CLEVELAND — Canadian catcher Russell Martin is a big fan of America’s current national pastime.
“He loves to play video games,” Toronto Blue Jays reliever Brett Cecil said of his teammate.
Martin and Cecil are often found in Toronto’s clubhouse on the Xbox system, playing “NHL 17.” Martin usually wins, because that’s what he does.
“He’s a competitor,” Cecil said. “You can tell on the field. You can tell in anything he does.”
The league championship series have been a personal mountain for Martin, akin to what the Super Bowls were to the early 1990s Buffalo Bills. Martin’s teams are 0-for-4 in league championship series, with the catcher falling just short of the World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, twice, the New York Yankees in 2012 and the Blue Jays last season, which had to be the most personal.
Growing up in Montreal, Martin supported the Expos and the Blue Jays. He relishes being a major leaguer who wears the colors of the team he rooted for as a child. There is extra pride because of his Canadian roots.
Described by his manager as the “backbone” of this Toronto team, Martin is hungry to win two more games than the Jays did in last season’s American League Championship Series loss to the Kansas City Royals.
“It would be awesome,” Martin said of helping to possibly bring the World Series back to Toronto for the first time since its 1993 title.
Martin’s role in this American League Championship Series is vital, because he needs to stifle a strength of the Indians. Cleveland led the American League in stolen bases, while Martin only threw out 13 percent of runners, down from 38 percent in 2015. This, according to the Jays, is largely because of Toronto’s 2016 pitchers being slow to the plate.
“You give [Martin] an opportunity to throw a guy out, you feel like he is out every single time,” Toronto starter Marcus Stroman said.
Martin, 33, is the “rock” of the team, Stroman said.
Martin’s leadership shows up in many ways: Sometimes it is with big hits or a defensive play; other times, it might just be words he shouts on a bus from a team hotel to the stadium.
In September, as the Jays stumbled out of first place in the AL East, center fielder Kevin Pillar remembers how Martin instilled confidence in his teammates. Martin has been to the playoffs in six consecutive seasons and nine times overall.
On one bus ride to a road game, Martin yelled out, “I refuse to not be in the postseason.”
Pillar said it is not Martin’s style to make a show of his leadership, but his words had an impact on several players.
“When he says that, you believe him, because he ‘refused to not be in the postseason’ the last couple of years,” Pillar said.
Stroman, for one, heard Martin. Martin encapsulates what the Jays are all about.
“A warrior, tough, competitor, gamer,” Stroman said. “Those are probably the words I would attribute to Russell the most. He’s a warrior, man. He wants to compete to the end of the day. He wants you to compete at the end of the day. He would rather go out there with someone he knows he is going to war with than someone who has better stuff. I love that.”
Martin is not the best hitter on the Jays, but he is a guy they like seeing up in big spots. His offense was spotty this season. Pillar said at times Martin was in a “dark place,” trying to find his swing. Martin found it in the second half: His OPS before the All-Star break was .656; afterward, it was .823.
“He’s the backbone of this team,” Jays manager John Gibbons said. “One of the reasons we acquired him a year ago was he’s one of the top catchers in the game at the time. He still is. But every year, he’s one of those guys that show up in the postseason.”
There is something to be said for guys like that, according to Gibbons, because they help push their teams in the right direction. Martin said it has a lot to do with luck, emphasizing that he has had good teammates — again showing a touch of leadership by deflecting praise to others.
What is absolutely certain is that Martin’s competitiveness rubs off. His teammates see it on the field, on buses and when he has a video game controller in his hand.
Cecil admits that Martin usually beats him at “NHL 17.” Martin said it is true, but there is a legit reason.
“I think it is because how he plays his role on the team,” Martin said of the relief pitcher. “He comes in real quick, so his focus is real short, right? I have to be in the game all the time, so I compete all the time. That is why I take an advantage over him.”
Martin has been competing deep into the playoffs for a long time. Now he wants two more steps. He wants to win the World Series for his team, his country and himself. Probably in that order.