Associated PressFirst-year Yankees catcher Russell Martin reaches in vain to tag out the Red Sox’s Dustin Pedroia at home plate in an April 8 game at Fenway Park.
Listen to him speak English, and Russell Martin could be from anywhere. There are no twangs, no flat vowels, no verbal tics that give away his origin. But listen to him in French and he might as well be waving the Canadian flag.
The Quebecois accent is to French what the Scottish accent is to English, sometimes mocked, often misunderstood, but instantly recognizable. Except perhaps in the Yankees’ clubhouse.
Asssociated PressRussell Martin shares a laugh with Phil Hughes in the Yankee dugout.
Martin, who was born in Toronto and raised in Montreal, grew up speaking French to his mother and English to his father. He was educated in French all the way through high school, including three years in Paris. And his childhood was punctuated with Rodger Brulotte’s signature home run call for the Montreal Expos. “Bonsoir, elle est partie!” (Good night, she’s gone!)
Even today, when he is truly upset on the field, he has a tendency to lapse into French. Umpires won’t penalize you for something they can’t understand.
In the few months he has spent as a Yankee, he does not believe that many of his teammates have figured out that he is bilingual. Some of his former teammates on the Los Angeles Dodgers knew, of course, since he spoke it with the closer and Montreal native Eric Gagné, during the 2006 season.
“They’re always surprised when they hear me speak it,” Martin said in French, turning some heads around him. “Just their faces are funnier than anything they could say.”
European Pressphoto AgencyRussell Martin goes over the wall into the Twins dugout chasing a foul ball.
The bigger surprise for the Yankees has been Martin’s start to the season after two difficult years in Los Angeles.
Though Martin earned a pair of All-Star selections in 2007 and 2008, the next two seasons brought only a dip in production and, last August, a season-ending injury. At the time, the injury was widely reported as a torn labrum that would need to be surgically repaired. But Martin said Sunday that it was never torn and that his off-season surgery was on his knee.
Looking back on his recent history, Martin recognized that perhaps he could have worked harder off the field. So during the off-season, he promised to rectify that. He spent more time in the gym than he had in his career and put himself in the hands of Jonathan Chaimberg, who trains mixed martial arts fighters.
“If I work out as hard as I possibly can, it gives me confidence, knowing that I’ve done everything I could to get myself in good playing shape,” Martin said.
And the winter’s worth of effort is paying off. Feeling “stronger and more explosive,” he said, he is currently hitting .289 with 11 runs batted in and four home runs in his first 13 games — his latest was a towering two-run shot against the Texas Rangers on Sunday night.
In 2010, he had a total of five home runs in 97 games for the Dodgers.
“I always felt that he had the potential to be a great player and I saw him play at a very high level,” manager Joe Girardi said.
What Girardi had not realized was just how seriously Martin would take his transition to the American League. Prior to joining the Yankees, Martin had only played in the National League, where A.L. hitters and pitchers —not to mention the Yankees’ staff—were mostly rumors to him.
Getty ImagesMartin takes in the scene during the season opener on March 31 against the Tigers.
So spring training turned into a six-week cramming session. Learning an entirely new group for the first time since he was a rookie, he made sure to catch every pitcher in pinstripes to study their games inside and out. Martin knew that as the Yankees’ new everyday catcher, he had a tough act to follow in Jorge Posada.
And in one way, Martin has already set himself apart. Just look at the fingernails on his right hand. They are painted bright orange for the benefit of his pitchers.
“They’ve got no excuse to miss a sign,” he said. He has since customized them with white streaks, because he did not want them to be too perfect.
Martin joked that he might yet switch the pattern to maple leaves. Although he might not need to remind anyone he is Canadian this week, with the Yankees in the midst of a two-game series in Toronto against the Blue Jays,.
The fans there already know. Martin said over the weekend that he was certainly “looking forward to getting booed in my home country.”
But even when he is north of the border, once he straps on the pads and pulls on the mask, Martin describes himself only as a catcher. Never as a receveur.
“For me,” he said, “baseball is always in English.”