SI Vault
The Backstop of Notre-Dame-de-Gr�ce
July 02, 2007
With a cool demeanor and a hot bat, Montreal-raised Dodgers catcher Russell�Martin is an All-Star favorite whose coming-of-age story could be straight from a novel
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 02, 2007

The Backstop Of Notre-dame-de-gr�ce

With a cool demeanor and a hot bat, Montreal-raised Dodgers catcher Russell�Martin is an All-Star favorite whose coming-of-age story could be straight from a novel

View CoverRead All Articles

THE LOS ANGELES DODGERS orchestrated a campaign to get Russell Martin elected as the National League's starting All-Star catcher. The push included a rally at Dodger Stadium, promotional T-shirts and bilingual stickers emblazoned with vote for russell! and voix pour le russell!, a gimmick that might have helped lift Martin past Paul Lo Duca of the New York Mets-- Martin led by 120,000 votes as of Sunday--but certainly cut into the high school French teacher support. Of the four French words on the sticker, two were misused. Not to go all Flaubert on your derri�re, but voix, as vote, works only as a noun. And to insert an article before his name and call him Le Russell implies, like the Donald, there is something pompous about a player who does not have an ounce of pretension on his 5' 10", 210-pound frame. Martin is the good-natured son of a Franco-Manitoban mother and an Anglophone Quebecer father, a bilingual 24-year-old who learned his baseball in the middle-class district of Montreal called Notre-Dame-de-Gr�ce. When he first heard of the clunky translation during the Dodgers' three-game series in Toronto last week, he groaned, chuckled and bolted from the dugout in search of a team official.

Martin was going--what are les mots justes?--to break some Balzac.

If the campaign stickers were lost in translation (the Dodgers later corrected their French), the All-Star balloting nonetheless made clear that the baseball world has identified a new cornerstone catcher. Maybe manager Grady Little's analogy of Martin as Seabiscuit, a West Coast thoroughbred who didn't get much initial attention, was valid three weeks ago, but the presumptive All-Star turned into Northern Dancer when he was greeted by seven Canadian television outlets at a press conference before the Blue Jays' series opener.

The encomiums pour in. "The guy is an offensive player, a defensive player, a runner," Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin says. "He's very aware at a young age of how the game is played. He'll be a multiple All-Star, in my opinion. He does everything." Colorado Rockies bench coach Jamie Quirk, a former major league catcher, says he would take Martin as the first player, even ahead of New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, if he were starting a team. "I'd been trying to convince the Dodgers for two years that they had a little Pudge Rodriguez on their hands," says Texas Rangers reliever Eric Gagn�, the former Los Angeles closer who attended the same sport-and-study Montreal high school as Martin. "I don't know if he'll win 10 Gold Gloves, but he has a chance to become that [good]. He's got a perfect body, sets a perfect target and is really, really quiet back there. Already he's one of the best at calling games." In Martin's 192 games since joining the team in May 2006, manager Grady Little and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt have found reason to carp about pitch selection perhaps five times. "That," Little says, "speaks volumes." Martin also is a formidable offensive presence, at least by the scaled-down expectations of his grinding position. Through Sunday he had eight home runs. He also led National League catchers in hits (72), runs (42), RBIs (47), stolen bases (13), walks (28), slugging percentage (.454), on-base percentage (.359), games (71) and, presumably, names. He has five. He is, formally, Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin.

"Is that a name," Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf muses, "or a novel?"

The ambling story of Martin's still-young life has many devices of a novel. There's a journey: Martin was born in Toronto, moved to Winnipeg, split the rest of his boyhood between his mother's home across the Quebec border from Ottawa and his father's in Montreal, except for those two years (grades 3 and 4) with his mother and stepfather in Paris, a city he didn't much like at first because France didn't have the right kind of Game Boy.

There are issues of race, language, culture: His mother, an exuberant woman who works for the Canadian heritage department, is white; his father, a contemplative musician, is black.

There is an epiphany: the incident in Double A Jacksonville in 2005 when he and a teammate were robbed at gunpoint. (We will get to that episode later in the novel.)

There is a quirky backstory that includes a suitable amount of sax, which takes us back to Martin's evocative name.

Martin's father, who is also named Russell, is a tenor saxophonist of enough pedigree that he played the national anthem at Dodger Stadium last season; Coltrane was added to the boy's name in honor of one of the elder Martin's muses, sax legend John Coltrane. Gagn�, who remains close to the catcher, describes his friend's father as "a down-to-earth guy." In fact, when he had Little Russell with him during summers in the early 1990s-- Martin and Susanne Jeanson separated when their son was about a year old--Big Russell was a below-the-earth guy. At the time he earned his living principally as a busker in the Montreal subway. He would awaken early, nab a prime location, and then play his saxophone during rush hour in either the Snowdon or Villa-Maria m�tro stations, hurrying home to give Little Russell his breakfast by nine o'clock. Father and son would spend the rest of the day in the Notre-Dame-de-Gr�ce parks playing games that sprung from Big Russell's fertile mind, including a modified version of pepper designed to improve bat control. ( Martin would credit that game for his opposite-field, run-scoring single on a 1-and-2 slider in the 10-1 Los Angeles win against Toronto on June�19.) His father would leave the boy with friends while he serenaded commuters on their way�home.

Continue Story
1 2