Russell Martin Was Almost Steve Smith

TORONTO (Oct. 15) — I’m not sure we can imagine the coming off–season for Russell Martin were he not part of the most explosive team in Major League Baseball. Perhaps only one man — currently an assistant coach with the Carolina Hurricanes of the National Hockey League — could properly identify.

Like defenseman Steve Smith of the 1986 Edmonton Oilers, Martin was almost the victim of an all-time blooper. His innocuous return from behind home plate to pitcher Aaron Sanchez in the top of the seventh inning on Wednesday accidentally caromed off the bat–handle of Texas hitter Shin–Soo Choo and rolled toward third base. As umpire Dale Scott moved in front of the plate waving his arms, Rougned Odor alertly scampered home from third for what became (after an 18–minute delay) the run that provided Texas a 3–2 lead. Had the Toronto Blue Jays not rebounded in predictable fashion with Jose Bautista’s monster, three–run homer in the bottom of the inning, Steve Smith may have invited Martin to Raleigh for commiseration.

As it were, the Blue Jays prevailed, 6–3, and became just the third team in playoff history to win a best–of–five series after dropping the first two games at home. Toronto advances to the American League Championship Series for the first time since 1993 and will face the defending A.L.–champion Kansas City Royals, who came back from the dead against Houston. This is where John Gibbons’ choice to rest his starters after clinching the American League East could become a factor. It all but conceded the best record in the League and home–field advantage (if there is such a thing) to the Royals. The Jays and Royals meet in the playoffs for the second time. Kansas City roared back from a 3–1 deficit to eliminate Toronto in Game 7 of the 1985 ALCS at old Exhibition Stadium. Hall–of–Famer George Brett was unstoppable.

FSCN9738editedNO IMAGE CAPTURED BY FOX SPORTS SPOKE VOLUMES LIKE THIS ONE — RUSSELL MARTIN THANKING HIS “MAKER” SECONDS AFTER JOSE BAUTISTA’S GAME–DECIDING HOME RUN IN THE BOTTOM OF THE SEVENTH. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN AN INTERMINABLE OFF–SEASON FOR THE BLUE JAYS CATCHER.

The Steve Smith saga has long been part of hockey lore. Vying for their third consecutive Stanley Cup championship, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and the Oilers were deadlocked with Calgary late in the seventh and deciding game of the 1986 Smythe Division final at Northlands Coliseum. While behind and just to the left of his own net, Smith attempted a routine pass up the middle. The puck, however, hit the back of goalie Grant Fuhr’s left leg and banked into the net at 5:14 of the third period. It stood as the game and series winner, costing Edmonton a reasonable shot at tying the record of five Stanley Cup titles in succession — held by the 1956 to 1960 Montreal Canadiens (the Oilers would win again in 1987 and 1988).

In a cruel twist of fate, Apr. 30, 1986 just happened to be Smith’s 23rd birthday.

15-smithcries-3edited                15-smithcries-1editedAS JOEL OTTO, AL MacINNIS AND THE CALGARY FLAMES CELEBRATE, DEFENSEMAN STEVE SMITH DROPS TO THE ICE IN AGONY AFTER HIS “OWN GOAL” IN GAME 7 THE SMYTHE DIVISION FINAL AT EDMONTON — APR. 30, 1986. SMITH WAS IN TEARS LATER AS THE TEAMS LINED UP TO SHAKE HANDS.

Though it turned into a bit of a sh– show, the umpiring crew at Rogers Centre ultimately made the correct call on Wednesday, allowing Odor to count the go–ahead run with two out in the seventh on a throwing error by the Toronto catcher. You could re–position Martin and Choo and ask Martin to try and hit the bat–handle with another return throw and perfect carom. It would take 39 years. Sadly, the call reversal demonstrated the lowest common–denominator among 49,742 fans at the Dome — the mindless few that tossed beer cans toward the field from the upper deck. Several innocent people in the lower seats were struck by the flying objects, which mortified the Blue Jays. Dioner Navarro, Edwin Encarnacion and others turned toward the seats and vehemently implored the fans to desist from such hazardous behavior.

Naturally, the reversal by Scott and Co. sparked calls of conspiracy from coast–to–coast in our country. Americans must laugh out loud at our inferiority complex, for just about every person south of the border (I was married to a U.S. citizen for 22 years) falls in love with our land as soon as they visit. And, those that actually believe the TV gurus at Major League Baseball “encourage” umpires and video–review officials to stiff the Blue Jays require some form of therapy. Umpires, like the rest of us, are human. They make mistakes. Dale Scott erred by waving his arms and calling the play dead when Martin’s throw hit Choo’s bat. Thankfully, there are parameters in place to correct such errors — first, a conference on the field with the other umpires and then a call to the review center in New York. Toronto fans would be madly in love with the MLB office had this situation involved the Texas catcher. Instead, it was an American plot.

FSCN9756edited  FSCN9761editedFOX TV IMAGES FROM BEHIND THE PLATE, AND ABOVE, OF RUSSELL MARTIN HITTING SHIN–SOO CHOO’S BAT–HANDLE WITH ATTEMPTED RETURN THROW TO AARON SANCHEZ AND OF UMPIRE DALE SCOTT MISTAKENLY WAVING HIS ARMS AS ROUGNED ODOR RACED FOR HOME.

FSCN9754edited  FSCN9763editedJust imagine if the paranoia were in reverse and belonged to Americans as it pertains to Canada. More than 100 million people would today be accusing the Texas infield of a “fix” after three routine ground balls were muffed in the bottom of the seventh, leading to Bautista’s game–winning blast. These were plays that me and my friends were able to make in a local B’nai Brith league when I was young. Suddenly, a posse of Major League infielders can’t do it in a deciding playoff match. Yup, we had quite the bizarre afternoon.

In the end — and as I correctly anticipated in my Tuesday blog (http://bit.ly/1hDoP17) — it was the stand–out element among the Blue Jays and Rangers that decided the series: Toronto’s ability to club the ball with power. Encarnacion and Bautista each cleared the fence by many feet, accounting for four of the Blue Jays six runs. This team can never be counted out of a game, or a series, as the 2–0 deficit in the League Division clash demonstrated. With Ryan Madson, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis, Kansas City has an enviable relief staff, yet the Jays twice abused the Royals vaunted bullpen in July — once at Kaufman Stadium; then at Rogers Centre. And, the big bats could again provide Toronto an edge in the best–of–seven ALCS.

Games 1 and 2 are at Kaufman Stadium Friday (7:30 p.m. EDT) and Saturday (3:30 p.m.). Games 3 and 4 and potentially 5 will be played Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week at Rogers Centre.

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