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Saturday, April 9, 2011
Updated: April 10, 10:58 AM ET
Martin's Boston pop makes Pops proud

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- Russell Martin sent two home runs sailing over the great green wall in left, his shots cutting a poetic path toward the Citgo sign that once served as a glowing marker in the night for the musician who inspired him.

Russell Martin Sr. lived in front of that sign some 30 years ago, when he played with the gospel choir of the Twelfth Baptist Church and took courses at the Berklee College of Music. So as the old man watched his son became a home run hero for the New York Yankees at Fenway Park, the rush of memories all but knocked him from his chair.

When Russell Jr. was a teenager, his father earned a living playing the saxophone for commuters in the Montreal subway, sometimes working the platforms for up to eight hours a day to pay the bills.

"It wasn't Broadway," Russell Sr. said Saturday from his Montreal home, "but the hours were mine to select and it gave me time to work with Russell on the fields. I'd spend time with him playing ball, and then I'd make it back to the subway for the evening rush hour."

Russell Martin
Russell Martin rounds the bases after his first homer of the day, a three-run shot in the fourth inning.

Russell Jr. developed into a world-class pro, of course, a Dodger who had the game, the look and the personality to be the face of that flagship franchise. Only the catcher suddenly stopped hitting, got hurt and got shown the door by a team that no longer believed in him.

The Red Sox considered signing him as a free agent. "But they were worried about the injuries that I had," Martin said, "and that's really what it came down to. The Yankees were just much more aggressive, and that's the end of that story."

The end or the beginning? Martin suffered a serious hip injury with the Dodgers, and then showed up with the Yankees needing surgery on his right knee. But Brian Cashman had already sat down Jorge Posada in a private room at Columbia-Presbyterian and told him that he would serve forevermore as a DH.

Martin was given the catcher's job for one year, at a salary of $4 million. Baseball had become a joyless pursuit, and Martin decided he was done cheating himself and the sport. Joe Torre told him in the spring that New York is "a whole different ballgame. You'll be fine. Enjoy it."

So enjoy it Martin has.

"When I got hurt last year and had the game taken away from me," he said, "I realized it's not going to last forever, so I might as well have fun doing it."

At 28, coming off two disappointing seasons, Martin shed 15 pounds through grueling mixed martial arts training sessions in an attempt to return to his old All-Star form.

"I finally got my work ethic back and got serious," he said after Yankees 9, Red Sox 4, "and it's paying off now."

Martin hit a three-run homer off Clay Buchholz in the fourth, then delivered a solo blast off Alfredo Aceves in the seventh, leaving him with a .321 batting average and his first multi-homer game since 2007.

Joe Girardi went on and on about his catcher afterward, saying how much he appreciated the skills Martin showed in Los Angeles. The manager promised he wouldn't "kill him" with constant use, but there's a reason Martin has had his number called for all eight games.

A former catcher who once described the position as "a box of rocks," Girardi loves the way Martin handles a staff and appreciates the time he spends talking to the pitchers about their lives on and off the field.

"The first thing I was taught as a catcher," Martin said, "is that you've got to take care of your pitchers. That's the most important thing. Pitching wins championships."

Russell Martin and Jorge Posada
Russell Martin gets a pat on the head from Jorge Posada, the man Martin replaced behind the dish.

As do the catchers who shepherd them.

"I want to put a nickname on him now," said Russell Sr. "When I text him I call him Rock Steady, like the Aretha Franklin song, because he's rock steady behind the plate."

Russell Sr. started working with his son when the boy was 2 years old, teaching him to catch and throw before quickly graduating him to the finer points of situational ball. Growing up in Montreal, Russell Sr. had played a little football and baseball in his day, inspired, he said, by Jackie Robinson's dignity and grace. "To see a black man do what he did," Russell Sr. said, "had a major impact on my life."

When he realized his child had a natural gift for baseball, Russell Sr. put his own musical ambitions on the shelf, a move he called "a very easy decision." He was hoping Russell Jr. might earn a college scholarship, and ended up nurturing a prospect capable of so much more.

"My father was there every day for me," Russell Jr. said, "putting in so much work with all these different drills he invented for me, just building me as a baseball player physically and mentally. It was very challenging, but he knew I loved it and so he pushed me as hard as he possibly could.

"I probably didn't appreciate it as much back then as I do now. But now that I realize everything he did, and how he used to wake up at dawn to go play in the subway just so he could throw me batting practice in the afternoon, I can't thank him enough."

Russell Jr. thanked Russell Sr. plenty Saturday afternoon. The old man had taken in some games at Fenway in a different life, back when he lived near the Citgo sign and held down a job as a hotel doorman and cherished every chance he could to perform with the Twelfth Baptist Church choir in Roxbury.

And here was his own flesh and blood, wearing the hated colors of the New York Yankees and driving a couple of balls over Bucky Dent's wall.

"I was all over it," Russell Sr. said. "Ask me when I'll jump back into my skin. When Russell ran into his misfortune in Los Angeles, I told him there would be a silver lining if he worked hard at it.

"I think being a Yankee is my son's silver lining."