Martin a pioneer for Dodgers catchers
Unlike past stars, youngster calling playoff games as rookie
LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers have had their share of terrific catchers over the years, though none quite like their current one, Russell Martin.There was Roy Campanella in the 1940s and '50s, winning three Most Valuable Player Awards and participating in eight All-Star Games before an automobile accident cut short his career. Then along came John Roseboro, a four-time All-Star who caught Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale during the glorious '60s. Steve Yeager was the main man behind the plate in the '70s, when the Dodgers were in the playoffs six times -- including four appearances in the World Series. The '80s belonged to two-time All-Star Mike Scioscia, and the '90s featured Mike Piazza, an All-Star in four of his five seasons with the team. But none of them did what Martin is doing right now -- handling the bulk of the playoff catching duties as a rookie. It took Campy, Roseboro and Scioscia two seasons before they experienced the postseason for the first time. Yeager needed three years, and Piazza was a four-year Major League vet before playing his first playoff game. Martin beat them all to the postseason, riding the fast track to the Majors after becoming a full-time catcher three years ago. He was drafted as a third baseman in the 17th round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft out of Canada and became a catcher prior to the '04 season. "Three years seems like a long time ago," Martin said. The first pitch Dodgers starter Greg Maddux throws Saturday afternoon in Game 3 of the best-of-five National League Division Series against the New York Mets at Dodger Stadium will be determined by the sign he gets from the 23-year-old Martin. The Dodgers must win three straight to extend their season. "I saw him for the first time in Spring Training and knew he would be with us before the season was over," first-year Dodgers manager Grady Little said. "He just got here a little sooner than we expected." Martin arrived from Triple-A Las Vegas on May 5 -- the day after starting catcher Dioner Navarro fractured his right wrist -- and batted .282, hit 10 home runs, drove in 65 runs and stole 10 bases, becoming only the third catcher in Major League history to reach double digits in home runs and stolen bases in his rookie season. Roseboro and Benito Santiago are the others. "He has taken on the responsibility and role of a Major League catcher and is going to be great at that position for a long time," Little said. "It's hard to believe that he's been catching for just three years."
Double-threat rookie backstops
Martin caught on immediately when he joined the Dodgers, who compiled a 71-43 regular-season record when he started behind the plate."Most of us had in our minds [in March] that because he had limited experience behind the plate, and none higher than Double-A, it would be best to start him at Triple-A this season," Little said. "But the door opened here and he crashed through it. He will be here for a long time." So far, Martin has been the complete package. He hits for average, has power and runs well for a catcher. He also calls a superb game, blocks pitches in the dirt extremely well, and has a strong arm, helping him throw out 26 percent (25-of-96) of the runners attempting to steal. Put a bat in his hand and he'll focus on hitting. Put a mask, chest protector and shin guards on him and he'll give his undivided attention to defense. "One of his best assets," Little said, "is that he never takes his offense behind the plate with him and vice versa. He keeps his offense and defense separated, and he does pretty good at both ... real good." Gaining the confidence of the pitchers can be the most difficult chore for a young catcher. It usually takes more than a year to build that confidence. But the working relationship has been solid from the outset.
"Russ is very mature for his age," veteran right-hander Brett Tomko said. "He takes his craft very seriously and is dedicated to doing his best. He's well-rounded in everything, which is pretty amazing considering how new he is to catching."The thing I like about it is not so much what he does receiving the pitch or blocking the ball," Tomko added, "but it's the process he goes through to get ready for a game. He is well prepared and willing to make adjustments during the game. He's willing to listen to the pitchers, but at the same time not afraid to make suggestions." Tomko said he became a big Martin backer during Spring Training in Vero Beach, Fla. "I threw to him quite a bit in my Spring Training starts and could tell right away that he had a good idea what he was doing behind the plate," Tomko said. "He listens to the pitchers, pays attention to the pitchers and works the game. That's saying something for a 23-year-old in the big leagues for the first time." While those around him praise the dickens out of him, Martin realizes that he's still in the early stages of what could be a fantastic Major League career. "I feel I have come a long way," he said, "but I still have a long way to go."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.