A foul tip smashed off Russell Martin’s mask in a recent game, causing the mask to twist almost entirely off the catcher’s face. Martin shook his head, spit and then reached back to the umpire to collect a new baseball. Only after doing all that did he finally pull the mask back into its proper position.
This scene from Martin’s life as a catcher lasted a few seconds, but it was another snippet of evidence that exemplified his toughness. Martin is tough. Most catchers are. But Martin being more concerned with getting a new ball to the pitcher than straightening out his mask was another small reminder of how tenacious he is.
As general manager Brian Cashman pursued Martin in the offseason, he was intrigued by Martin’s defensive abilities, superb athleticism and outgoing personality. In Martin, Cashman saw a durable catcher who, if his hip and knee were healed, could be a significant addition to the Yankees because of the way he could help control a game.
Cashman’s vision of Martin as a sturdy shepherd of the pitching staff has unfolded neatly. Martin, who has started 15 of the team’s first 16 games, is adept at framing pitches, at blocking balls and at calling pitches. Without Martin’s guidance, A.J. Burnett wouldn’t be throwing as many changeups as he has thrown. Burnett can bounce some two-strike curveballs, too, knowing that Martin rarely lets the ball elude him.
Martin’s marriage to the Yankees has lasted less than a month, but it is a relationship that is thriving. Not surprisingly, Cashman’s assessment of Martin focused on Martin’s most noticeable intangible.
“He’s the toughest Yankee,” Cashman said. “He’s as tough as nails.”
Is Martin the toughest Yankee? In a clubhouse that includes Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, who each have five World Series rings, has Martin already soared to the top on the tough-guy meter? According to Cashman, he’s soared even higher.
“He’s Thurman Munson-tough,” Cashman said.
For Yankees fans, the memories of the legendary Munson often focus on his toughness. He was gritty, pushy and tough, a catcher who looked and played the way a tough catcher should look and play. Munson was the Most Valuable Player in 1976 and helped the Yankees win two World Series titles before perishing in a plane crash in 1979. Martin is a solid player, but he’s no Munson.
As much as Martin appreciated Cashman’s hefty compliment, he was realistic on the comparison.
“I don’t know, man," Martin said. "I think Thurman belongs in a category of his own.”
Still, Martin said some players from Munson’s era have told him that he reminded them of Munson “a little bit in the way” that he played. Although Martin, who was born in 1983, never saw Munson play, he has heard enough stories to form an opinion about the former Yankee captain.
“He was a beast,” Martin said.
So is Martin. He has a detailed pre-game and post-game workout routine, which is why he longingly talks about playing every game. While Martin has come close to doing that so far this season, the Yankees plan to give him more rest. Cashman said that not giving Martin time off is a dangerous prescription for draining a catcher, noting how Martin played 151 and 155 games in back-to-back seasons with the Dodgers.
Before games, Martin rides an exercise bike, uses a machine that gives his body a deep tissue massage and a foam roller for stretching. After games, Martin varies between lifting weights for his upper or lower body. Martin works out for three days and then takes one day off. During the offseason, Martin added mixed martial arts routines into his training. Again, Martin is tough.
“The way that I’m treating my body pre- and post-game, I don’t see how I’m not going to feel good,” Martin explained. “It’s something I’ve learned over the years and it works for me. I personally feel that the more I play, the better I feel at the plate. The only thing is I don’t want is to get so run down that it affects the team and affects me defensively.”
That’s the part that concerns the Yankees, too. With off days and rainouts, the Yankees have been able to maneuver to keep Martin in the lineup. As the season continues, the Yankees won’t have that luxury. And once Francisco Cervelli is activated, he will start more games than Gustavo Molina has as the backup. The Yankees wanted Martin for defense, but he is also batting .292 with four homers.
Because Martin has had such a successful start, there has been speculation about whether his play can further delay the ascension of catcher Jesus Montero, the Yankees’ top prospect. In addition, Martin’s play might also influence the Yankees to include Montero in a deal for a starting pitcher.
For now, Cashman isn’t forecasting whether Martin, who signed a one-year, $4 million deal, will be with the Yankees next season. But interestingly, Cashman did compare the signing of Martin to the acquisitions of Nick Swisher and Paul O’Neill, saying Martin, like those two, could be a respected player who blossoms and excels in
The toughest Yankee enjoys the intensity of playing in
“I take pride in that,” Martin said. “Being a catcher, you’re going to get banged up. It’s just a position where it comes with the job. I just pride myself on getting through those tough times.”