By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
On the fourth Saturday of the third month in 2014, the Houston Astros summoned outfielder J.D. Martinez into manager Bo Porter’s office and gave him his release.
Windsor’s Stubby Clapp had been Martinez’s hitting coach with the Greeneville Astros in 2009 and the next year with the class-A Lexington Legends.
“I’d only been coaching for two years, but J.D. was the first right-handed hitter I’d ever seen with such a stroke to right-centre, he could hit the ball to right field the way a left-handed hitter pulls the ball,” said Clapp, now manager of the triple-A Memphis Redbirds. “
So, what did Clapp do on that March morning when he read on a website or gazed at the transactions in his newspaper that Martinez had been released?
“Oh, I didn’t read it,” said Clapp, who was a coach with the class-A Dunedin Blue Jays back then. “I got THE phone call.”
That’s how close Clapp and Martinez were and are.
“Stubby helped me out a lot in Greeneville,” Martinez said this week at the Rogers Centre when his first-place Boston Red Sox were in town. “I’d go to him and say ‘Stubby, I feel like I’m going to hit a home run in this at-bat.’ And Stubby would say ‘Why not try and hit a line drive over second?’
“He was always able to dial me down a bit.”
Martinez was asked if he had ever seen highlights of Clapp play the game. Martinez said he had not. Clapp was Mr. Baseball on the international stage for Canada. It began when he blooped a single into short left to beat Team USA in extras at the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg. “Looked like a line drive in the paper,” Clapp would joke.
Clapp would bust up a double play like a bowling bowl, he’d stay in to turn a double play like he was 6-foot-4 and often was spotted sending an opposing catcher tumbling. And before an important game he would run on to the field and do an Ozzie Smith like back flip.
Martinez said he last saw Clapp when the Canuck accompanied the St. Louis Cardinals to Fort Myers this spring, adding “I didn’t know that he won International League manager of the year until later.”
Clapp recalls the meeting: “Big hugs, a lot of smiles, laughs and ‘remembers when.'”
When Clapp got off the phone with Martinez on March 22, he called the Blue Jays minor-league hitting guru Mike Barnett.
“Mike and I both liked J.D., but the Detroit Tigers signed him first,” Clapp said.
Boston GM Dave Dombrowski was watching his Red Sox from the second row this week, but in 2014 he ran the Tigers. Martinez had been a 20th round pick in 2009 from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Tigers had previously tried to trade for Martinez (“back before he was J.D.” said Dombrowski). Houston had called before releasing the outfielder, but there was zero room in the Detroit outfield.
Released on March 22, Martinez signed a minor-league contract with triple-A Toledo, the Tigers affiliate
“The second day he hit a homer,” said Dombrowski, who gave credit to assistant GM Al Avila and Tigers coach Dave Clark, who had both liked Martinez. catcher Alex Avila had played against Martinez in south Florida. “We needed another outfielder in April and he had 10 homers (in 17 games at Toledo) when we called him up.”
In July of 2017, the Tigers traded Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 62 games with Arizona, Martinez hit .302 with 29 home runs and 65 RBIs, finishing with a .303 average, 45 homers and 104 RBIs.
“I thought we had a good relationship and he trusted me,” said Clapp looking back to their early days. “Watching him take batting practice, I could tell he was a man among boys.”
And what did Clapp tell Martinez when he phoned with news he was without a job?
“I told him when one door closes a 1,000 more open. We had a long heart to heart, how other opportunities would open up. Look at him now: one of the best hitters in within the game."
Clapp says Martinez was the first right-handed hitter to drive the ball to right centre so well. It was his first two years of coaching. Clapp has seen a few since: Randal Grichuk, a former Cardinal, now with the Jays, plus Luke Voit and Patrick Wisdom, at Memphis this season.
The scouting report on Martinez when he arrived as a 20th rounder in Kissimmee, Fla. was that he might be a tough kid to coach and would be a long shot to make it.
“He was anything but,” said Clapp. “I can’t say enough about his aptitude and his willingness to work. He tries to understand everything.”
And this winter Dombrowski signed Martinez to a five-year $110 Million US contract.
You know a lot of times you listen to hitting and pitching coaches and you think to yourself "when will we see that?"
On Wednesday, Clapp said that Martinez hit the ball to right field, like a left-handed pull hitter.
And on Thursday, Martinez hit a game-winning, three-run homer off Marco Estrada.
The ball landed in the Red Sox bullpen ... in right field.
On the farm: Clapp’s catcher at Memphis is former Markham Mariner Carson Kelly, who won a Canadian peewee championship in 2007 in Quebec City for coach Bill Byckowski (Georgetown, Ont.). Kelly is batting .226 with one homer, seven RBIs and a .689 OPS in 14 games ... The Clapp children Cooper, 14 and Cannan, 11 formed a double play combination last summer. Cooper is a left-handed shortstop. Daughter Crosbie, six, named after Sidney Crosby, also plays. All three wants instructions on how to do the back flip.
On the farm: Clapp’s catcher is former Markham Mariner Carson Kelly, who won a Canadian peewee championship in 2007 in Quebec City. Kelly is batting .226 with one homer, seven RBIs and a .689 OPS in 14 games ... The Clapp children Cooper, 14 and Cannan, 11 formed a double play combination last summer. Cooper is a left-handed shortstop. Daughter Crosbie, six, named after Sidney Crosby, also plays. All three wants instructions on how to do the back flip.
Memories: After frantically searching 90 minutes for my daughter, who was working downtown on Monday. Finally getting in touch with her I took a deep breath.
What now for this city I have called home since March of 1987? How do we go about our day-to-day lives? Do we lock the doors? Do we alter day-to-day routines.
My mind quickly flashed back to October of 2001. A month after the Trade Towers fell, a friend of mine with the NYPD got me inside Ground Zero. That night I headed to Yankee Stadium to see the Yanks play the Oakland Athletics in the American League Division Series.
It could have been during the Oakland series, or the AL Championship Series when the Yankees beat the Seattle Mariners or during the World Series when the Yanks lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks. This was at the height of the anthrax threats.
I stopped into Runyon’s -- a New York Saloon located at 305 E. 50th -- to check the highlights you understand. I was at one end of the upstairs bar, a well-dressed man and his wife were at the other end and the legendary Richie O’Rourke was tending.
O’Rourke asked the couple: “So when do you go to Ohio State-Michigan game this year?” Judging from the conversation, one had attended Ohio State, the other Michigan. Sounded like fun.
“Oh we’re not going?” the man said.
“Why not?” O’Rourke asked.
The man lowered his head and whispered, “9/11.”
With all the drama of a Broadway actor, O’Rourke slowly cleaned the bar with a towel, all the way down to where I was and then headed back to the couple: “Now, let me get this straight: You guys have told me for 20 years that this football weekend was the best weekend of the year besides St. Patrick’s Day and now you are not going to go?
“Because of a guy living in a cave. OK makes sense to me.”
He came down to my end of the bar, talked for a few minutes and I could hear the couple whispering.
The man said, “Richie, another round please.”
O’Rourke delivered and then the couple toasted “To this year’s trip.”
Unanswered questions: Nice to see the “1992-93 World Series” sweat shirts honouring the Blue Jays back-to-back championships, but where was the 25th celebration of the 1992 team? ... How much premium seating can a facility hold? The Jays say that they will likely eliminate the press box behind home plate for next season. TV and radio booths will remain behind home plate. Writers and radio people will move to the football box, which has a perfect view of the 50-yard line and zero sight lines of the left field corner. Only two other facilities don’t have their press box behind home plate: US Celluar Field in Chicago, which was moved near the right field foul pole and in Anaheim most of the press box has been removed from behind home plate ... How valuable was Gregg Zaun? In February, we read that Joe Siddall (Windsor, Ont.) was moving from The Fan’s radio booth to replace Zaun as an in-studio analyst with Jamie Campbell on the pre-game show. Most games we see Campbell has two side kicks ... Eliminated from the radio race: Josh Thole accepted a coaching position in the Atlanta Braves organization. And it is not Kevin Brown, the former pitcher or Kevin Brown, the former catcher, but Kevin Brown from triple-A Syracuse.
Commish speak/spanking: Commissioner Rob Manfred was in town Tuesday and like most commissioners spoke about stadium improvements. However, he also zinged Rogers Communications for the way they handled last week’s Facebook game.
Rogers made a decision to bill as “radio only.” Manfred told reporters: “We make a distinct effort through the club and through baseball and frankly didn’t get a lot of help from the rights holder in terms of publicizing where that game was going to be.”
Two more games will be on Facebook. Said Manfred: "We generate literally tens of millions of dollars per club in central revenue. That revenue is largely generated by selling media rights and many clubs have 10 or more games on national only platforms in order to generate that revenue. Toronto has been very fortunate in terms of its rights holders. They’ve given up very few games and received exactly the same revenue for a number of years. Three games as a contribution to receive that national revenue is really a small contribution.”
Here’s to you: Alex Agostino is in good shape -- well as good as any amateur scout can be headed towards the June draft. The Saint-Bruno de Montarville Minor Foundation has decided that the 13th edition of provincial mosquito tournament will now be named after Agostino.
Agostino is well known and respected across the province after scouting for the Montreal Expos, the Florida Marlins and now the Philadelphia Phillies. And for the past five years he has run an academy, Baseball Empire, for Saint-Bruno players.
Said coach Jean-Nicolas Robert “Alex Agostino is more than just baseball. Thanks to him, I am the man I am today: educated, disciplined and perseverant. I am perfectly bilingual, I have a very good career, a fantastic woman and two beautiful children who are both passionate about sports.”