Martin has the attributes of a great catcher
A relative newcomer to his position, first-year Dodgers catcher Russell Martin, at just 23 years old, is already playing like a seasoned vet, writes Jerry Crasnick.
LOS ANGELES -- Dodgers catcher Russell Martin has committed to do an interview at 10 a.m., but when the designated time passes, his street clothes are hanging in his locker and he's as AWOL as Jeff Kent's sense of humor.
When Martin finally emerges from the trainer's room at 10:45, his bleary eyes and the red splotches on his forehead betray his recent whereabouts: He just drifted into a state of blessed oblivion while doing a face-plant on the trainer's table in the middle of a massage.
At this stage of the year, it's nice to be kneaded.
"I'm not a morning person, and it's September," Martin says. "That's a bad combination."
In light of Martin's contributions this season, we'll give him a pass for dozing off during his rubdown. Since the Dodgers summoned Martin from Triple-A Las Vegas in May, the kid ranks third in games played among big league catchers and second in innings played to Oakland's Jason Kendall.
Still, Martin's National League Rookie of the Year candidacy has all the momentum of a "Bring back Pluto" campaign. Florida's Dan Uggla, Washington's Ryan Zimmerman, San Francisco's Matt Cain, Milwaukee's Prince Fielder, Los Angeles' Andre Ethier and several other Marlins have splashier numbers and higher national profiles.
But none is a first-year catcher trying to mind-meld with a veteran pitching staff in a pennant race. That's not the kind of thing you should try at home. Even Minnesota's Joe Mauer, so consistent and mature at age 23, had a 166-game major league foundation before leading the Twins on their playoff run this year.
Since the initial Rookie of the Year award in 1947, only seven catchers have finished first. The list comprises four National Leaguers (Johnny Bench, Earl Williams, Santiago and Mike Piazza) and three American Leaguers (Thurman Munson, Carlton Fisk and Sandy Alomar Jr.).
Six of the seven winners played for clubs that finished a combined 96 games out of first place. Only Fisk, whose 1972 Boston team was edged out by Detroit, played on a contender in his first year.
Yet here stands Martin, a Canadian-born converted third baseman, catching six innings of no-hit ball by Greg Maddux one day, then going deep in a four-homer ninth-inning onslaught against San Diego three days later. He is seemingly in the middle of everything.
Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti flashes back to a conversation with Martin earlier this year. It was around the time Martin seized the starting job from Dioner Navarro, prompting the Dodgers to trade Navarro to Tampa Bay.
"What kind of player do you intend to be?" Colletti asked Martin.
When Martin looked at him quizzically, Colletti probed further.
Martin didn't have an immediate answer, but his performance since is an indication that he's thinking profound thoughts.
"I believe he aspires to be great," Colletti says. "I really see him as that type of person."
Playing in the majors has its perks. You fly on charters, get lots of free equipment, TiVo the game and hear Vin Scully pronounce your name, bump into Sandy Koufax at the Vero Beach compound each spring, and have the luxury of visiting the massage therapist when the backaches mount.
You even get to hang with All-Stars. When Martin needed a place to crash this season, pitcher Brad Penny offered a room at his home in Calabasas, the gateway to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and home of the annual Pumpkin Festival.
"I just think he likes having me there because it's a big house and he's in the middle of nowhere," Martin says, laughing.
Still, few thrills compare with the one Russell Martin experienced Wednesday at Chavez Ravine, when his father, known as Big Russ, played the national anthem on his tenor saxophone before the Los Angeles-Pittsburgh game.
It was the culmination of a dream father and son shared more than a dozen years ago in that baseball bastion of Montreal. Martin's parents split when he was a boy, and Little Russ lived in Ottawa with his mother, Susanne, during the school year while spending summers in Quebec with his dad.
Big Russ, a former football player in the Navy, once tried out as a wide receiver and defensive back for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes. He dabbled in carpentry through the years, but found he could devote more time to his son by setting his own schedule as a street musician.
In the mornings, Big Russ headed out the door with his sax and worked the subway rush hour while the upstairs neighbors watched his boy. "I wasn't getting rich," he says, "but we were able to function." Best of all, he returned home by 10 a.m. each day and took young Russell to the park, where they bonded through baseball.
Father and son played spirited games of pepper, and Big Russ would place a ball on a tee and dare the boy to knock it off with a throw. They devised a contest called the "nose game," standing a fair distance apart and holding their gloves in front of their noses. If your throw was right on the button and the glove didn't budge, you earned a point.
They rode the subway to Olympic Stadium to watch Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom and the Expos, and Big Russ played the role of radio broadcaster. He invented scenarios in which local phenom Russell Martin, just up from the minors, knocked the dirt off his cleats, stepped in the box and belted one over the fence. As Little Russ listened from his seat on the train, his 10-year-old heart pounded feverishly.
"I could see that he enjoyed it, but I didn't know it meant so much to him," Big Russ says. "You try to do so much for your kids, but you don't know what's working until you get some feedback from them."
It worked, all right.
"Hell, yes," Russell Martin says in hindsight. "It was awesome."
Little Russ' full name is Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin. The Nathan is for his great-grandfather. The Jeanson is his mom's maiden name, and the Coltrane is in homage to John Coltrane, jazz saxophonist extraordinaire.
The kid never warmed to a musical instrument, but he plays the position of catcher as if it's a means of expression. Scouts rave about his soft hands and lateral movement, his quick feet and ability to frame a pitch, as if he was born to be a backstop.
Maddux, the future Hall of Famer, appreciates that Martin never takes his at-bats behind the plate and that he absorbs information so readily.
"He has very good baseball sense," Maddux says. "If you can't throw to this guy, you can't throw to anybody."
The job is infinitely more challenging than the best catchers make it appear. The catcher has to climb inside the pitcher's head, know the strengths and weaknesses of opposing hitters, and be conscious of defensive positioning, the speed of baserunners and umpires' tendencies. Beyond the mind games, he must be willing to block balls in the dirt, shake off foul tips, absorb collisions at the plate and deliver a base hit every now and them.
Martin, as a rookie, is able to strike the necessary balance between assertiveness and respect for his elders. Earlier this year, L.A. pitcher Derek Lowe was so rattled during a start that Martin walked to the mound and told him, "I'm not leaving until you calm down." Lowe finally obliged, and Martin put on his mask and resumed his position.
The Dodgers can only wonder: How good will Martin be when he grows up? Martin is only 23 years old, and he played third base in the Gulf Coast League in 2002 before Jon Debus, the organization's catching coordinator, suggested he shift behind the plate. Talk about prescient.
"When I was 15 or 16, lots of scouts told me I would catch one day, and I was like, 'You don't know what you're talking about,'" Martin says. "I guess they did."
Martin played some hockey as a kid, but the old notion that Canadians are best on ice no longer applies. Larry Walker has retired, and Matt Stairs and Rheal Cormier are nearing the end. But Canada smoked the United States in the World Baseball Classic, and Jason Bay, Justin Morneau, Jeff Francis, Erik Bedard, Adam Loewen and Martin are among the young players leading an impressive new wave.
Martin dresses side by side in the Los Angeles clubhouse with Eric Gagne, a fellow alumnus of Polyvalente Edouard-Montpetit High School in Montreal. Gagne is coming off elbow and back injuries, and his future with the organization is in doubt. As for the catcher, check back in 10 years.
"When I look at what he's done, it's amazing," Big Russ says. "But I'm getting used to it. He's found his place."
Like Ned Colletti says, a ballplayer has a chance to write his own life story. Russell Martin's is off to a pretty nice start.
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