Russell Martin had a Sidney Crosby jersey hanging near his locker.
I knew that was my in. On my first day, into my first hours actually, as the Trib’s newest sports columnist, seeing that familiar jersey in a once familiar setting was of great relief to somebody who had gone a while since feeling unsettled in a professional locker room… or clubhouse, as I quickly remembered the place to be called on that warm Monday afternoon this past July.
Martin was the Pirates’ catcher then. He is not now. A friend from my hockey scribe world texted me Monday with word that the Blue Jays has just overpaid for Martin. His opinion. Mine too, actually. Still, my immediate response to this friend was, “Nice he comes ‘home’ tho” – and I sincerely hope it is nice for Martin, a Canadian, to likely finish his baseball playing days with the only club in his home and native land. Homecomings can go terribly or, worse, without incident, so this might not be the easiest of situations for Martin. Of course, he joined a Pirates franchise that had not won for 20 seasons, and helped frame (literally) the narrative of their rise to postseason participant. I wouldn’t put anything past Martin, even ending a postseason doubt in Toronto that is at 21 seasons.
I claim no great relationship with Martin. He played baseball in Pittsburgh for two seasons. I was around the Pirates for about two months. In fact, our first encounter was when he visited the Penguins’ dressing room in April 2013. What struck me then was how he carried himself around hockey players. He was completely comfortable in that setting, and when I asked a player about meeting Martin, that player’s response was to call Martin “a pro.”
Martin heard this story from me on my first day as columnist. I was nervous, not because of Martin, but rather because it had been a long time since I went into a dressing room (clubhouse… ugh!) with no idea about to whom I should speak, about what I should ask. I hadn’t awoken as a columnist but rather a hockey scribe beginning Week 3 of recovery from hernia surgery. Life happens fast. Mine changed that way. I was still very much a hockey scribbler as I walked back into the home clubhouse at PNC Park, where I had spent many days during summer 2006. I needed a column idea. I needed a prayer. I noticed that hockey jersey in the stall occupied by Martin, decided to own my past, and approached him with a terrible line even for somebody who is known to have authored some terrible line.
Hi, Russell. So, I’m hoping you can help me out. I just got a new job, but I covered hockey for a long time, and figured you’d maybe have some sympathy being that you’re from Canada.
He looked quizzically upon me, as though to say without saying, You know I play baseball, right?
I smiled, took a breath, concocted a question about ace pitchers, took down his answer and then brought up Crosby. When that topic went nowhere, I brought up poutine, opined that Montreal was the best place to eat it, and waited for Martin’s response.
“Well, Montreal is a great city for food,” Martin said. “Where else have you tried poutine?”
For the next three minutes, I was neither a former hockey scribbler nor a would-be columnist. I was just a guy talking to another guy about some shared experiences in Canada. After that conversation, I thanked Martin for his time and somehow felt like everything about this new job would be all right.
So, I’ll always remember Martin, and not just because he helped frame my first column, but because he was the perfect player for me to speak with on probably the most unsettled day of my professional life.
I’ll also always remember his last at-bat with the Pirates. That standing ovation he received from Pittsburghers as he walked off the field at PNC Park was an all-in Thank You from a city whose citizens are unapologetically parochial. Somehow, though, my guess is Pittsburghers are fine with Martin going home.
Most of us would if we weren’t already there.
Be EXCELLENT to each other,