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Knee woes keep Russell Martin off Canadian World Baseball Classic roster

A nagging knee injury will prevent Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin of Canada, left, from securing the insurance coverage required to release him for competition in this year’s World Baseball Classic.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

In late November, Russell Martin entered a Florida hospital for arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, a procedure many professional athletes are only too familiar with.

It was to remove floating torn cartilage from the joint and it was not that pressing a concern for the Toronto Blue Jays catcher.

His knee was strong enough to withstand the rigours of competing in 146 games over the course of the 2016 Major League Baseball season (including playoffs) – 136 of those behind the plate, the game's most demanding position.

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It was day surgery, and Martin walked out of the hospital under his own steam – unaware that the operation would come back to haunt him more than two months later.

Wednesday was the deadline for participating countries to submit their final rosters for the upcoming World Baseball Classic, a tournament created under the direction of MLB. Martin's name was not on the list for Team Canada after being denied insurance coverage on his contract with the Blue Jays as a result of his minor knee surgery.

"[The insurers] have a pretty high standard when it comes to off-season surgery," Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada's director of national teams and head coach, said Thursday during an interview. "That's basically what I think happened here, because Russ went in and cleaned some things up – albeit even minor."

"It is standard operating procedure for all players to be cleared for contract insurance before being added to a WBC roster," an MLB spokesperson said in an e-mail. "Due to some players' injury history, such as the case of Russell Martin (who had off-season surgery), their contracts cannot be insured." Martin, a 33-year-old Toronto native, is said to be livid about the decision, believing it was made arbitrarily by the WBC organizers without giving him a chance to demonstrate that his surgically repaired knee is fine. Efforts to reach him through the Blue Jays proved fruitless on Thursday.

Just last month, at the annual Baseball Canada banquet in Toronto, the four-time MLB All-Star spoke excitedly about his anticipated participation in the 16-country World Baseball Classic, which starts March, 6 at four venues.

And Martin wasn't even going to be the catcher for Canada in the event; he was going to play shortstop, the position he played in college.

"He was our best option at shortstop," Hamilton said, stressing that the position switch had nothing to do with trying to save wear and tear on Martin's knee.

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The insurance is necessary in case a player, often being paid millions at the MLB level, gets injured in the WBC tournament and is unable to return to play for his major-league team. Since the 2013 tournament, players have been insured to have their salaries covered by the WBC if they get injured and have to miss at least 30 days of playing time.

That can add up quickly when you consider a player such as Martin is still owed $60-million (U.S.) over the remaining three years of his contract.

Martin is not the first player to experience WBC insurance issues. In 2009, Albert Pujols, then playing for the St. Louis Cardinals and coming off of elbow surgery, was unable to get insurance to play for the Dominican Republic at the WBC.

And the risks of competing in the tournament are not insignificant. In 2013, New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira suffered a torn tendon sheath in his right wrist while training for Team USA – an injury that sent him to the 60-day disabled list. Hanley Ramirez, then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, tore a ligament in his right thumb that required surgery. And Brett Lawrie, then the starting third baseman for the Blue Jays, began the season on the DL after suffering a rib injury while suiting up for Canada.

"On our side I would certainly say that we would never want a player that's part of our organization … coming in here if there's a risk of them harming their professional career," Hamilton said. "That's not our goal.

"But [Martin's] view, and his feeling all along, was that [his injury] was just minor and he feels great and we were proceeding along those lines. We were articulating that view. He was articulating that view. It's one of those things that falls outside your control."

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It is disappointing for the Canadian team, with another of its top players not being able to participate in the tournament. Outfielder Michael Saunders, a Victoria native, has also withdrawn from the competition; he said he wanted to spend as much time as possible at the spring training camp of his new team, the Philadelphia Phillies. Martin and Saunders will be joined on the sidelines by the likes of Joey Votto, James Paxton and Lawrie, who have also sent their regrets for various reasons.

"That's the beauty of international competition," Hamilton said. "It's not always the deepest roster that comes out on top because they're one-game shots.

"We're certainly capable of beating the Dominican Republic and/or the United States. Are we as deep as they are? No. Do we have the star power they have top to bottom? Not at all.

"But at the end of the day we're running out players that can play the game at a pretty high level. They all might not be household names, but they're pretty good players."

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