By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
It was 15 years ago today that Russell Martin made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Montreal native had been called up from triple-A Las Vegas after Dodgers catcher Dioner Navarro suffered a deep bone bruise on his right wrist from a foul ball off the bat off Colorado Rockies slugger Vinny Castilla the night before and had been placed on the 15-day disabled list.
Selected by the Dodgers in the 17th round in the 2002 MLB draft, Martin had cemented himself as the club’s top catching prospect with a breakout season in double-A Jacksonville in 2005 in which he batted .311 and had a .430 on-base percentage (OBP) and belted nine home runs in 129 games.
The Dodgers had initially hoped that Martin would spend much of the 2006 season in triple-A honing his skills, but with Navarro sidelined and soon-to-be 40-year-old Sandy Alomar Jr. as their other big league catcher, they had little choice but to call up Martin.
For his part, Martin had excelled in triple-A, hitting .297 and posting a .389 OBP in 29 games while throwing out 46 per cent of baserunners trying to steal off him. And the Dodgers were desperate for a spark. Despite having a veteran squad with high expectations, the Dodgers had stumbled to a 12-17 record. So manager Grady Little told reporters that if Martin performed well, the young catcher might remain in the big leagues even after Navarro returned.
“It all depends on how the kid’s doing,” Little told the Los Angeles Times of the club’s plans for Martin. “If he comes up here and sets the world on fire, the position we’re in right now, we might look at something different. Anything’s a possibility.”
And Martin did “set the world on fire.”
In his major league debut 15 years ago today – a Friday night contest at Dodger Stadium against the Milwaukee Brewers – Martin batted eighth and caught former 20-game winner Derek Lowe. At the plate, the young Canuck went 2-for-4 with two RBIs and made a pivotal play at the plate in the eighth inning and the Dodgers eventually won 4-3.
Here are a few major league firsts for Martin from that contest:
1st MLB at bat – Ground out to third base against Brewers lefty Chris Capuano in the second inning.
1st MLB hit and RBI – A double to right field off Capuano in the fourth inning that scored Dodgers outfielder Jason Repko and third baseman Ramon Martinez and gave the Dodgers a 3-0 lead.
1st MLB single – A grounder up the middle off Capuano in the sixth inning.
1st MLB play at the plate – Martin would tag out fellow Canuck Corey Koskie (Anola, Man.) who was attempting to score on a fly ball to centre field hit by Brady Clark with one out in the top of the eighth inning with the game tied 3-3. Repko recorded the outfield assist.
After his impressive debut, the Dodgers kept starting him behind the dish in Navarro’s absence. The previously slumping Dodgers won the first five games that Martin started and in his first seven games with the club, he batted .300 with a .462 OBP.
By mid-May, the Dodgers were 8-2 in the 10 games Martin had started.
“I’ve worked hard to get here, and I feel comfortable,” Martin told the Los Angeles Times for their May 17, 2006 edition. “I don’t feel overmatched at all.”
By the time Navarro was activated from the disabled list, Martin had a stranglehold on the starting catching job. The Canuck backstop went on to bat .282 with 10 home runs and a .355 OBP in 121 games and finish ninth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Over his next four seasons with the Dodgers, Martin developed into an all-star, a Gold Glove Award recipient and a Silver Slugger Award winner. He also captured the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Tip O’Neill Award in 2007 as the top Canuck player.
In all, Martin has now played 14 big league seasons. His career has also included stops with the New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates and Toronto Blue Jays, before he returned the Dodgers in a backup role in 2019. In 10 of those campaigns, his team advanced to the post-season.
In 1,693 major league games, Martin has belted 191 home runs and owns a .349 on-base. And though he has not played since 2019, he told Jon Morosi in January that he’s not retired and is open to the possibility of playing again in the future.
These days, Martin is widely considered the greatest all-around Canadian catcher in MLB history and his journey to that vaunted status began 15 years ago today.