20 years ago, Buck Martinez was introduced was the 8th permanent manager in Blue Jays history, hired out of the broadcast booth by general manager Gord Ash on November 3, 2000 (though news of the hiring broke the day before).
The purchase of the franchise by Rogers Communications from Interbrew completed on September 1st (though not formally approved by MLB for a few months) heralded a number of organizational changes. Paul Godfrey was installed as chairman and CEO, and though Ash received a new three year contract to remain as GM, the Jays opted not to renew Jim Fregosi’s contract.
Their search included interviewing the likes of Ernie Whitt and Willie Upshaw, but ultimately narrowed down to two finalists in Martinez and Oakland third base coach Ken Macha. Interestingly, all those candidates had stints as players for the team in the 1980s (they also interviewed Jerry Royster and Hal McRae). But John Albert was considered the frontrunner from the beginning.
The knock was that he had no experience coaching or managing at any level, with some speculation the appointment was more a public relations move by the new media-savvy ownership seeking to generate goodwill from the fanbase. Martinez had a very high profile, having played six seasons with the Jays from 1981 to 1986, before moving to the broadcast booth in 1987 for the next 14 years where the pairing of him and Dan Shulman was widely considered one of the best in the business.
And of course, it didn’t end well. After a 80-82 season in 2001, Ash was finally out as GM, replaced by wunderkind J.P. Riccardi. With a completely different philosophy, the writing was on the wall in that he’s want to put his own stamp on the organization by bringing in his people. After the Jays got off to a very slow 20-33 start, Martinez was fired on June 4, 2002 (ironically after a weekend series sweep to break a six game losing streak).
The lack of experience was not the only criticism of Ash’s managerial search. Even 20 years ago there was a recognition that MLB had an issue with minority representation in their front offices, and Ash was asked why the Jays hadn’t included any minorities among their finalists.
Having interviewed three visible minorities (Upshaw, Royster and McRae) out of six, Ash was on pretty solid ground, but in a metaphor of his entire metaphor managed to step in it: “I believe (Buck) would be considered a minority”. Ash was alluding to Buck’s surname Martinez, and erroneously assumed Latin American heritage.
But as his mother told Allan Ryan of The Toronto Star (11/2/2000, D1), his paternal grandparents emigrated to the US from Spain. Interestingly, on his maternal side he has some Native American heritage, which I didn’t know until looking through his Sporting News player contract card, a fascinating resource which were put online by SABR late last year:
It was not the first time that Martinez was considered for skipper, having interviewed three years when the Jays hired Tim Johnson. But his interest actually went back way further than that. 35 years ago, after the euphoric 99 win “Drive for ‘85” came up just short of the World Series, Ted Turner lured manager Bobby Cox back to Atlanta as GM, leaving an unexpected vacancy.
The Jays would end up promoting third base coach Jimy Williams named in short order, but 39-year old DH Al Oliver, acquired in July, had designs on the job. He told Marty York “My wife and I agree that the Blue Jays would be the perfect team for me to manage. I’m going to call my attorney and ask him to call (Jay vice- president) Pat Gillick to find out whether he’d be interested in signing me as a player-manager.”
His pitch was, shall we say, a little wanting: “My first concern is playing. Being a manager would be secondary. I’m just saying the Blue Jays could do worse than choose me to manage”. Alas, despite a most generous offer to the Jays of first opportunity for his services as a free agent, it was the end of Oliver’s career and his chase of 3,000 hits fell short (at 2,743).
But whatever merits and designs Oliver may have had, he had already been beaten to the punch. As York related: “The first Jay to inquire about succeeding Cox as manager was 36-year-old catcher Buck Martinez. He said the brass simply laughed when asked.” (Globe and Mail, 10/25/1985, D12).
If only Gord Ash had done the same 15 years later, it might have been better for all involved (though it’s worth noting he was part of the front office at that point). But Martinez found his way back into the fold and assuming he’s back in 2021 will mark 40 years since he first joined the organization all the way back in May 1981 as a 33-year old catcher.
Even then, he was looking to the future, as he told Alison Gordon in early March 1983 while working with young pitchers in Spring Training when asked about any plans for retirement: “Martinez smiled enigmatically…I want to get it into their heads that I am a multi-faceted person. Just in case my other talents fail.”
Player, broadcaster, manager, Brains of the Sportnet Operation: multifaceted indeed.