Russell Martin's dream as a boy growing up in Montreal was simple: He wanted to play for the hometown Expos. Martin was a die-hard fan; on the wall of his bedroom in high school was a poster with the drawing of a proposed new downtown ballpark for the Expos, who played in crumbling Olympic Stadium. "I was like, It's going to be so awesome — I'm going to play here!" Martin says.
He was drafted by Montreal out of high school in 2000, but because of how far he slid — all the way to the 35th round — Martin opted instead to continue his schooling, at Chipola College in Florida. Within five years, just as Martin was becoming a young star in the Dodgers' organization (L.A. selected him in the 17th round in '02), the Expos were gone. They moved to Washington and became the Nationals. "My buddy and I used to joke," he says, referring to longtime friend Ivan Naccarata, a former Mets prospect, that "if we had signed with the Expos, we could have saved baseball in Montreal."
Martin will never be able to play for the team he rooted for as a boy in Canada, but now he has a chance to do the next best thing: be the star on the one remaining Major League Baseball team in his home country. Over the winter, the Blue Jays signed Martin to a five-year, $82 million free-agent contract — the largest such deal in team history — adding the three-time All-Star catcher to a team that's looking to end a 21-year playoff drought, the longest in all of baseball. The Blue Jays not only added one of baseball's most prominent Canadian players, they also brought in one of the most underrated players in the game, a veteran catcher who is at the height of his powers.
Martin is coming off one of the best offensive seasons of his career. In 2014, he hit .290, with 11 home runs and 67 RBIs, and he had a career-high on-base percentage (.402). He has shown skill with his glove and arm since he broke into the big leagues with the Dodgers in '06, but he has never been more in command of his craft than he is today. Over his two seasons in Pittsburgh, he was a mentor to the team's young pitchers, a calm presence behind the plate. He's expected to provide the same effect in Toronto.
The Blue Jays clearly have a lot of faith in Martin, as they made him the third-highest-paid catcher in the game, behind Buster Posey and Brian McCann. He's also a new face for their franchise, a Canadian-born ballplayer on a team that has in recent years tried to brand itself as Canada's team.
Martin, however, isn't even the best player the Blue Jays added this winter. Third baseman Josh Donaldson, acquired in a November trade from Oakland, has been an MVP candidate the last two years, and he'll join a lineup that is headlined by star sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. But Martin is the most high-profile Canadian the team has ever had. If he can help lead the Jays back to the postseason, given his pedigree, he would be as beloved, perhaps even more so, than the most popular Jays in recent history. He'd be up there with Joe Carter, who led the team to two World Series titles in the early 1990s, and Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, who played for Toronto from 1998 through 2009.
"He has a chance to inspire a generation of Canadians," says Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos. "We use the example of the NBA — you see these kids, recent first-round picks like Andrew Wiggins and Tristan Thompson, and if you ask them for their inspiration, it's not Steve Nash, the greatest Canadian player. It's Vince Carter, because he was the star player on a Canadian team. I think there's a very good chance that years from now, we're going to have kids wanting to play the catcher position and will hear kids say, I grew up idolizing Russell Martin."
Martin grew up idolizing the Expos from the early 1990s — Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, Larry Walker. He learned the game from his dad, Russell Sr., who would take him to the parks in Montreal, where father and son would play catch and pepper until the sun went down. Part of the reason why Martin chose the Blue Jays was his opportunity to go home to Canada, to be closer to his parents and his childhood pals, many of whom are still his close friends.
It took a while for Martin to realize how big a deal his signing was in Canada, and how fans across the country have been drawn to this Toronto team. The reach of the Blue Jays didn't hit Martin until he went on the team caravan, which stopped in Vancouver, and saw the long lines of fans wearing Jays jerseys and T-shirts of Carter and Roberto Alomar and Jack Morris, the greats from a fading era. "You have Cubs and Yankees fans everywhere, but it kind of struck me that it's not the same," says Martin. "Since the Expos left, you're talking about an entire country rallying around one team. For all my life in my mind, the Blue Jays were just Toronto. But it's changed. And I didn't realize how spread out it was, how vast the fan base has become."
It wasn't until many weeks after he signed with the Blue Jays that the next chapter of his professional career became something bigger than leading the talented but young pitching staff in Toronto and helping the Blue Jays get to the postseason. It was only clear to him after all the messages flickered on his phone through the winter, the selfies of old friends from Montreal wearing Jays hats. It was only after meeting all those starved fans across Canada that he got it: He was back home now, with a big job to do.
Photos: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated (catching, with fans), Rick Madonik/Toronto Star/Getty Images (batting)