I don't go see movies in theaters much anymore. Such is the price of having small children. And it's disappointing to have to watch most movies--and I watch a LOT of movies--at home in my living room, rather than up on the big screen.
Also, although I confess to have always been a fan of animated movies and Pixar films in particular, my ratio of animated-films-to-live-action-films has also been skewed much higher since becoming a parent. But I have found a wonderful upside in this shifted paradigm; one ends up seeing things a bit differently when you see them through another set of eyes--especially after multiple viewings.
The Toy Story movies are special favorites of mine. I remember seeing the first Toy Story in 1995 and recall my wonder and amazement at the sophistication and seamlessness of the Pixar animation. Like many others, I wholly bought into the movie's fundamental conceit that toys, outside of humans' sight, had sentient minds and feelings and lived adventures of their own.
It was a pretty compelling basic idea that Pixar/Disney has used to extend the franchise through three movies, all three of which rank among Pixar's best. In the original Toy Story, Woody, the movie's main character and the perennial sidekick/best friend of the little boy Andy, wrestles with his own feelings of jealousy as his "favorite toy" status is supplanted by a new spaceman deluxe action figure. In Toy Story 2, after falling into the wrong hands of an unscrupulous collector toy trader, Woody puts legitimate consideration into being housed in a toy collection museum, sterlilized from human contact but revered as the central piece of a vintage ensemble television show that he never knew existed. Eventually, Woody opts out of that scenario, realizing that his real home is with Andy and the rest of his toy friends.
And in this year's excellent Toy Story 3, Andy is grown and leaving for college, and Woody and what's left of the Toy Story gang take a sidestep into the seemingly happy Sunnyside Day-Care, only to realize it's more like a medeival torture chamber, run as a caste system under the iron fist of Lotso Huggin' Bear. Hijinks inevitably ensue (since hijinks rarely do anything else anyway), until Andy's toys are restored to his rightful owner...and eventually end up not in Andy's attic collecting dust, but in the careful loving hands of Bonnie, a new child full of imagination and love and (we assume) years of future use and care and appreciation.
All three movies are characterized by madcap misadventures, wild chase scenes, and the challenges of being of Lilliputian scale, all of which occur when humans aren't around to watch inanimate objects come to life. And it's easy to get enraptured by the bells and whistles and great effects along the way.
But sometime during my fiftieth-odd run of these films, with me listening in while driving as the movies ran off my MacBook on the backseat during a long roadtrip--I finally saw (or actually, heard) something different about these movies for the first time. These toys, and especially Woody, are going through all of these travails, risking life and limb (literally), just to be loved by someone else. In their world, there is no greater goal, no other measure of their self-esteem, than to be useful to a child who will play with them and love them.
And for Woody in particular, the fear of becoming forgotten or irrelevant is paramount. He has been Andy's favorite toy, the one that was brought along everywhere, and ends up being the leader of the entire group. He's the centerpiece to all of Andy's imaginative childhood roleplay storylines. Sure, Woody has reasonable pangs of doubt when new brighter stars come on the scene, and even considers alternative homes which for a moment seem compelling. But Woody is largely pure of heart, and all he really wants to be is loved and to be part of the game.
Sort of like Russell Martin.
When Russell Martin broke onto the scene for Los Angeles in 2006, catcher was a dead spot for the Dodgers, who were probably cursed at this position since the fateful decision to exile Los Angeles native and future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza back in 1998. We had a brief flash of brilliance with the Paul LoDuca from 2001-2004, but what we thought was on-field exuberance we soon realized was probably just 'roid rage. And besides LoDuca, there wasn't much else of note behind the plate--Angel Pena and Dioner Navarro come to mind, sadly enough--until Russell Martin.
Martin came out of nowhere, a bolt from the Canadian blue, the product of divorced parents and the son of a street musician who came out fast out of the gates for the Dodgers. He followed up a promising 2006 season (ninth in Rookie of the Year balloting), in which he won the starting cather role, with an All-Star, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger 2007 season where he asserted himself as the leader of the team. At 24, ESPN.com's Amy K. Nelson wrote, "Martin is poised beyond his years". Little did we know that this 2007 season of an OPS+ of 116 would be his peak.
Martin's offensive performance showed a little bit of slippage in 2008, though he snuck onto the NL All-Star team through the Fan Vote; his second half only tallied three pof his 13 home runs, however, and definitely showed slowing as the year progressed (Martin had a solid NLDS in 2008 but evaporated in the NLCS against Philadelphia). His defense started to show cracks as well, throwing out only 25% of basestealers (to be fair, he's improved this since this nadir). And he played a lot--a career high 155 games that year--so the general feeling was that Martin must be tired. Just give him some rest, and he'd be back in his fourth year with flying colors.
Martin lost weight and took to yoga prior to 2009, and though he played in 143 games he hit only seven HR and batted a woeful .250 with reduced power (a career-low 85 OPS+). So he bulked up for 2010--and hit .248 with five HR through 97 games, before a broken hip in August derailed another comeback effort. Adding insult to injury (literally), the rival team up north produced a bivalve mollusc with genitalia growth who broke onto the national scene at catcher, winning a World Series ring in his Rookie of the Year season.
And last week, Martin, once the centerpiece of the Dodgers, was not tendered an offer by the Dodgers for 2011, having turned down what was rumored as a $4M deal plus $1M in incentives. It's a bitter pill to swallow for a player who was, not too long ago, the franchise's shining star.
Martin was always mentioned as part of the Dodgers' cast of young guns. And though Martin didn't have the offensive ferocity of Matt Kemp, or the overpowering heat and girth of Jonathan Broxton, or the calm steadiness of James Loney, or the dining and dashing good looks of Andre Ethier, or the mysterious minotaurian mythology of Clayton Kershaw, Martin was the first and only to break out as a leader of the Dodgers. He saw the void, and assumed the role. With the Manny Ramirez circus in town these last two years, this has not been an easy role to play, but it seemed to fit Martin pretty well, offensive woes aside.
Sure, Martin had his missteps with ill-advised Ed Hardy t-shirts, and was enraptured by the distracting siren sounds of famous girlfriends, but shoot, who wouldn't make those mistakes at 24? Even when he was deathspiralling through 2009 and 2010, causing all but the staunchest of fans to have to come to grips with his physical demise, Martin didn't lash out and castigate management or the team or prove to be an embarrassment in other ways. He would still leap over railings in chase of foul balls, risking life and limb as best as his body could attempt.
Martin just wanted to be loved by Dodger fans, and Dodger fans wanted to see him succeed. We still want to see him succeed.
Which is why I hope that Martin, who allegedly is open to returning to the Dodgers as a utility player, likely under less-secured financial circumstances, finds a way to reach agreement with the Dodgers and come back to Los Angeles for 2011. Perhaps the physical toll of playing catcher isn't a match for Martin anymore--it doesn't have to be, with Rod Barajas now signed for the spot--and he can explore other options like second base (so long as Juan Uribe doesn't sit on him), third base, or the outfield.
Injuries are bound to happen on any team, and one can see a scenario where Martin gets back to a starting role by mid-season. What's more, his role as a team leader could still play a huge part gelling a team with a lot of wayward personalities that have not yet stepped up to the captain's chair. Martin could still be the centerpiece, just in a different way than as the everyday starting catcher.
But more importantly, Martin could again be loved by Dodger fans, who would revel in a gritty, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps comeback if he could pull it off. Los Angeles fans will probably be more forgiving of Martin than any other team's fans, because we still have a special place in our heart for Martin. And we'd love to see him succeed here.
So come on back, Russell, in 2011. You've got a friend in us.