LOS ANGELES – Standing near his locker in the Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse, Russell Martin popped open a Red Bull and raised the can to his lips. He took two long gulps just before the team's workout Friday – despite the potential side effects.
Seems Martin, the Dodgers' rookie catcher, needs no caffeine when he takes the baseball field. Especially in the estimation of Jon Debus, the club's roving catching instructor.
"He used to tell me I played like my hair was on fire," Martin said.
Down 2-0 to the New York Mets, and on the verge of elimination in the National League Division Series, the Dodgers are in desperate need of a jolt. Martin could provide it with his glove, his arm, his bat or, well, his attitude. Despite his noted fire, he also has proved capable of putting them out.
During his major-league debut, when most rookies would have been busy trying to calm themselves, Martin strode to the mound to calm starting pitcher Derek Lowe.
"Relax, bro," Martin remembers saying.
Lowe, 33, scowled at the 23-year-old catcher.
Martin held his ground.
"I'm not leaving until you've calmed down," he said.
"All right, all right. I'm good," Martin recalled the pitcher saying before Martin turned around, trotted back toward home plate and thought to himself, 'God, I can't believe I just told Derek Lowe that.' "
Unusual behavior for a 23-year-old catcher?
"It'd be unusual for a 30-year-old to have the strength to do that," said Dan Warthen, the Dodgers bullpen coach. "The starting pitchers, which are mostly veterans, have felt very comfortable with him. And he's jumped their butts on occasion.
"He has no fear."
At least none of steep climbs.
In July 2004, when the Dodgers traded All-Star catcher Paul Lo Duca – now playing for the Mets – Martin was with the Class A affiliate in Vero Beach, Fla. Now he's a candidate for National League Rookie of the Year and one of the team's most dependable players.
Valued for his defensive skills, Martin has provided a big bonus – a .282 batting average with 10 home runs and 65 RBIs during just 121 games during the regular season. Just as impressive, the Dodgers entered the postseason 71-43 in games Martin started behind the plate and 17-31 in the others.
"It's an unbelievable story," said Kim Ng, the club's assistant general manager.
The plot twist came early.
In the spring of 2002, Dodgers scout Clarence Johnson arrived at Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., to check out the starting catcher. It wasn't Russell Martin, but rather Clay Wehner, whom the Dodgers had drafted out of high school.
Johns was unimpressed. But after watching a few games, he took an interest in the team's third baseman.
He was a sturdy kid who possessed a strong arm and great defensive skills but lacked the requisite power to play the position at the major-league level. A kid who grew up splitting time in Montreal with his father and in Paris with his mother. A kid who arrived at Chipola in 2001 as part of a package deal with two other more coveted Canadian players.
Yep, Russell Martin.
Maybe, Johns thought, the kid could make it to the big leagues as a catcher. And without so much as asking …
During one of Chipola's practices, Wehner needed a water break and Martin moved behind the plate. Instead of a fill-in, he looked like the regular catcher. "Holy cow," Johns said he remembers thinking. He glanced around the field to see if any other scouts were watching, then looked at Chipola's coach and pressed his index fingers to his lips.
Martin moved back to third base, but Johns kept watching Chipola's games and discovered something else about Martin. Something special. It was a combination of desire, demeanor, discipline and determination.
"Makeup," the scouts called it, and it couldn't be measured by statistics, a stopwatch or a speed gun. So when Johns sat down to write his first scouting report on Martin, he included an addendum.
"If I had a daughter, I'd want this guy to marry her."
But he still had to convince the parent club.
Every year before the draft, Dodgers scouts were asked for a "gut-feel guy," a player who lacked the raw talent of a high-round pick but possessed intangibles that could propel him to the major leagues. In 2002 draft, the Dodgers followed Johns' gut and in the 17th round drafted Martin. Instead of accepting a scholarship to North Carolina State, Martin signed with the Dodgers for a relatively paltry $40,000.
One hitch in the plan: When Martin reported for rookie league, Bill Bavasi, the team's director of player development, liked what he saw of Martin at third base. But Debus, the club's roving catching instructor, loved what he saw when Martin moved behind the plate.
Debus won out, and the conversion commenced.
In 2003, Martin played so well with the team's low Class A club in Ogden, Utah, that he leapfrogged a catcher the Dodgers had picked in the second round. He advanced to Vero Beach, the club's top Class A affiliate.
That next spring, the Dodgers honored Johns as their Scout of the Year. When Johns came down to accept the award, as a show of gratitude, he took Martin and five other players he had signed for the Dodgers to dinner at a steakhouse.
Knowing Johns would be paying, the players ordered as if it might be their last meal. There barely was enough room for all the plates, what with the appetizers, entrees and desserts. When the waitress finally brought the bill, Johns dug into his wallet for his credit card, and by the time he looked up, Martin had snatched the bill.
"I've got it, coach."
The bill was more than $200.
"No way, Russell," Johns replied, knowing that Russell had got the smallest signing bonus of any player at the table and the $40,000 must have been gone by then. "You can pay for it when you get to the major leagues."
"Thank you for giving me a chance," he said, pulling out his own credit card and paying for the meal.
Soon, Martin's tangible skills were catching up to the intangibles.
Next it was off to Vero Beach, where he led the club to a second-half championship and made the All-Star game. Ng was at the game and never will forget something she saw: Martin springing from a crouch, firing the ball to second base and easily throwing out the runner.
All around Ng, scouts were looking at their stopwatches in disbelief. "What do you got? What do you got?"
Someone clocked the throw from home to second in 1.88 seconds – much better than the two-second average for a major league catcher.
Ng called then Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta and suddenly Martin was on the "no-trade" list.
That July, the Dodgers sent Lo Duca to the Florida Marlins as part of a six-player trade that brought starting pitcher Brad Penny to Los Angeles. Soon after, the Dodgers traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks Koyie Hill, widely considered the club's top catching prospect – at least to those still unfamiliar with Martin.
The Dodgers later traded for Dioner Navarro, then the New York Yankees' top catching prospect, and he finished the 2005 season as Los Angeles' starter. But Ng said the Dodgers viewed Martin as their future catcher. The trick was convincing the new regime.
While Martin had put together another solid season with the Double-A team in Jacksonville, Fla., the big-league club had struggled. Out went DePodesta and manager Jim Tracy. In came general manager Ned Colletti and manager Grady Little. The new manager gathered his first full staff meeting last spring in Vero Beach last spring, and the group went over every single player in the organization. "Russell Martin," called out.
After a brief silence, the accolades came pouring in. Jerry Royster, the manager at Triple-A Las Vegas, was among those who said Martin could be better than Navarro, even though Navarro, a switch hitter, batted .273 in 50 games with the Dodgers at the end of the 2005 season.
"You could see on the faces of the new staff, they're going 'Oh, here we go. Here's some more hype for another player,' " Royster said.
Impressed with Martin's ability but unconvinced he was ready after spring training, the Dodgers sent him to Las Vegas. He stayed there for almost two months, and Royster said he vividly recalls one meeting in his office.
"What game do you want to take to the major leagues?" Royster asked. "If you get called up tomorrow, what game are you going to take up there."
"Hey, I'm ready," Martin said. "I'll be ready."
"That's not what I'm asking you," Royster said. "Do you like the game you're playing right now?"
"No, I'm not satisfied," Martin said. "But just watch. Just watch."
That night, in a tight game, Martin threw out runners in the sixth and seventh innings, tied the game with a sacrifice fly in the ninth and joined in the celebration when Las Vegas prevailed over Salt Lake City 4-3. Royster was shaking players' hands when he heard a familiar voice.
Royster turned around. It was Martin. The coach grinned.
"That was pretty good."
Two days later, after Navarro fractured his right wrist, Martin got the call he'd been waiting for. He was headed for the big leagues.
The night of his debut included the now-legendary mound visit with Derek Lowe. Other than that, all Martin did was go 2-for-4 with a double and two RBIs and block a play at the plate during the Dodgers' 4-3 victory over Milwaukee.
The Dodgers won five straight games. Debus, back in Florida, said he remembers seeing part of the game on TV and seeing Martin slide headfirst into home plate. At which point Debus shook his head in amazement and said to himself, "He's not coming back."
Martin hit .326 in June. He batted .311 in July. Martin tailed off some in August and September but committed only six errors and developed a reputation as a clutch hitter. He hit one of the four consecutive home runs for the Dodgers in the bottom of the ninth that forced a game with the San Diego Padres into extra innings. And when Nomar Garciaparra hit the game-winning home run in the 10th, and the Dodgers raced to home plate for the celebration, Martin jumped up and down as if he had just drained a case of Red Bull.
That night, Clarence Johns got calls from at least five fellow scouts with a report on his "gut guy."
"They said, 'We saw your boy celebrating like he'd won the World Series,' " Johns recalled.
Now, they're watching him in the postseason, and in a tight spot.
Saturday, with the Dodgers facing elimination, Martin will be behind the plate and future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux will be on the mound. Maddux, noted for poring over scouting reports, offered one on his battery mate.
"He sets up very well," Maddux said. "Great arm. Throws great. He's quick. He's athletic. He's very athletic for a catcher. He's a complete player. Good base runner. Swings the bat well. Hopefully he'll stay healthy and continue to fine tune his skills, and he'll play this game for a long time."
He might even play beyond Saturday this season if he can help light the Dodgers' fire.