A rising star, catching

SAN FRANCISCO – Russell Martin has always had an eye for design. And crouched behind home plate, privileged with the best possible view of a baseball field, he appreciates the impeccable symmetry, faultless dimensions and clarity of color.

When Martin was four, he'd pick out clothes for his mom to wear. "I leaned toward drab, and he pushed me into vibrant," she says.

As a minor leaguer swiftly ascending the Los Angeles Dodgers' farm system, Martin spent an off-season living with the family of scouting director Logan White. It took only a few days before Martin was telling White how to rearrange his furniture, that the piano should go over here, the television there, the couch against that wall.

"It cost me $20,000 to get it the way he wanted," White says.

Martin, who will start behind the plate for the National League in Tuesday's All-Star Game, is unrepentant in foisting his opinions on those close to him. Nobody minds much because he is so pleasant about it. And he's usually right.

"Logan had no idea how to utilize his space," Martin says, recalling the episode with an impish grin. "I had some ideas and mentioned them in a nice way. He knows it looked better after I was done."

Martin's latest take-charge effort involves Dodgers pitchers. He calms Randy Wolf, loosens Jonathan Broxton and lights a fire under Mark Hendrickson. Brad Penny made a mental mistake in his most recent start, telling shortstop Rafael Furcal that he'd be throwing to him on a comebacker with the bases loaded and one out. Martin leaped in front of home plate and yelled, "No, no. You come here with it," reminding Penny that a home-to-first double play was in order.

"He wouldn't have done that a year ago," Penny says.

Martin's maturation has been remarkable to behold, like watching a rock become a gemstone through time-lapse photography. Despite having only a few weeks' experience in Triple-A, he was handed the Dodgers' starting job in May 2006 because of an injury to another young catcher, Dioner Navarro, and never gave it back. Navarro soon was traded and Martin is loath to budge from the lineup.

"I never admit I'm tired," he says. "I could feel like I'm going to die and I'd tell them I'm fine."

So manager Grady Little doesn't ask anymore. He pencils backup Mike Lieberthal into the lineup occasionally – very occasionally. "I like it when that kid is on the field," Little says of Martin. "Good things happen."

Martin has appeared in 85 of 89 games this season and in 205 of 223 since he broke in last season. The Dodgers are 119-75 when he starts, a winning percentage of .613. He leads NL catchers in nearly every meaningful statistic, and has one more home run (11) and only five fewer RBIs (60) than he did all last season.

Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti challenged Martin before the season, asking him whether he wanted to be good – or great. Martin was too humble to tell him what his goals really are.

"He wants to be the greatest catcher ever, a Hall-of-Famer," White says.

Martin allows only this: "I want to win. I want the Dodgers to win a World Series championship. That's what gets me going every day. Winning."

No wonder Martin received nearly 300,000 more All-Star votes than runner-up Paul Lo Duca of the New York Mets. He has rearranged the pecking order of NL catchers like furniture, bolting to the top of the list in his second season, gaining the respect of opponents and the gratitude of teammates.

Dodgers left fielder Luis Gonzalez, a 15-year veteran, asked Martin recently if his back was sore. Martin gave him a quizzical look.

"You've been carrying us for a week," Gonzalez said to him.

It begins with the way he carries himself. Martin's energy is boundless, his mood relentlessly upbeat.

"I'm sure I'll have a bad day along the way," he says. "But I try to be the same every day. There's a lot to feel good about.

"My mom's the same way. She's always smiling, always in a good mood. I guess that's where I get my demeanor. I get it from her."

Martin's relationship with his father has been frequently told. Russell Martin Sr. was a street musician in Montreal, playing the saxophone in the subway before and after spending afternoons at the park with his son, where they invented fun drills that helped the young ballplayer learn to hit to all fields, throw accurately and block pitches in the dirt.

Yet Martin spent as much time with his mother, Susanne Jeanson, who lives near Ottawa, more than 200 miles from her ex-husband. In fact, Martin attended two years of elementary school in Paris with his mother before convincing her that he needed to return to Canada to play baseball. They moved back.

"Living in Paris opened him up to other cultures, not just French, but there were immigrants from many countries there," Jeanson says. "His closest friend was Franco-Japanese. When I see Russell talking at the mound to (Dodgers closer Takashi) Saito, it reminds me of that friend."

Baseball runs a distant second to hockey in Canada, yet Martin's love for the game only grew. His mother encouraged him, but not until he begged her to come to a youth tournament in Quebec did she fully grasp his potential.

"He told me I had to go," she says. "He wasn't convinced that I was convinced that he was a good player. I went and was impressed by the way others reacted to him.

"But some of it I found quite disturbing. Everybody recruited him. He was maybe 13, and they wanted me to sign papers committing him to their teams. I refused categorically."

After one year of junior college, Martin was drafted in the 17th round by the Dodgers in 2002 and offered $40,000 to sign. Jeanson balked, telling her son that she wanted him to finish college first.

"My ambition was that he be educated. That was very important to me," she says. "When I told this to Russell, I saw his energy go down, he wasn't the same happy fellow. I changed my mind and said for him to do what his instinct and intuition told him.

"Russell couldn't touch the ground, he was so happy."

The Dodgers soon converted Martin from third base to catcher and he picked up the new position quickly. Scouts marvel at his soft hands and athleticism blocking pitches, and Dodgers third base coach Rich Donnelly is amazed by his baserunning ability.

"He's probably the best baserunner I've ever seen, period," Donnelly says. "He knows which pitchers are slow to the plate. He anticipates what pitch is going to be thrown."

Martin's 16 stolen bases this season already is a Dodgers record for catchers, and is over three times more than any other backstop.

"He plays like Pete Rose," Little says.

Such intensity can have a downside. A catcher can't be angry with himself for a bad at-bat because he must focus on calling a smart game and keeping his pitcher focused.

"A year ago, if he struck out to end an inning, he'd pout and throw the ball to second base 900 mph after the warm-up pitches," Donnelly says. "He's real tough on himself, but he's getting better about it."

Off the field Martin conducts himself with the easygoing grace of a European diplomat. He dresses stylishly, enjoys fine dining and is suave enough to have been named by "Extra" as one of "America's most eligible bachelors."

He lives in a downtown Los Angeles apartment, a corner unit with a huge window overlooking the city. It's like the view from behind home plate at Dodger Stadium, expansive and breathtaking. It's his team and it's becoming his city. The possibilities are endless.

As for the interior decorating, well, what would one expect?

"He has nice paintings on the walls and everything is impeccable," says outfielder Andre Ethier, Martin's closest friend on the Dodgers. "He does have a flair for it, I have to admit."

Several time zones away, his mother hopes the attention doesn't change him.

"I don't want him to lose himself in the clamor and celebration," she says, "and hope he keeps his chin on the ground."

No worries, mom.

"You never know the lives you are going to touch," Martin says. "One kid, one person who comes to that particular game wants to see you at your best. So you play every day. And you play hard."

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