At 24, Martin 'poised beyond his years'

Originally Published: June 25, 2007
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- When asked recently about the toughness of his young catcher, Dodgers manager Grady Little compared him to an older man who enters a hospital with tightness in his chest and is told by the doctor that he'd just suffered a minor heart attack. Actually, the doctor says, there were probably two or three before that, but the old man never knew it because he ignored the pain.

Little sees that stubborn, pain-resistant older man behind the plate in Los Angeles. His 24-year-old catcher, Russell Martin, plays the game in a young man's body but with an old man's brain. And he plays it at high speed, always with intensity and unflinchingly hard.

"Russell is the type of kid that when he gets in the older phase of his life he may break a bone in his arm or something," Little says, "and some doctor will tell him that this thing has been broken four times before. And Russell maybe never knew it.

"I'm telling you, this kid is tough. We keep our fingers crossed every day about his health and his ability to continue to play."

Because of his play, in just his second year, Martin already is considered a leader by most of his team. And he's leading National League catchers in most offensive categories while handling a staff full of veterans, en route to what Martin and the Dodgers hope is his first All-Star Game.

"No question," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti says when asked whether Martin is a leader. "I see him like I used to see Mike Scioscia when he caught here. You knew that Mike Scioscia was a guy who can lead a club, maybe there's a similarity in that."

Russell Martin
Jeff Lewis/AP PhotoIn just his second season in the majors, Russell Martin has already made a name for himself.
The Dodgers catching lineage is a proud and traditional one: Roy Campanella, Steve Yeager, Scioscia, Mike Piazza and now Martin. Scioscia, a first-round pick of the Dodgers in 1976, spent his entire 13-year career behind the plate for L.A. and was known for his leadership.

"I know the first speech I had when I was 17," says Scioscia, who now manages down the freeway for the Angels. "There are catchers, and there are Dodger catchers."

Dodgers catchers, Scioscia was taught, were expected to emphasize defense. They also were leaders, and when Scioscia broke into the big leagues in 1980, he knew what was expected of him. Now he watches Martin from across the diamond and already sees the passion and confidence. He says players and people in the game have told him that Martin is a winner, that hard-to-attain label carries a lot of weight.

"I was lucky, I was schooled in an environment where you were expected to speak up, you were expected to give your opinion," Scioscia says. "It seems like it's the same for the Dodgers now because Russell gives that impression that he's going to lead. You need that; you need that presence behind the plate."

Martin, who is fairly soft-spoken off the field, laughs at first when asked if he's a leader.

"I guess so, I take care of the pitchers and they trust me," he says. "I don't like thinking I'm a leader. I like going out on the field and playing hard and just going out there and leading by example."

Martin, whose parents divorced when he was 2, grew up in two different countries -- splitting time between France and Canada -- speaking two languages. The frequent moves forced him to make and lose friends quickly. Martin, though, was a survivor, living with little money as his father worked as a street musician to feed his son. Russell Martin Sr. would play the saxophone in the train stations in Montreal, and then take Russ Jr. to the park for picnics as often as possible so they could play baseball. He even gave his son the middle name Coltrane, inspired by jazz legend John Coltrane.

"If it weren't for him, there's no way I'd be here," Russ Jr. says of his father.

Russ Sr. even helped his son play baseball in the States; his call to the coach of Chipola Junior College in Florida resulted in Martin's having a two-year career there as a third baseman. While there, Martin drew the attention of Dodgers scout Clarence Johnson and was drafted in the 17th round in 2002. He was converted into a catcher soon thereafter.

Martin quickly progressed through the system, consistently topping the best prospects list until his call up last May, when Dioner Navarro was hurt and the Dodgers were in a state of flux.

"He's poised beyond his years," a veteran scout says. "He can call a game, his defense is very good. And what we're always looking for is bat speed, length of swing. He's got a short, compact swing, and the ability to hit to all fields. And he's not sitting in. To me, that's a sign not just that he's a good hitter now, it's a sign that he'll be a good hitter down the road."

Martin's impact last year was felt instantly; the kid could hit and he could call a game. His energy -- both on the field and in the dugout -- was infectious. But there was something inconsistent, some of his teammates felt.

"The hard part for any young player, especially catcher, is to come in and tell people what to do," pitcher Derek Lowe says.

So on an August night last year in Cincinnati, six teammates, a manager and their soon-to-emerge leader lingered after a team dinner. The group of veterans told Martin that they sensed at times he was being timid. On a team full of veterans and potential Hall of Famers, no one was willing to lead, but everyone could see that the player who was born to do it just needed a little encouragement.

I have a great sense of calm and confidence when he's in the game or at the plate. I don't think he gets distracted by the unknown. A lot of people get distracted by what they don't know. I think he has enough confidence in who he is and his abilities to play.

Dodgers GM Ned Colletti on Russell Martin

"Listen you're going to be here for a long time," Lowe said they told Martin. "You're a leader of this team. We need you to step up and be vocal and take control of the pitching staff."

After the talk, the players could see Martin asserting himself more often; instead of letting a pitcher shake him off and throw the wrong pitch, Martin would be firm and tell a pitcher what to throw, and sometimes wouldn't leave the mound until the pitcher agreed.

"They kind of gave me the green light and said this is your team and don't be shy," Martin says. "I think it helped out. I felt more comfortable."

And coming into spring training this year, knowing the job was his, Martin took off.

"I have a great sense of calm and confidence when he's in the game or at the plate," Colletti says. "I don't think he gets distracted by the unknown. A lot of people get distracted by what they don't know. I think he has enough confidence in who he is and his abilities to play."

Martin may act like a 24-year-old off the field -- "Entourage" is his favorite show and he recently was named one of America's top 100 bachelors by "Extra!" -- but his play is throwback. Lowe said Martin's hard-nosed style reminded him of Pete Rose, and Little referred to Jason Varitek, the Red Sox's backstop and team captain .

"Varitek was so focused that if you got in his path, all a sudden you became part of the path," Little says. "And Russell is the same way. You don't get in this kid's way when he takes off to do something, he's going to do it."

When Martin's name was recently mentioned to one National League talent evaluator, he responded with a short, simple line: "Martin is very, very, very good."

But, why?

"He does everything well and plays his [butt] off."

The Dodgers couldn't agree more.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com.