Any Canadian baseball fan will know that this season has not gone well for the Toronto Blue Jays. With a disappointing first half filled with injuries, underwhelming performances, and mediocre baseball, the Jays do not look as though they have a legitimate chance of making the postseason in 2018. I wrote about just that in a recent column on this very site.
Regardless of where you think this team is headed, there’s been little glimmers of excitement spread throughout a variably mundane season.
In April, we saw the major league debut of Lourdes Gurriel Jr., a prized Cuban prospect, who, despite his struggles at the major league level, appears poised to be a staple of this team’s roster for years to come.
In May, we watched in awe as unlikely hero Sam Gaviglio shut down opposing offenses every fifth day despite exceptionally low expectations. To put it in numbers, the Ashland, Oregon native is 10th on the team in WAR with 0.7 wins above replacement.
Throughout all of this, we’ve seen Russell Martin, a catcher, play various different positions all over the diamond, despite never having played them prior to this season. So far, Martin has appeared at third base, shortstop and left field. He’s a catcher. Yes, a man who primarily plays a position that many view as the most limiting and least versatile on the diamond has played more positions than Steve Pearce.
Don’t get me wrong, a catcher’s lack of versatility is no problem at all, seeing as a catcher’s duties extend far beyond simply catching pitches and lobbing them back into the pitcher. It’s just worth noting that Martin is a catcher, as it further highlights the oddity that is his recent run.
The 35-year old backstop from East York, whose full name includes an ode to legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, has become a source of unexpected entertainment for Blue Jays fans everywhere.
To put it plainly, it’s weird. A catcher playing left field? What’s next, a closer starting off a ballgame and being replaced after the first inning? It’s a baseball oddity that hasn’t been rivaled since Kendrys Morales took the mound to toss a scoreless inning in relief when his team was being blown out.
But, when you take a step back from the bizarre aesthetic of a catcher playing left field, it almost seems funny. Not in a bad way, but in an inspiring way. If a catcher possesses the athleticism and ability to warrant a left-field appearance, doesn’t any young ballplayer theoretically have the ability to play any position he or she wishes?
This might be an unpopular take, but Russell Martin’s sudden defensive versatility is good for baseball. It could, if all goes well, inspire young players everywhere to try their hand at different positions, even if they’re not exactly sure how well they could play those positions.
As kids, positions aren’t usually set in stone, but certain youngsters tend to stick to their favorite position, clinging to their spot on the diamond mercilessly until they reach a level high enough that allows them to exclusively play one position.
As a youth baseball umpire, I am always shocked at how many times young players reference professional players on the field. When asked why he was wearing a protective helmet flap at the plate, a 12-year-old hitter replied: “Because Josh Donaldson wears one.”
When asked why she taps her toes with the bat in between pitches, the young outfielder replied coyly: “Well, David Ortiz did it, and he was a pretty darn good hitter.” This and dozens of other similar exchanges are commonplace in the youth baseball circuit.
The influence professional athletes have on young hopefuls cannot be overstated. These kids worship the pros they see on TV, and Martin can be considered nothing but an outrageously ambitious positive influence on the young ballplayers of tomorrow.
I’ve heard some call Martin’s recent defensive endeavors a “circus” of sorts, and while I do agree that strategically, it’s a terrible decision, I strongly believe other intangibles need to be taken into account, at least when it’s being carried out on this large a scale.
Should Russell Martin try out a new position every day? I sure hope not. But, should he get some innings at shortstop if this team appears to be out of a playoff spot? Absolutely. When the game gets slow, there’s nothing better than a catcher up the middle to kickstart some interest.
All in all, Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin Jr. (yes, that is his full name) has been pleasantly entertaining as he’s tried to diversify his defensive game. While baseball traditionalists may criticize him for changing the game, I strongly believe his occasional ventures aren’t just good for the Blue Jays – they’re good for baseball.
(DAVID KIROUAC/GETTY IMAGES)