Ron Cook: Russell Martin plays bevy of roles with passion



Isn't it amazing how you think of the craziest things at the craziest times? A week ago, as Pirates catcher Russell Martin's body convulsed in anger after he was ejected late in a 1-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers for arguing a called third strike and throwing down his bat and helmet, I thought of Martin in a game late last September at Chicago's Wrigley Field. That night, the Pirates clinched their first playoff spot in 21 years after holding on to beat the Cubs, 2-1. Martin ended the game by tagging out Nate Schierholtz in a close play at the plate, then got up and heaved the ball to the ivy-covered wall in left field as he let loose with a scream toward the heavens. It was Martin at his best, a combination of adrenaline, pure joy from playing a boy's game successfully for big money and passion.

Most of all, passion.

"I think the most important thing is people know that when I'm in there, I'm playing hard and I'm playing to win," Martin said last week in a long interview at PNC Park.

You can see it each time Martin pulls on a uniform and steps on a ball field. You almost can feel his intensity. In a lot of ways, it's unlike any of his teammates. It has made Martin hugely popular with the Pittsburgh baseball crowd, which appreciates an honest day's work for an honest day's wages even if Martin's, ah, wages are $17 million for two years.

"I've heard it. The No. 1 thing that fans say to me when I'm out and about is, 'You've got to keep Russell Martin.' All I say is, 'I agree with you entirely,' " Pirates president Frank Coonelly said the other day.

"He brings a dimension to the ball club that is energy and that is professionalism in everything he does. It's the whole package. We understand that. We are going to make a serious effort to keep him here."

Martin has been a terrific free-agent signing, coming here from the New York Yankees before the 2013 season and, almost instantly, doing a lot of the heavy lifting the Pirates needed to become a winning team. The challenge for the team is to keep him beyond this season when his contract expires. He has been almost too good here. Too good of a defensive catcher. Too good of a clutch hitter. Too good of a teammate and clubhouse leader. Too good of a winner ...

Going into the weekend series at Miami, the Pirates were 85-63 in games Martin started in the past season-and-a-half. His positive impact has been especially noticeable since he returned from the disabled list May 22. Through Thursday, the team was 11-4 in games he started, 2-4 in games he didn't. In those 15 starts, he batted .333 with five doubles, a home run and seven RBIs.

"I love this team and I love these guys," Martin said when asked if he thought he might be pricing himself out of the Pirates' budget.

"How much do I really need? I'll be fine. I don't have kids yet, but when I do, my kids will be fine and their kids will be fine. I make great money, especially where I come from. My dad played the saxophone at the metro station to make money."

All of that sounded encouraging, but I'm still going to make sure I enjoy watching Martin while he's here. It's easy to imagine another club blowing him away with an offer he can't refuse and the Pirates can't match.

Martin has been terrific defensively. Through Thursday, he had thrown out 28 percent of would-be base stealers this season after leading the majors with a 41 percent rate last season. Pitchers love working with him because of the way he calls a game and frames pitches. Their ERA this season with him catching was 3.64, nearly a third of a run lower than when Chris Stewart or Tony Sanchez caught. He has had big hits, evidenced by his .333 average with runners in scoring position. A year ago, he ended three wins with hits.

The Pirates drafted Sanchez No. 4 overall in 2009 and have groomed him to take Martin's spot next season. But it's hard to see Sanchez having the same impact, especially defensively.

"Russell Martin is extraordinarily important to this organization," Coonelly conceded.

The one concern about Martin is he will be 32 Feb. 15. He plays a demanding position where physical breakdown is inevitable. Martin missed more than three weeks this season with a hamstring problem, the first such injury he has had, he said. But was it a sign of things to come?

"I feel like I can play for a while," Martin said. "I'm listening to my body more than I ever have and taking better care of it. I understand when I need to rest and when I need to get in the weight room. I'm getting more treatment. I'm just being smarter. Before, there was only one way for me. That was to go hard."

That's still the way Martin plays. It sets a nice tone for his teammates. "They know I'm going to do whatever is necessary to win," he said.

Martin's time with the Pirates has been better than he imagined. "I didn't realize how much talent they had on board here," he said. The 94-win season a year ago was "huge because it established the belief that we have the ability to win." He said that belief hasn't wavered this season even though the team was 32-34 heading into the weekend. "We're picking up. We're a dynamic team. We're not an easy team to play against. I don't think other teams enjoy playing against us because they know we're coming after them."

No matter what happens this season, Martin always will have the 2013 season to remember. He talked about the scene at PNC Park for the wild-card playoff game against the Cincinnati Reds on one of the most amazing nights in Pittsburgh sports history. "I can still remember walking out to center field to warm up. There was so much energy. The whole stadium was vibrating."

What a night that was for the Pirates, a 6-2 win. What a night it was for Martin. He coaxed seven strong innings from starter Francisco Liriano, giving up his body to block countless sliders in the dirt. "They never hurt when you win," Martin said afterward. He also hit two home runs, the first in the second inning on the first pitch from Reds starter Johnny Cueto after the throbbing crowd seemed to intimidate Cueto into dropping the ball on the mound with its "Cue-to! Cue-to!" chants. "I don't even remember running around the bases," Martin said. "I think I just floated."

Martin said he still can hear the roar of the crowd. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? He will hear it long after his time here is done.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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