 13 home runs and 32 runs batted in. In September, he hit seven home runs, including some clutch, game-winning shots in the thick of a playoff race, and had a .347 on-base percentage.

Girardi gave Martin ample rest during the regular season, but when the games mattered most, in September and October, Martin started the most games of any month (24) and had his most plate appearances (102) and by far the most R.B.I. (17).

Marveling at Jeter
But what was most remarkable for him about this season, he said, was playing next to Derek Jeter. Martin marveled at Jeter’s relentless competitive zeal and his refusal to concede anything, whether a nasty pitch, a loss or an injury. At 38, Jeter played the final weeks of the season with a painful bone bruise in his ankle. The bone broke in the 12th inning of Game 1 against the Tigers.

“I know what he was going through,” Martin said, amazed. “I saw him in the trainer’s room every day getting treatment before and after the game. He played on that thing until it finally just broke.”

What Jeter told Martin and his teammates that night at Yankee Stadium was the exact same thing he would tell them and the news media after a loss or a win or an injury or a terrible call by the umpires.

“We’ve got another one tomorrow,” Jeter said.

Martin called what Jeter did “fighting the fight.” It is an ethos that he has tried to adopt as a catcher and a hitter. He made it through the season mostly unscathed — not counting the recurring stiff neck and assortment of bruises and scrapes — until he jammed his right thumb in the 10th inning of Game 3 of the division series on a tight pitch from Johnson, the Orioles’ closer.

Then, in Game 3 of the A.L.C.S., he jammed it again against the hard-throwing Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander. The thumb went numb on the bench for about five minutes as trainers tried to rub feeling back into it.

“It hit the nerve, and they told me there was nothing I could do but just wait for it to come back,” Martin said.

When feeling did return, it was outright pain. Gripping the bat became a challenge. In Game 1 of the A.L.C.S., he managed to get two hits, including a single in the ninth inning right before Ichiro Suzuki hit a home run that set the stage for Ibanez’s remarkable game-tying shot.

But in the final three games, Martin searched in vain for a hit. Before Game 3 in Detroit, Girardi almost left him out of the lineup, so bad was the thumb. But Martin insisted that he did not need a shot in his thumb and that he could still play.

And he did, until the seventh inning of Game 4, when Girardi sent Curtis Granderson to pinch-hit for Martin against the right-handed Octavio Dotel.

So Martin’s season ended quietly, painfully, on the bench. He sat through the final two and a half innings watching in disbelief as the lights to a season flickered and then went off.

“It was hard to watch,” he said. “It’s one thing if you feel like you were in there giving them a good fight. But there’s pride involved. To get swept like that, it hurt pretty bad.”

There would be no more warm-up sessions in bullpens across America, agonizing decisions about which pitch to call, hitters to keep track of, runners to gun down, and scouting meetings.

Pondering the Future
The next substantive meeting, other than his brief exchange with Girardi, would be with Matt Colleran, his agent, as they plot and strategize Martin’s future in free agency. The Yankees would like to have Martin as their catcher. But Martin may interest other teams, too.

“I love being a Yankee,” he said. “But I’m going to be as smart as I can. I have to play it out as if I’m calling a game behind the plate. Look at all the stats, go over the scouting report, think about the options, and then go with my gut.”

The next day Martin had lunch with his father at SoupeSourpe, a little cafe near Rue St.-Denis on the eastern slope of Mount Royal. His initial postseason unwinding was going well between visits with his friends, his father, his mother, Suzanne Jeanson, and his sister, Vivianne Jeanson-Delorme, an aspiring opera singer.

But a trip abroad awaits. The destination is still unknown. Some days he is off to Paris, where he lived for two years as a boy with his mother and sister. Other days it is Spain, or perhaps to a quiet stretch of beach. Recently, he decided he would first go to Spain, then jump over to Marrakesh, Morocco.

From mid-February, when he reported for spring training, until Oct. 18, Martin had been fully engaged both mentally and physically in the most demanding position in baseball. Eight straight months of preparation, execution, concentration, joy, expectation, dejection and exhaustion.

Fighting the fight for 248 days.

“It’s been a grind,” Martin said in the cool night air of Montreal. “I need a vacation.”

Revue de presse publiée par Jacques Lanciault.

Commentaires (0) Trackbacks (0)

Aucun commentaire pour l'instant

Laisser un commentaire

Aucun trackbacks pour l'instant