By: Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
DUNEDIN, Fla. _ Few people were watching that morning as the transformation began at Dodgertown in Vero Beach.
New York Mets manager Terry Collins was there.
So too was Eric Langill, the Mets bullpen coach.
Like Russell Martin, Langil is from Quebec.
Unlike Martin, an infielder at Chipola College and his first year in the Los Angeles Dodgers system, Langill was a catcher.
“First pitch ever thrown to him as a catcher, Russell never got a glove on it,” said Eric Langill, now the bullpen coach of the New York Mets was saying Wednesday morning. “Mike Keirstead a Canadian kid (from St. John, N.B.) threw the pitch ... right in the cup. He didn’t catch for three days. Look at him now.”
Collins was asked in the Mets clubhouse if he recalled how Martin received the first pitch. He nodded yes and said one word: “clank!”
After the Jays beat the New York Mets Martin was asked about his first day catching as the conversion from infielder began.
“Dodgertown, minor league side, inside a batting cage, Jose Diaz was throwing about 100 mph, he pitched for Cincinnati last year as Jumbo Diaz,” Martin said with instant recall.
What about Keirstead bullpen session?
“That was Day III,” Martin said, “he gave me a sign what he was going to throw, I asked ‘what’s that mean guys?’ They told me it meant fastball. I was hit right square on the cup, never laid a glove on it.
“He threw a sinker and crossed me up. I’d caught a little, but I’d never caught anyone who threw a 94 mph sinker.
That day I thought ‘I’m retiring.’”
Like Langill, Collins has been impressed with Martin’s rapid rise.
“I saw him one night in Odgen, Utah ... Russell must have been at the back stop 18 times,” Collins said. “Less than three years later he was starting at Dodger Stadium. You don’t see him back at the screen much now any more.”
At Odgen 13 years ago Martin remembers thinking “why is catching so tough?”
“We had guys without command throwing fastballs in the dirt -- I envy guys who can block fastballs, I just try to pick ‘em. Each time I moved up a level, pitchers had more control,” Martin said. “It became easier.”
Langill from Kirkland, Que. was drafted from the Des Moines Area Community College Bears (where Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Corey Koskie went to school) and signed by scout Bob Oldis in the 34th round in 1999. He spent two years in the Expos system. The first in 2000 for the class-A Vermont Expos, with Jason Bay playing for manager Tim Leiper, the Jays first base coach. The next year he played for the class-A Clinton LumberKings.
After the season he headed to the Dodgers.
“We needed catching help, so we purchased his contract,” said Collins, who ran the Dodgers farm system in 2001.
Langill made nine stops in five years dropping in and out of rookie-class Great Falls, class-A South Georgia, double-A Jacksonville, class-A Vero Beach and triple-A Las Vegas.
“We moved him everywhere,” said Collins, “someone would get hurt he’d go here, we’d put him on the phantom disabled list ... and he never once said a word.”
Luke Carlin of Aylmer and Langill were the catchers on Canada’s 2005 World Cup team which played in Rotterdam and Amsterdam under head coach Jim Baba.
Six years ago Langill was home on the West Island working for the city when his phone rang. It was Collins, now the new manager of the Mets. He needed a bullpen catcher. Langill was on his way back to spring training.
Now, he warms up the hardest-throwing staff in baseball.
“Noah Syndergaard throws the hardest, but Jeurys Familia is the nastiest,” said Langill, 36. He lives in Port St. Lucie, winter home of the Mets, goes home to Quebec three days a year and shares a house with first baseman Lucas Duda.
“The off seasons are fun, we golf and fish,” Langill said. “He’s not the greatest golfer, but he loves to compete. He’s the much better fisherman. Everything I learned about fishing I learned from him.”
Langill asked about Larry Walker, who has been helping out as a guest coach with Walt Weiss’ Colorado Rockies and Stubby Clapp, who threw batting practice for the Blue Jays, and says he keeps track of all the Canadians in the majors.
“I see Claude has one guy in our system,” he says referring to Mets scout Claude Pelletier, who drafted Kurtis Horne, of Sooke, B.C. When he worked for the Dodgers Pelletier signed Cy Young award winner Eric Gagne.
When the Blue Jays visited Olympic Stadium to play the Mets in 2014, the classy Collins asked hometown lad Langill to take the lineup card out to home plate, while, Pelletier sat in the dugout and was only spotted giving signs the innings that the Mets scored.
“You know when I think back it’s amazing how far Russell has come,” said Langill.
Langill, who received a full World Series share of $300,757.78 US hasn’t done bad either.
“Everyone,” he says, “wants to play in the majors.”
He’s living the good life, the major-league life.
Canadian bullpen catchers make up 10% of those in the majors.
The three-man Canadian bullpen catchers union consists of:
Hometown: Etobicoke, Ont.
School: Seton Hall University.
Drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 17th round in 1995.
Played: Eight seasons, 425 games, peaked at triple-A (Tucson, Louisville, Buffalo, Memphis, Ottawa).
Hometown: Kirkland, Que.
School: Des Moines Area Community College
Drafted by the Montreal Expos in the 34th round in 1999.
Played: Seven seasons, 201 games, peaking at triple-A (Las Vegas).
Hometown: Guelph, Ont.
School: Old Dominion University.
Undrafted, signed from the London Werewolves, independent Frontier League. 1999.
Played: Nine seasons, 231 games, peaked at double-A (New Haven).