Stomping Grounds: Toronto stars began to blossom in Florida town
By Jamie Ross
TORONTO -- Imagine Jose Bautista and Russell Martin, two hardened professionals seasoned by years of big league experience, as scrawny, fresh-faced kids. Strip away the thick, full beards, the muscular forearms and their combined 2,695 regular-season games and 428 homers, and what remains is what Jeff Johnson started working with back in the early 2000s at Chipola College in tiny Marianna, Fla.
"To watch two guys, kids, who came from different countries, come in here and progress to where they are now, it's a great testament to their character and work ethic," said Johnson, the longtime head coach of Chipola's baseball program. "It's amazing to see them go from one stage to where they are now."
Long before they were MLB All-Stars, before they led the Blue Jays to their first American League Championship Series in 22 years, Martin and Bautista suited up in 2001 alongside one another for the Chipola Indians. The Dominican-born Bautista had arrived at the Florida panhandle school a season earlier, and Martin was a newly landed freshman from Canada, having elected the college route after being drafted by his hometown Expos in the 35th round of the 2000 Draft.
Johnson, who remains in contact with both players, recalled the pair as being supremely talented and hardworking, though, like most youngsters at that stage, in need of a little more brawn.
He remembers Bautista -- the Blue Jays' No. 3 hitter and hero of their AL Division Series finale against the Rangers -- as particularly wiry. The Indians' 2001 roster generously listed Bautista as 6-foot, 190 pounds, a statistic that prompted laughter from Johnson when presented with it.
"Whoever did that, that was nice. It was probably more like 175, at best. When he came here in 2000, it was about 155, 160," Johnson said. "I'd tell him all time, 'Go into the McDonald's and eat some hamburgers, maybe that stuff will get you fattened up a bit.'"
Eventually, both Bautista and Martin began to fill out. As they grew into their bodies, Johnson saw them grow as people, too. Their confidence and leadership abilities began to shine through, as did their determination to get better.
At first, both players bounced around from position to position, unable to find a niche. Bautista played a "bit of everything," Johnson recalls, from multiple spots in the infield to his regular spot in right field. He even had a stint as the team's closer. Martin, meanwhile, now one of baseball's best backstops, wasn't even catching when he arrived at Chipola.
Martin said coaches throughout his childhood always told him he had a catcher's skill set, but for a long time, he resisted. After playing some outfield, third base and second base for the Indians, Johnson finally convinced Martin that he belonged behind the plate. The rest is history.
"The thing about Jeff Johnson is that he always set the bar high. He didn't accept it if you failed. He always pushed us," said Martin, now 32 and a four-time All-Star. "He made us better people, stronger people. He's a hard-nosed, blue-collar kind of guy. I definitely took a lot of my experience from Chipola. He was the leader there and he had the ability to create more leaders. And he created one in Jose, and he created one in myself. I can't thank him enough."
Bautista, who along with Martin won a Panhandle Conference title and earned a second-place finish at the state championship, also fondly recalls his time at Chipola, but for different reasons. The school was his first stop in the United States after growing up in the Dominican Republic. It was challenging adjustment for the now 34-year-old, who, after struggling to find his place in the Major Leagues in the early going of his career, has become the face of Blue Jays' franchise.
"Culture shock, living my whole life in the Dominican Republic, Spanish being my first language, it was a huge adjustment, a huge period of growth in my life," Bautista said.
Every year, Bautista returns to to the school for alumni weekend and takes part in the annual home run derby. Martin is also a frequent attendant. It's allowed Johnson to stay close to his former players, whose careers he's followed closely since they moved on to pro ball.
"My chest puffs out a bit," Johnson said of considering his former pupils' success.
He's proud that his program has helped usher along the careers of more than two dozen active pros. And when two of your alumni are core components of a team that's considered a favorite to win the World Series, it's hard not to brag just a little bit.
Jamie Ross is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.