In Conversation with Buck Martinez
Few names are as closely tied to Toronto baseball as Buck Martinez. With 20 seasons in the Majors, he would spend six as a Blue Jay, being forever tied to one of the wildest plays in MLB history. Following retirement, Buck began a successful career as a broadcaster that included an Emmy for his coverage of Cal Ripken’s 2131st consecutive game. He managed the Jays in 2001 and 2002 before returning to the booth.
The Blue Jays are now set to build on a successful 2020 campaign, but the challenges remain. They are still a team without a permanent home, there have been some early injuries including the loss of Kirby Yates for the season, and the AL East remains as tough as ever.
We caught up with the colourful commentator to discuss free agency, the rotation, and just how far this team can go.
The Collection: How has Covid-19 changed the way you broadcast a baseball game?
Buck Martinez: It’s changed the world for everyone, and it certainly has impacted the way we broadcast. Last year, Dan Shulman and I did all 60 games at Sportsnet Studios in Toronto. We had the technology available to see the field, wherever the Blue Jays were playing, so that actually worked well. The most important thing that impacts my broadcasting is the inability to chat with the players and coaches on a regular basis. My time before the game is most important down on the field at the batting cage, talking to both the Blue Jays and their opponents. That’s where I get most of my information, so that’s been a challenge.
TC: What’s your assessment of this year’s team?
BM: I think they’re going to be pretty good. They got to the playoffs last year in the shortened season…then there’s the addition of George Springer and Marcus Semien. They traded for Steven Matz, but they still have a ways to go. They were just a couple of games over .500 last year, and the New York Yankees are always going to be the New York Yankees. Tampa Bay lost a couple of key players in Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, (but) they have a way of figuring things out and I think they’ll be formidable. And everybody wants to write off the Boston Red Sox, but Alex Cora’s back after a year suspension, and I think they’re going to be very competitive. So once again, it looks like a very challenging division.
TC: What are you looking for when determining how competitive a team can be?
BM: I look for how motivated they are as a team. Not so much how the individuals are doing, but are the players sacrificing themselves for the betterment of the team. That’s when you have a championship caliber ball club. I think the Jays have a foundation because several of their players are homegrown, and those young players won in the minor leagues, so they appreciate what it means to win as a team. I think that’s where their focus is. They want to be a winning ball club. When you ask Cavan Biggio or Bo Bichette or Vlady Guerrero, what do you want to accomplish…they want to win a World Series and bring that title back to Canada.
TC: Are you seeing any maturity in their play that you might attribute to last year’s playoff experience?
BM: Absolutely. That’s a great point. They had a disappointing round, they lost both games of the Wild Card series to Tampa Bay. Bo Bichette was very disappointed. He had a rough game two, committing a couple of errors in the first, and I think that served as motivation for him to focus in the offseason. He’s in remarkable shape, he’s really focused on playing better in the field. And I see it with Vlady, as well. He’s a fun-loving kid, he just turned 22, but this season I sense more of a professional approach, more focus in batting practice. And Cavan Biggio, the same. So, they accomplished a lot by getting there for the first time as a group, but they were all disappointed in the way it finished.
TC: What do you think about Charlie Montoyo as manager?
BM: Well, Charlie Montoyo has managed for 18 years in the minor leagues, and he’s always been involved in player development. In this day and age, you’re continuing to develop players even though they’re big-league players. There’s a lot of finishing work done in the major leagues. And (he’s) a terrific communicator. He allows the players to be themselves, while at the same time, he lets them know what he expects. He goes around to the individual, he’ll tell them when they’re playing, where they’re playing, what position, where they’re batting, and he’ll do that a day or two ahead of time. There are no surprises when the kids come to the ballpark. Charlie has set them up for success. He’s a perfect manager for this young team.
TC: Is Toronto becoming a desirable destination for top talent?
BM: It’s getting close, that’s for sure. In the late 80s and early 90s, Toronto was truly a destination for free agents, and that was played out with Jack Morris, Dave Stewart, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor. All of those star players ended up playing in Toronto because it was the place to play. Players who have played in Toronto understand that when the Blue Jays are good, the whole country is behind you. I think the goal of this organization is to get back to that status, be a contending team, year-in-year-out, and once Covid is behind us, fill Rogers Centre with the best fans in baseball.
TC: What effect do you think Springer and Semien will have on a young team?
BM: Well, (they) kind of validate what the Blue Jays are trying to accomplish. I heard it several times last year from the young players…they kind of said, “Hey, we need a grown up in the locker room. We need somebody that has been there before to help us.” I think Springer and Semien are the perfect people for that. They’re good players. They have both enjoyed success on the field, they’ve played in the playoffs, and they’re both great people. When you bring in two more character personalities like Springer and Simeon, you’re just adding to an already good clubhouse.
TC: Infield depth wasn’t really a weakness on this team. Did you like the Semien signing?
BM: The defence didn’t have a good year last year, and I know Semien is a shortstop playing second, but that’s a bonus. When you have athletic people, they can move around the diamond. You’ll get the versatility of a shortstop playing at a new position. That should improve the infield defence. With Semien at second, you could put Cavan Biggio over to third, and he has looked great so far. Plus, now you bring Springer into centre, and you’ve improved your defence up the middle, that’s always been a big concern in baseball. So, it would’ve been nice to add another pitcher…I’m sure they tried to make a run at Trevor Bauer and other pitchers that were on the market, but so far so good with the pitching staff. Semien is going to have a good impact on this team.
TC: We now have four quality outfielders. How do you keep them all engaged?
BM: I don’t think any manager complains about having too many good players, but he’ll have to figure out how to rotate those players and keep everybody involved. You’re right, it’s about keeping them engaged, making everybody understand that they’re part of this effort. It’s going to take 30, 32 players over the course of the season to win a championship, and everybody has to play their role. I think Randall Grichuk understands that. Teoscar (Hernandez) had a great year last year. Springer’s going to play every day, he’s going to rotate, play centre most of the time, maybe a little in right. Gurriel’s been a good hitter the last couple of years, so it’s imperative that you keep those guys involved. And now you’ve got the challenge of mixing in Guerrero and Rowdy Tellez at first base, as well. So, like I said, I don’t think anybody ever complained about having too many good players. It’s just a matter of how you keep them sharp.
TC: The injury to Nate Pearson is disappointing. Are you comfortable with our rotation in his absence?
BM: Well, Pearson’s injury is a leg injury, not an arm injury. I guess that’s a blessing. And he’s a big strong kid, so I expect that he’ll be back, but I don’t think you can just snap your fingers and say he’s going to be back in the middle of April. So far, the pitching has been pretty good. The depth has been fine with Robbie Ray throwing well, Steven Matz throwing well, Russ Stripling…Anthony Kay and T.J. Zeuch are throwing the ball very well and they’re in competition to round out the rotation. Internally, there are enough options, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed that Pearson can come back, along with Thomas Hatch who has an elbow issue that has him on the shelf, too.
TC: Is not having a home field a disadvantage to our team?
BM: It is a disadvantage, there’s no question. Last year, I thought the Jays did a tremendous job. Initially, everybody thought they might play in Toronto. That didn’t happen. Then they thought they were going to Pittsburgh. That didn’t happen. Maybe Baltimore, that didn’t happen. They ended up in Buffalo, but you never heard them complain, they just stuck together. I think it was a team building experience for the entire organization. So, they’d love to be at Rogers Centre, there’s no question. That’s their home, that’s where they want to play, and they want to play in front of fans. But we know that can’t happen right now.
TC: How far can the Jays go in 2021?
BM: I think health will have a lot to do with it. With Kirby Yates getting injured and Nate Pearson, you’re always going to test your depth, but I think the team is motivated. They would be disappointed if they didn’t get back to the playoffs. It might be a bit early in the run for this young group, but I wouldn’t put anything past them. With the additions, I think this team has as good a chance as any team in the American League East to go into the playoffs.
To watch the full interview, check out the latest issue of The Collection.
For all the latest on the Toronto Blue Jays, visit www.mlb.com/bluejays