By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
PITTSBURGH, Penn. – There was a look in his eyes.
Through the mask of the man beyond home plate, just over 60 feet and six inches from where A.J. Burnett stood on the mound, the right-hander could tell that Russell Martin was different. There was something about his eyes and the fire behind them that contributed to everything Martin brought to his team.
The hurler saw it in his backstop the very first time he leaned in to confer over what pitch he would throw, when the two met playing for the New York Yankees. It was something Burnett looked forward to having again in Pittsburgh when they both later joined the Pirates organization.
“I always look at the catcher’s eyes through the mask,” Burnett said. “I told him as soon as he came here how much I missed that. He makes you better. Certain guys, you can look down and see their eyes, and they’re just ready to go. They’re ready for the game, they’re competitors.
“Russell always had that look in his eye. He never had a pitch he took off. He never took an inning off. It was just about how good can I make that guy be out there? You see that. It’s hard to explain but it’s something that very few people have.”
Martin also always had that way of bringing out the best in people. The 32-year-old gets to know his teammates on a different level, helping them to feel comfortable, and making it easy for them to play at the top of their game. His contributions stretch well beyond the field, where Martin has found obvious successes throughout his career both at the plate and behind it.
“Russ took time to get to know people,” Burnett said. “Some guys do that in this game and some guys don’t. It’s just who they are. But him being a catcher, you’ve got to work with the pitching staff day in and day out. That means him kicking the ball around with [Jeff] Locke, or coming out here with Gerrit [Cole], or going to dinner with the bullpen. He took the time to get to know people and that’s how you build respect.
“He would come and hang out in my room on the road and we would play boxing [video games], FIFA, or golf or whatever, but he took time to get to know these guys and that escalates out there [on the field] because they know this guy’s not joking around, this guy cares about me, this guy cares about us. I went over in Cincinnati [at the All-Star Game] just to make sure I gave him a hug.”
Guys make time for Martin because he gave an endless amount of his own to them. His teammates have always come first and foremost, that factor not at all diminishing the tiresome work he puts in regularly in order to make himself better at the same time.
“One of the reasons he’s become very good at his craft is he’s willing to invest time into other people,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “Whether it be a bullpen session, whether it be the conversation after the man’s pitched, following the game or the next day, the pitch-by-pitch sequencing, here’s what we did, here’s what I liked, here’s what we can continue to work on to do better.
“He was a wonderful communicator and when he did, they always knew that he was invested in the conversation. It wasn’t just something he was doing to check off his list. He would pour into those other guys and they always walked away feeling better about themselves.”
It was that kind of relationship that made the Burnett and Martin battery work, with the Canadian catcher catching 352 1/3 innings in the hurler’s career, just a few short of Rod Barajas for spending the most innings behind the plate with Burnett on the mound.
“He’s one of the guys who knew how to pull the reigns on A.J.,” Burnett said. “He knew how to control me on the field. He knew I was not joking around, competitor on the mound, very serious, real emotional, and if he didn’t get to know me he wouldn’t know how to handle me.
“He told me I was different here [In Pittsburgh] than I was in New York, and same with him. It was just a lot of other things he knew besides baseball. I’m glad I went there. I had a good time there, but getting here and getting to be with Russ, that just took it to another level.”
Even with the great relationship the two had, from time to time Burnett would shake off the signs that Martin was putting down, as all pitchers do on occasion. But there’s still one time that the hurler will never forget.
“I gave up a no-hitter because I shook him off,” Burnett said. “But Russ is the kind of guy who’s like, ‘Shake me.’ A lot of guys would get mad at that. But it was in Kansas City and Alex Gordon was up in the seventh inning and I shook and gave up a hit and came right in here and he said, ‘I could have given you that no-no today.’ He figures out a way to make it his fault. ‘No man, Russ I threw it.’
“He always had your back. It was always more about, ‘No I did that, I’ve got you, no it was me.’ We shake guys here and there, but once again there are guys you shake and they [aren’t happy about it], but when you shake Russ, you look in the face mask like I mentioned, the eyes, and he says, ‘You don’t want to throw this? I’m in, let’s go. I’m with you 100 per cent no matter what you want to do.’ And you see that. It’s hard to explain but it makes you that much better.”
When the pair were both New York Yankees, they were on a team that was expected to win a pennant each year, alongside future members of Cooperstown, in front of fans who expected another World Series trophy to be presented to their favourite squad, year after year.
“It’s a different ballgame over there,” Burnett said. “There’s a lot more than just baseball going on. When he signed over here I remember him saying, ‘We can just go back to playing baseball again.’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s a lot different over here.’
“When you’re around a bunch of Hall of Famers you can’t really be yourself, but when he came over here he was instantly looked up to as a leader of the team, like I was before I even threw a pitch here. Guys looked at me like that. That brought more out of Russ than he even thought he had. He became one of the greatest leaders I ever played with.”
In 2013, Martin joined a Pirates team where, “the talent was there, the guys just didn’t know how good they were,” claiming he only helped to fill a void.
“Russ’s lends helped those guys in some different areas because he had played on teams that had gotten into the playoffs,” Hurdle said. “He had that experience, and probably continued to remind them that we had enough in here to do something special.”
Burnett felt the same way Martin did when he met the rest of that team over two years ago, his first thought being that his young teammates just didn’t know how capable they might be.
“It’s hard for young guys,” the 38-year-old righty said. “The more you get out there, the more reps you get, the more games you get, you get that confidence and you get that aura about you. Then you get to watch a guy like Russ and you get to watch me out there every five guys.
“These guys said it to me and they said it to Russ, ‘I’ve learned so much just from watching you, not so much talking or what we get out of this and that, but just by watching how you go about your business and how you go about your day.’ That [helped] some of the guys on this team. That’s why Russell was so special, because he just made everybody better.”
On the field, off the field, at the plate, behind it, in the dugout, in the locker room, everything Martin did was careful, orchestrated, deliberate, and meant to help his team.
“Russ is a very, very focused man and competitive guy in everything he does,” Hurdle said. “That was a very nice characteristic for us to add to our clubhouse, to our dugout, and to the playing field. There is intent with everything he does. He plays with an edge every pitch, whether he’s involved in every pitch or not. Even in the dugout watching the game.
“And knowing that he was one of the older players with the most experience, that it might be an opportunity for him to grow some and take that leadership to a place that might not have been asked from anybody for him to do, before he took it on his own. Most importantly, it started with the pitching staff and the relationships that he was able to develop and build with each and every guy…
“And then at the plate, this man would rather give up a small body part than just burn up and have a bad at-bat.”
The team Martin came to Pittsburgh to help in 2013 turned out to be a squad dreams are made of, and by the end of the season, the Pirates were hosting their first playoff game in more than two decades. A fan base that had waited for years and years rewarded them with an incredible atmosphere at PNC Park, culminating in one moment with Martin taking centre stage.
Against the Cincinnati Reds, the catcher came up to the plate in the second inning with the standing-room-only crowd chanting Johnny Cueto’s name, rattling the opposing hurler. Before he could throw the 2-1 pitch, a 95-mile-an-hour fastball, the right-hander dropped the ball, riling up the fans and unknowingly preparing them for what came next.
“The fans are chanting, ‘Cue-TO, Cue-TO’, he drops the ball, and then the next pitch I hit a home run,” Martin said. “That’s the fairy tale almost. The crowd goes wild.
“Twenty years of waiting for a playoff game is a long time for the people of Pittsburgh. They were amped, they were ready, and the city was completely electric. It almost felt like there was an earthquake in the stadium when it happened.”
Said Burnett: “He’s right about it. I mean, first of all it was the first time in however long that these people and the city got to enjoy it all, and then you can only imagine that [game against] one of our rivals. Cueto always did well against us and when they got to him like that and Russ capitalized on it – I’ve heard a stadium that loud once or twice, maybe.
“It was incredibly loud. I wasn’t here last year, obviously but I heard his last game all you could hear were Russell Martin chants. The guys talked about how loud it was, and that’s great coming from the city as well.”
It’s hard for his former teammate and two-year manager to pinpoint exactly what made Martin so special, or what was most impressive about the competitive catcher, because there were just so many ways he contributed.
“The edge he brought to our club every pitch of the game, regardless of if he was behind the plate,” Hurdle said. “The intensity of what he was able to do when he took the bat up there in his hands. And then as important, the comments in the dugout through the game when he actually wasn’t [playing]. He would be pointing something out, coaching somebody.
“He had anger, happiness, all of it. He’s an emotional guy who let everything out and that was contagious in a very positive fashion.”
Added Burnett: “It was everything he did. It wasn’t about Russell Martin. It’s all about how can I make this guy better? Or what can I do for this guy? Or for the team? It’s not about Russell. It’s about helping everybody else because he can do that and not worry about his numbers and his game.
“He never took at at-bat behind the plate, never. He could go 0-for-4 and you would never know it by the way he played. He was all about everybody else. He wanted to make everybody else better by just being Russell. He was our guy.”