* Russell Martin (Montreal, Que.) would have played for Canada if the Pittsburgh Pirates and Team Canada had allowed him to play shortstop. .... 2012 Most Influential Canadians 2012 All-Canadian Team 2012 All-Canadian stats
By Bob Elliott
BRADENTON, Fla. _ Every soap opera has a villain.
So in the case of Russell Martin not playing for Team Canada next month is it:
A) The Pittsburgh Pirates who told their expensive free-agent catcher that they did not want him playing shortstop?
B) Martin for wanting to play short?
C) Greg Hamilton, director of Baseball Canada national teams?
“Well it’s certainly not Greg,” said Martin Sunday afternoon. “The Pirates didn’t feel I should play short.
“I’m hard headed. I believe they still have a chance to win without me.”
Now, what do manager Ernie Whitt and Hamilton do to help triple-A catcher Chris Robinson with the workload?
They could approach the Kansas City Royals about Markham’s George Kottaras, who backed away from an earlier invite since he’s in camp trying to win a back-up job. It’s doubtful he’s either won or lost a job with the Royals in this short of time frame, so that's a long, longshot.
Etobicoke’s John Suomi who was a triple-A Lehigh Valley last season would be the next and most likely option.
Greg Hamilton, director of national teams for Baseball Canada, had many a discussion.
“If they had let me play shortstop it would have been OK,” said Martin. “I know I have the ability. I’m a better athlete now than I was the last time I played short (2002).”
The two sides discussed a compromise where Martin could split the two exhibition games playing short and maybe play short if the Team USA game didn’t mean anything.
But in the end it came back to catching 18 inning March 8 against Italy and the next day against Mexico.
Martin said he was not prepared to catch that much so early in March.
“Robinson has caught most of those pitchers more than I have, he knows them,” said Martin. “He’s a polished catcher.”
Robinson has played 518 games in the minors, 276 the last four seasons at triple-A. Martin has played 925 games in the majors.
When Martin came to Bradenton he expressed an interest in playing short -- for Team Canada -- for the first time since 2002 when he played one game for the rookie-class Dodgers.
After 2002, in which Martin played mostly third, Logan White of the Dodgers suggested converting to catcher. He’s been named to three all-star teams since. “Logan could have moved me to right field, centre or second base, I would have done well.”
We could see Martin playing second a la Craig Biggio, or third base, but right field and providing the power numbers expected from that position? Centre?
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington was impressed with what he saw of Martin in the infield.
“He was better than we anticipated,” said Huntington. “But if anyone barrels into him at second on a double play, or if he makes an awkward throw ...
“We complied with the commissioner allowing our players -- like Chris Leroux and Jameson Taillon to go with Canada -- but we could not honour Russell’s request to go to the WBC as a shortstop.”
Whitt has minor leaguers Cale Iorg and Jonathan Malo to play short.
“Malo was a shortstop with our National Junior Team, he had no problem moving to second, so I could play short,” said Martin. “With the New York Yankees I’d take ground balls during batting practice with Derek Jeter. I know it wasn’t game speed, but still.”
The seven-year vet said each team should have three catchers on the roster to share the workload. And if there are only two the starting catcher should be allowed to re-enter in case of an injury.
“I can only go off the way my body felt in 2009 and that was too early for me to catching nine innings ... twice in three days,” Martin said. “Pittsburgh is setting me and my family up for life. I had to do what the Pirates say.”
Martin said American and Canadian players the WBC has become a distraction, adding “we’re not like players in Japan, Cuba, the Dominican Republic or Venezuela where they play year round.”
In 2006, the first WBC, Martin stayed behind in Vero Beach to try and impress new Los Angeles Dodgers manager Grady Little ... “and they sent me down with a week and a half to go, even though I outplayed and out hit Dioner Navarro.”
Pete Laforest was Canada’s starting catcher that year.
So, 2009 was his only venture into the WBC.
“I love Baseball Canada, I respect all the guys, but in 2009 my body didn’t recover, I was playing on a sore ankle” Martin said. “I went from catching three or four innings with the Dodgers to catching 18 innings in three days and then came back to spring training to play half of each game.”
It would have been better for all concerned had Martin had declined to catch in December rather than days before.
Now what if Joey Votto suffers a setback or is not cleared to play by Cincinnati Reds doctors?
We thought the 2009 WBC was one of Canada’s worst moments on the international stage: an exciting 6-5 loss to Team USA and a 6-2 hit-the-road loss to Italy.
This is not shaping up as a day at the beech.
As Canada enters play without an injured Scott Diamond, Jeff Francis, Jason Bay, Dempster and Martin.
Canada heads to Phoenix without its best homegrown catcher.
“I might be our best catcher,” Martin said, “but I’m our best shortstop too.”