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Beyond the plate, with Buck Martinez

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Buck Martinez
By Adam Freill

Before he picked up a microphone to become part of the Blue Jays broadcasting crew, catcher Buck Martinez owned a double play that’s not only part of Blue Jays lore; it is still cited as one of the most spectacular plays in baseball history.

It all went down in July of 1985. The Jays were on the road to face the Seattle Mariners. With one out in the bottom of the third and a runner on second, the Mariners Gorman Thomas slapped a single to right field.

On the move with the hit, the runner from second rounded third and was on his way home as Jays outfielder Jesse Barfield hit Buck with a throw from right field. Martinez grabbed the ball and blocked the plate, taking the full force of a collision. He held onto the ball to get the out but rolled his ankle and broke his leg on the play. The play was not quite done yet, however.

The batter, who had gone to second, took a chance to grab third as well. Spotting his movement, the injured Martinez fired the ball up the line, missing the third baseman, sending the ball into left field.

Thinking he had an easy run, Thomas rounded third and started for home, but outfielder George Bell managed to grab the overthrow and get the ball back to Martinez, who applied a tag on the surprised baserunner, completing an unbelievable 9-2-7-2 double play, all on a broken leg. Now, that’s determination and toughness.

Of course, not many people actually saw the play live.

”The funny thing about it is that so many people say, ‘I watched it on television,’” said Buck during an exclusive interview with Mechanical Business. ”Well, it wasn’t on television. It was one of those rare games at the time that wasn’t broadcast, so it was only the news highlights that showed the play.” Those highlights are still shown, however, so Buck doesn’t mind people claiming the memory.

”Everybody asks me about it. They are kind of surprised that my leg is finally healed, but it was 1985. My leg has had plenty of time to heal,” he chuckles. ”But I don’t ever, ever, mind people talking about it because it was certainly one of the biggest highlights of my career.”


The catcher’s perspective


”I think catchers are unique in that they are the only ones on the field that get to see the whole field from one perspective,” says Martinez. ”As a catcher you learn every aspect of the game. I think that’s why catchers have made the transition into coaching and managing so frequently.

”You are involved in the teaching,” he explains. ”When a pitching coach talks to a pitcher, you are there. When the infield coach talks defense, the catcher is there. When the outfield throws to home, the catcher is involved. You are involved in every aspect of the game.

”It also gives you an opportunity to communicate. You are with the umpire for nine innings. You get to talk with the hitters from the other team for nine innings. It gives you a communications background, without you really knowing it. I think that’s also why so many catchers have transitioned into broadcasting.”


Mentorship on and off the field


Not unlike the relationship and learning that occurs between an apprentice and a journeyman, baseball is built on the transfer of knowledge from the players, coaches and managers who have gone before. Of course, not all experienced professionals have always been willing to share their knowledge.

”For many years, there was the intimidation factor of the youngsters taking jobs away from the veterans,” explains Martinez. ”But now, because the financial aspect of the game has improved so dramatically, everybody is much more secure. It has gotten better over the years.”

Now, he says, veterans are far more willing to take the rookies under their wing, sharing on-field tips as well as how to represent the franchise when they are away from the ballpark.

”If you have confidence in your own abilities, I think you should be able to trust that you are secure enough in your own position that you are not going to be losing your position to someone you teach,” he explains. ”And hopefully they will carry your legacy on effectively.”


Get up ball!


The Blue Jays marketing department will be honouring Buck in the fall as the first 20,000 fans at the September 9 game at the Rogers Centre will receive a special Buck Martinez alarm clock.

”I don’t necessarily program my homerun calls, but very often it comes out as, ‘Get up, get up, get up!’ That’s what we used to say in the field when someone hit one that looked like it could go for a homerun, and that’s what has stayed with me as a broadcaster,” says the former catcher. ”It would fit, obviously, with an alarm clock I hope it goes over as well as we think it will.”


A second career in baseball


Talking about his start in broadcasting, Buck is rather candid and freely shared that he didn’t quite embrace the idea of putting down his glove and bat to pick up a microphone.

”When the Blue Jays called me into the office at the end of the 1986 season to tell me they weren’t bringing me back, they offered me the television job at the same time. In that meeting, I turned it down,” he recalls. ”Then I went home and told my wife what happened and she encouraged me to call them back and take the job. She told me I can’t play anymore,” he added with a smile.

”I was very fortunate because I was here when Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth were broadcasting to radio, and I was also here when Tony Kubek was doing the television,” says Martinez. ”Tony helped me immensely early on in my career.

”It took me a while to embrace the fact that I was no longer a player,” admits Martinez. ”Now that I have transitioned from being a colour analyst to being a play-by-play broadcaster, there continues to be transitions there, too. I went to being the ‘why guy’ as an analyst to being the ‘what guy’ as a play-byplay broadcaster.

”I think we have a unique broadcast team in Toronto, having two baseball players work as a play-by-play announcer and a colour announcer, so I think it’s really good that I can prompt Pat [Tabler] into some analysis by asking him a direct question about something we are seeing, and I think that’s valuable to an audience.”