And now he's hitting .249.
He gets his sleep, eats like a grown-up.
And now he's slugging .303.
He found a nice girl, goes home to her every night, couldn't be happier.
And now Joe Torre has to bat him eighth.
He's calling games and receiving the ball as well as ever, leading a pitching staff that has no business leading the league in ERA, but does.
And now he's an offensive black hole. Among the darkest in the league, really.
Don Mattingly asks him to keep his weight back and trust his hands again, and believes it's coming. And Torre tells him in the meantime it's enough to be the starting catcher for the team with the best record in the game, that there's plenty of value in that.
“But, still,” Martin says.
But, still, the man was an All-Star. Was a Silver Slugger. Hit 19 home runs one year.
Was a threat.
Then he spent the past year, 145 games now, batting .257 with an OPS under .700, reserve middle-infielder numbers. He spent the past month batting .200. He hadn't hit a home run since September when he finally connected Saturday night against Jered Weaver. The baseball has spent the entire season in on his hands, on the last couple inches of his bat, fastballs on him faster than they should be.
A slump lasts a couple weeks. A month. Two, at the outside.
This, well, this kind of thing becomes a thread in your DNA.
“Right now?” Martin repeated, forcing a thin smile. “I'm happy that we're in first place and that we're playing well. On the other hand, I want to do more to help this team. I mean, you can't win too much.”
Scouts watch him and put down their pencils. Who is this guy? Managers pitch around other Dodgers to get to him. He is where their lineup goes soft.
Mattingly stays on his swing, careful not to overwork him, considerate of his legs. Torre stays in his ear, tells him to tend to the pitchers, to his other job, the more important side of the game.
Martin shakes his head and trudges on. He wants to believe them. He wants to know when they're going to be right.
“It's tough, really tough,” Martin said. “But, it's about faith. I gotta keep believing in myself. It's a true test, you know? That's what it's been. And I feel like I've made every right move.”
Yeah, at 26, he is by appearances living right again, after a year in which the organization wondered when it was going to get its darling ballplayer back. The Dodgers suspected he'd been seduced by L.A.-after-dark, maybe not unexpected considering he'd spent five years behind a catcher's mask thinking about nothing but that. And they feared he'd fallen for his own numbers instead of being the kid who'd played the game exactly right or died trying.
“Where is that guy?” a Dodgers official asked last August.
The spring, however, brought a new Martin, which more closely resembled the old Martin. He'd spoken to Torre once a week all winter. He'd renewed his commitment to learning and guiding the pitching staff. His offense had fallen off in the second half of 2008, and that was going to change, too.
The results are mixed. Dodgers pitchers love him. So do everyone else's.
He shows almost no power from a body that scouts say is noticeably leaner. His swing is still big. He can still manipulate the bat when the situation calls for it. He went hundreds of at-bats without driving the ball, and at a time when that sort of overnight weakness draws long, heavy sighs.
“He's not the explosive player he once was,” one scout said. “He's still athletic, one of the more athletic catchers in the game. He's still throwing the ball well. I still like him, and maybe part of that is an indictment on the talent pool of catching. But I still like him.”
Torre, who remains a catcher at heart, would love for Martin to hit. But, in the meantime, he'll take the catcher, and wishes Martin would too.
“I hope,” he said, “that's enough for him.”
It's really not.
“There's no way in the world Russell Martin hasn't had a major impact on the success of that club with what he's done defensively,” said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who knows a little something about having your mitt carry your career.
Anymore, maybe that is who Martin is – a good catcher who for a short period of time could hit a little.
He's not ready to believe that yet.
“I'm happy,” he said. “I'm healthy. I feel good when I wake up every day. My body feels good, better than it ever has at this point. Mentally I've stayed strong. I've never caved in. I won't.”
He's done it before. He's hit. He wants to believe it's still in there.
But, still …
- Joe Torre
- Russell Martin