The man on the screen was competitive and cutthroat. He wasn’t afraid to get in the faces of his own teammates, imploring them to take the game as seriously as he did.
That man was Michael Jordan, on ESPN’s “The Last Dance.” But as Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin got sucked into that docuseries during the coronavirus pandemic that scuttled the college baseball season, the athlete on his mind was actually Commodores utilityman Austin Martin, who the Blue Jays took with the fifth overall pick in the 2020 Draft.
“I’m not going to compare [Martin] to anyone,” Corbin says. “But while I’m watching [“The Last Dance”], I’m thinking of this kid. You can see how competitive people control and command their adrenaline in a high-pressure situation. They crave and survive those moments and push others to raise themselves.”
Even the loosest of comparisons to Jordan is high praise from a coach whose program has produced David Price, Walker Buehler, Sonny Gray, Dansby Swanson and many other big leaguers. And it underscores the point that if Martin, ranked No. 2 on MLB Pipeline's Top 200 Draft Prospects list, is to become the next Commodore to soar, it won’t just be because of his elite contact rates, his power or his speed. It will also be because of the kind of unquantifiable edge that drives the elite competitors.
“I just love to win,” Martin says. “Well, honestly, I hate losing even more than I love to win.”
Vandy did a lot of winning in 2019, with the sophomore Martin batting leadoff and shifting from second base to third. He led the SEC in average (.392), on-base percentage (.486) and runs (87), as the Commodores rolled to the College World Series title. Martin was the only underclassman to be named an All-American, and Corbin considers him one of the best and most instinctive baserunners he’s ever coached.
Martin was devastated not to get the chance at a title defense in 2020 (he had played some center field prior to the shutdown and could conceivably switch to that position permanently), but the unexpected layoff has only heightened his desire to achieve greatness on the diamond.
Where does that desire come from? Martin, a 21-year-old native of Jacksonville, Fla., matter-of-factly traces it back to the way his parents, Daisy and Christopher, provided for him in difficult circumstances.
“I was an accident,” he says. “My mom and dad got married at 19 and 20. Very young. They were both raising me while we didn’t even have a house to live in yet and while going to school at the same time. All the adversity they had to go against to be where they’re at and put me in the position I’m in, that’s where the competitiveness comes in.”
When Martin was a newborn, his dad was studying respiratory therapy, doing his clinicals at school by day and working in a hospital overnight. His mom was going to nursing school full-time.
“It was tough, really tough,” says Christopher, who is now an air-traffic controller. “Sometimes you have to make sacrifices. It’s always been something we tried to instill in him and his sisters. You have to work hard to keep striving for your dreams.”
Martin’s dream to play baseball was born when he was kicked off (in a good way) his 4-year-old T-ball team for being too advanced. And his team-first mentality was evident when he was 7 years old and playing on a 9-and-under travel team. During a tournament, he lost his spot in the lineup to an older boy named Robbie, who wound up striking out in his first few trips to the plate and crying on the bench.
“Austin comes over and puts his arm around him,” his dad remembers. “He says, ‘It’s OK, Robbie, don’t worry about it. Next time up there, you’re going to get a hit!’ That amazed me, because here was my 7-year-old, who got sat on the bench for someone who wasn’t even with the team all season, and he was being a total team player.”
Martin’s parents are divorced, and his family has expanded to include seven siblings, including stepsisters and stepbrothers. Martin is the second-oldest of that group, and that’s instilled natural leadership skills that he’s put to use in baseball. Even when he was sidelined during last fall’s practices at Vandy after a cleanup procedure in his knee, he took on the role as an extra coach.
“I look at my team as my family,” he says. “Those are my guys, and I think it's important to push my teammates, because I know everybody’s potential.”
As demonstrated in the Jordan doc, sometimes that can be awkward.
“He antagonizes his teammates on the field, and he’s not concerned about the repercussions of the relationship,” Corbin says. “He’ll mend that inside the locker room. In a playing environment, he’s not worried about the touchy feely stuff. He’d rather go through that than the angst of coming up short.”
Much like the star of “The Last Dance,” Martin does not plan to experience that angst very often.