NEW YORK -- Long after a game ends and their Yankees teammates have either gone out or gone to sleep, A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin are often tucked away in their suburban homes, headsets on, controllers in hands, lording over a video game. The batterymates spend hours playing "Call of Duty" while talking about baseball and life. They have formed a strong bond.
"He understands me well," Burnett says. "It takes a while for a lot people to get to know me and actually get to know how to deal with me and my personality. He just took it on real quick."
Martin may have a flair for putting things together quickly. Since arriving in spring training on a one-year, $4 million deal with the New York Yankees, he has taken over for stalwart catcher Jorge Posada and learned an entirely new staff seemingly with ease. He's hit six home runs and leads the team in hitting with runners in scoring position, though he has slumped in May, batting just .130 with no home runs. Even so, Martin's smooth transition has not surprised former teammates, who thought a new team loaded with superstars and less pressure hitting in a stacked lineup would help him. Martin came to the Yankees looking to prove himself; to prove that at age 28 his career was not over.
"I'm supposed to be in my prime," he says.
He came to New York as a former two-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner for the Los Angeles Dodgers, once ticketed for stardom, but who ended his career on the bench, with a broken hip, and a stat sheet full of declining numbers. He was a slumping player whose battle with off-the-field distractions and injuries affected his desire to play the game.
"It just kind of wore me down mentally," he says.
Burnett could relate. Not only did he have the worst season of his career last year, he was historically bad, his 5.26 ERA the highest in franchise history for a Yankees starter who threw at least 180 innings. Burnett, too, had lost his enthusiasm for the game.
"When you have a season like I [did]," Burnett says, "it's not fun."
Now the two are fueling one another. It's fair to question how millionaires who play a game for a living could grow weary and lose a desire to play. For Martin, it was a combination of factors, most of which he still feels uncomfortable discussing publicly. But depression was a part of it, he thinks, and last season he had trouble getting motivated to go to the gym or even the ballpark. By the time a broken hip ended his season, he had hit just five homers with a .679 OPS in 97 games.
"I just wasn't in a good place," he says.
When Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti and Martin's agent failed to reach an agreement on a contract, Colletti made what he says was one of the hardest decisions of his career. Martin was non-tendered and became a free agent. It wasn't just fans who wondered how the Dodgers could let go of the player Colletti called "captain-like," and who was slotted as their long-term leader. Teammates also were shocked to hear he would be gone. How had Russell Martin's career gotten to this point?
"There's always more to it than meets the eye," Colletti says. "You have to watch it every day, you have to watch it with a discerning eye every day and then you have to negotiate. It's not just 'How could they let him go?' It's far deeper than just one sentence."
The summer of 2006 was a whirlwind for Martin, as it would be for any rookie. He was called up in May after Dioner Navarro broke his wrist. Martin never lost the job, becoming just the third rookie catcher in baseball history to have at least 10 homers and 10 stolen bases. The pitching staff, which included veterans Derek Lowe and Greg Maddux, was impressed with his poise at age 23.
The next two years were All-Star seasons in which Martin was one of the better offensive players in the National League. He went to parties, met celebrities and enjoyed Hollywood. But he also loved playing the game, wanting to be in each one. His tenacity and aggressiveness caused worries among some members of the organization that he might become injured. But Martin loved to play, appearing in the most games by an NL catcher in '07 and '08.
"As a catcher you've got to take days off, but he never wanted to do that," former teammate Clayton Kershaw says. "It's just his personality; everything he does is to the extreme."
After hitting 19 homers in 2007, Martin's production and power declined each season. In 2009 he openly talked about partying too much, learning how to navigate the lifestyle. Last year, the hip injury forced him to the bench.
Martin says he felt more alone than ever on the bench. He started to envision his life without the game.
"That's when I realized how much the game means to me," he says.
He was supposed to anchor a group of young players the Dodgers were building around. Andre Ethier, James Loney, Chad Billingsley, Matt Kemp and, later, Kershaw were part of that group. Martin is the only one who is gone. Kemp and Kershaw both said it's "weird" without him as a Dodger. But the players also understood that a change was probably necessary.
"I was surprised and shocked; we didn't have a starting catcher signed at the time," Ethier says. "But I think he needed that change. It was maybe a blessing in disguise."
The Dodgers were in a difficult spot. Already facing serious financial questions, they knew Martin could command up to a $7 million salary in arbitration. Both camps exchanged proposals, but the Dodgers ultimately decided not to tender him a contract after being unable to get him to agree to a lower guaranteed salary.
"We knew how athletic Russell was and how talented he was, but I think at that point we didn't know if he was going to be able to catch or not," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly says.
The Boston Red Sox were interested in Martin, but the Yankees were more aggressive, and general manager Brian Cashman later made it clear he had long coveted Martin. This spring, Cashman even compared Martin to Yankees legend Thurman Munson, one of the game's toughest at the position.
As for exactly why the Dodgers decided to part with Martin, it's unclear whether any of Martin's former off-field issues were part of the decision-making process. Colletti would only answer generally about players who deal with distractions and how it can affect their careers.
"Generally speaking, if a player's priorities aren't on the career and getting better at the game, you're going to have detours of success, or maybe roadblocks to success if not detours," he says. "It's a very tough game to play day in, day out. It's magnified by the market you're in and the expectation built around the market. If you take a breath or you look the other way for a while, it's not [like] you just go back and pick up where you left off."
Martin says he arrived in the Big Apple determined to make changes.
On this past Monday afternoon -- the Yankees' first off-day in 16 games -- Martin pulls up to a nail salon in suburban Westchester, N.Y. Unlike most of his single teammates who live in Manhattan, Martin has chosen the suburbs to avoid distractions. He's 20 minutes late today for an appointment but has already sent a text message apologizing; he needed to change a flat tire.
One of the simpler changes: manicures.
In spring training, some Yankees pitchers had a hard time seeing the signs he'd put down during games, and instead of using whiteout or tape, Martin painted his nails.
"It's not a good feeling when you're putting down a sign, and you're not really sure if they're going to throw that pitch," he says as a woman cuts his cuticles in the salon before putting on a fresh coat of neon green on his right hand.
He settled on manicures because he didn't like the feel of tape on his fingers and whiteout was too messy. A few weeks ago he went to a manicurist who painted the nails on his right hand bright orange with a white stripe down the middle. He says his teammates haven't given him a hard time; they know why he does it. But some start to laugh when asked about his freshly painted green-colored right hand.
"Personally," reliever Joba Chamberlain says, "I think he just likes getting his nails done."
Actually, Martin does. He also says he prefers pedicures because everyone should take care of their feet. In this setting -- a suburban salon filled with women -- Martin is simply comfortable, not showing any signs of insecurity or trying to overcompensate by acting macho.
It's that comfort and ease that endeared him to teammates in L.A. and has ingratiated him in New York. Kershaw says Martin was an extremely calming influence, and that his offensive struggles never affected his ability to call a game. Whenever he approached the mound, Martin was always positive, and he did little things to make the pitchers better. When Kershaw first came up, he struggled to locate his pitches on the inside part of the plate. So Martin would go down on one knee to give Kershaw a target, and he kept doing it even when others on the team thought it might not be the best idea.
"It really helped me focus, and he recognized that so he kept doing it," Kershaw says. "It helped me find the strike zone and find the plate."
In New York, Martin's personality immediately disarmed his new teammates, and it was clear when he arrived in spring training this year he was willing to listen to anyone, including Posada.
"The relationship I have with my pitchers," Martin says, "I want them to have to trust me with their lives."
Martin had arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason, but he trained with MMA fighters in his native Montreal and says his main focus was to get healthy during spring training. He did that, but what stood out to his teammates and coaches was his willingness not only to listen, but also get to know the players off the field.
"[He's] a grown man, that's tough to do," Chamberlain says. "A 28-year-old guy who's been an All-Star and has all these big changes, that's a tough task to embrace itself. But I think the bigger task is to open yourself up as an individual, and I think it goes hand in hand, and by allowing himself to do that and being so open, it's made it better. It's always been easy to work with him, but I think it's even easier because of the relationship that he's created off the field and in the clubhouse."
Burnett noticed Martin's similar sense of humor as their first common trait. But that doesn't show up on the mound to his catcher and teammates: As outfielder Andruw Jones says, laughing: "A.J. gets along with everybody -- if he's not pitching."
Burnett, who is 4-2 with a 3.38 ERA this season, says one of Martin's strengths is putting his mind at ease. Perhaps the best testament to that is Burnett's ability to focus when men are on base; batters are only 1-for-22 (.045) against him this season. Burnett says Martin will often approach the mound and simply say, "Don't think about that." Or he'll challenge Burnett by encouraging him.
"He'll come out and say, 'Hey, you got another curveball in you? Because I'll block it,'" Burnett says. "And that fires me up. I want to throw a hook, he knows it, so he comes out with some confidence that 'Hey, I know what you want to throw and I'll block it, let's go.'"
It would be naïve to solely attribute the pair's relationship to Burnett's strong start and Martin's offensive resurgence. Burnett says that last week on the road they were talking about how much they had lost the desire to play the game, and how much that's changed this year.
"We talk about competing and enjoying that, and having fun playing the game," Martin says, "how important that is -- you can get consumed with too many things, too many thoughts."
So they made a promise to each other, as cliché as it may sound, to keep having fun and, in their words "keep that hunger." So far, over late-night video games and days spent together on the bench and in the clubhouse, the plan is working.