Martin's infectious attitude has helped turn around Pirates' fortunes
Russell Martin still thinks about that night last October when he faced Johnny Cueto at PNC Park.
He hears the chants of “Cwaaaay-to” when the Cincinnati Reds starter is on the mound, and the memory of that National League wild-card game comes back.
Martin, the Pirates' catcher, was at the plate, and the sold-out crowd, frenzied after a Marlon Byrd home run, relentlessly and deafeningly was chanting Cueto's name. Then Cueto dropped the ball. The next pitch was a fastball right over the plate, and
— bam — it was gone.
Home run to left field.
“That was kind of like a fairy tale,” Martin said. “Something like that really doesn't happen. Guy on the mound drops the ball, and next pitch the guy hits a home run? It was well scripted.”
So has been Martin's time in Pittsburgh.
Entering the 2013 season, the Pirates needed a dependable catcher capable of controlling opponents' running games, someone who could provide sound defense and contribute on offense while working with a pitching staff that included veterans, rookies and a project or two.
The Pirates' caught-stealing percentage jumped from an NL-worst 11 percent in 2012 to 28 percent in 2013, fifth in the league. Pitching became the team's greatest strength. And Martin batted .226 — up from .211 in his last season with the New York Yankees — and clubbed 15 home runs and drove in 55 runs.
Despite missing several weeks with a hamstring injury early this season, Martin's .279 batting average is third on the team behind All-Stars Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison. His .407 on-base percentage and .807 on-base plus slugging percentage are second behind McCutchen, and his 31 RBIs rank fifth.
“Outside of what Andrew (McCutchen) has done here the last year, he's probably the biggest key to this engine that is the Pittsburgh Pirates organization,” Neil Walker said. “It runs through him.”
Martin may seem like a born catcher, but he was drafted as a third baseman by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002. They converted him shortly thereafter amid concerns he lacked the power needed to play third.
Growing up in Montreal, Martin played shortstop and outfield. It was there, Martin said, that he learned the importance of a good attitude and mindset from his father, Russell Martin Sr.
“He made me understand that you can't just go on talent alone. You have to work hard,” Martin said. “(He'd say), ‘You think you're working hard? Do you think there's not one kid in the world working harder than you right now?' That type of stuff. He'd drop that on me when I was 7 years old. And I'd be like, ‘I don't want to go. I'll stay. I want to be better. I want to be the best.' He knew what buttons to push.”
It never was in a forceful way, Martin said. His father knew when to apply pressure but always allowed his son to enjoy himself and the game.
That work ethic remains, said Martin's teammates, who describe him as relentlessly positive and upbeat. Martin somehow always has more in the tank, doesn't panic, doesn't let a bad day at the plate affect his defense or vice versa, and maintains that even keel professional athletes praise but often find hard to achieve during the course of a season.
Martin said it wasn't always that way.
“It's something I've been practicing the last couple years to try and be better at as far as finding a way for the glass to be half full,” he said. “Even in every failure, there's a lesson to be learned.”
For instance, Martin said, during a recent game at PNC Park, he rolled over a ball into a bases-loaded double play.
“I'm like, ‘You know what? Next time I'm going to be a little bit more aggressive with the swing,' ” Martin said. “In that situation, I'd rather strike out on a nice aggressive swing than give myself up on a rollover. Obviously I'm (angry) at the result, but knowing what I can do to digest that and next time maybe have a better plan? I feel like those are thing that you can do mentally, and it's a huge part of baseball.”
He applies the same mentality to his pitchers. If someone gives up a hit and Martin sees him watching the replay on the video scoreboard, he won't hesitate to have a word with him.
“I'm like, ‘It's over, man. You got to get ready for the next pitch,' ” he said. “You have to have a short-term memory, even when good stuff happens. It's easier said than done, and when I was younger I was a straight roller coaster. Now I'm starting to be more consistent.”
That's one of many qualities pitching coach Ray Searage appreciates most, along with Martin's baseball knowledge and ability to watch hitters and pick up on subtleties.
If Martin takes a moment to talk to a pitcher at the mound, often it means Searage doesn't have to. Unless the starter has 20 pitches or more, Searage doesn't like to make a visit to the mound. He wants the pitcher and catcher — in this case Martin — to figure it out.
“And if they're listening to (Martin), they're going to figure it out,” Searage said.
Pitchers love Martin's individualized approach.
“He's very determined, in the best way possible, to get everything out of you that he feels like he can,” Jeff Locke said. “The first time I met Russ, he asked me what I like to do and what I do well, or what I think I can do to succeed. Before we even played a game of catch together, he was trying to figure me out and find out what kind of guy I like to be when I'm out there.”
Left-hander Francisco Liriano joined the Pirates after a 6-12 season with Minnesota and the Chicago White Sox and finished 2013 as the National League Comeback Player of the Year. He said trusting Martin from the start helped.
“He likes to use whatever's working for you that day,” Liriano said. “He talks to you before the game and asks what you want to do and what's your game plan, but whatever's working for you more that day, that's what he's going to use.”
Martin makes his Pittsburgh home in the Strip District and finds the hard-working, family-oriented, sports-loving city similar to Montreal. He feels appreciated here, he said, and that warms his heart.
The home run he hit against Cueto in the second inning of that wild-card game was the first of two he hit that night. In doing so, he became just the eighth catcher in MLB history to hit two home runs in a postseason game, joining legends such as Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench and Gary Carter.
It was his favorite moment from last season.
“That was unreal, just the energy in the ballpark,” said Martin, who will be a free agent after the season. “Obviously hitting two home runs was fun, too, but just how excited the fans were and how alive the stadium felt and getting a win in that do-or-die situation felt pretty nice. It was fun to share that with the fans here.”