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Dodgers' Russell Martin finds new purpose through relationship

T.J. SIMERS

Catcher says he is able to refocus on his career thanks in part to girlfriend Marikym.

April 12, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

FROM PHOENIX — You probably know the macho Russell Martin, the Dodgers' catcher who made it sound as if he could work every game and, sure, bring on the doubleheaders.

But right now the tough guy is sitting in Starbucks, sipping green tea, talking yoga, the last chick flick he's seen, "He's Just Not That Into You," he says, and "not bad," while also making a note to himself, the scruffy beard must go.

"I like looking good for my lady," Martin says, no need to explain who picks out the movies when they are together.

It's early morning, and Martin is not torn up or still wasted from the night before. No bleary eyes, no headache. Fact is, he's feeling pretty darn spry.

"Life is good," he proclaims, mom and dad well, and as for his girlfriend -- sister to Eric Gagne's wife -- "I'm in paradise right now because of her."

Eight hours later he's standing at second base, his two-run double helping the cause, a promising comeback of sorts for both the Dodgers and Martin.

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IT SEEMS longer, Martin an entrenched Dodger seemingly forever and two-time All-Star, yet it won't be three years in L.A. for Martin until this May. The Dodgers had Dioner Navarro as starting catcher when the '06 season began -- Martin in Las Vegas.

In less than a year he became a rock for the Dodgers, the younger players gravitating toward him as their leader since he had already arrived as a big leaguer, Manager Grady Little gushing about his toughness and the intense makeup that made him so dependable.

Last year, though, as someone here now puts it, he was just another guy wearing catcher's gear. When Joe Torre & Co. took over, too often the question was the same: "What happened to the guy we heard so much about?"

He was young, making good money, working a job with almost twice as many lows as highs and toasting with regularity the good life in L.A., which provides all kinds of opportunities for those in no rush to call it a night.

"I was having a couple drinks to help me go to bed at night, and it became a vicious cycle," he says. "This whole L.A. thing, well, you've got young guys like Clayton Kershaw, and it's like they're immune to it. But I wasn't one of those guys.

"I liked having a good time when I was a kid, and now that I'm 26, I was having a good time, but I wasn't recovering like I'd like to recover. I thought going out with the guys, listening to music and having a few drinks -- that was fine for me.

"I thought I could tell myself, 'I'm feeling pretty good,' and everything will be OK when I get to the yard even though I was really feeling banged up. I was lying to myself."

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HE'S WORRIED for a second between green tea sips this will sound as if he has a drinking problem, his own candor doing him in when his only intention is to let everyone know he's feeling better today with the plan of feeling the same tomorrow.

He knows the "vicious cycle," as he calls it, stretched him thin and left him less effective at times when everyone else in Dodger blue needed him at his best.

"I let my ego get the best of me at times," he says, explaining why he was still telling everyone he wasn't worn down. "I was giving everything I had in every game, but after the game I needed to depress and go out. That's how I handled it, and as the season went on, I just didn't have the energy."

So much changed the last few months. As evidence, his demeanor is more buoyant, his body a little different, six or seven pounds left behind and more bounce to his step, jumping off his chair at one point when the music turns.

"This is one of my dad's favorite songs," he says with excitement. "John Coltrane. It's from a Spike Lee movie. Anyway, it's just good."

Everything is good now, he says with enthusiasm, which gets him talking about his girlfriend, Marikym, former model, singer and future award-winning chef.

"I was in high school getting on the Metro when I saw her picture on a billboard," Martin says. "I remember thinking, 'That girl is beautiful.' "

Two years later he learns they're going to be at the same party, so he vows to talk with her, too nervous when she arrives, though, to go near her. Yeah, the rough and tough catcher.

Four or five years later they get together again, but split, Martin's candor at work again. "I wasn't over the whole L.A. thing," he admits, the party animal needing another year to lose himself.

"She makes me just a happier person," he says. "Luckily, she was still there."

The same can be said of his job, the drop off noticeable, but the Dodgers' hope now they have the same 17th-round draft choice who bypassed so many with more promise by outworking them all.

"Last year I only saw glimpses now and then of what had made him special and got him here," GM Ned Colletti says. "Before last year, I saw it all the time."

The change in him is evident again, Torre noticing his early arrival to the park for work, Colletti calling him more easy-going and impressed by Martin's willingness to reach out in the off-season to Torre, owner Frank McCourt and himself.

"I see someone more focused now," Colletti says.

Same old Martin when it comes to wanting to win, the catcher says, but more likely now to stay home, watch the girlfriend's movie of choice and then show up early to the park as he did Friday, although scheduled to have the game off.

"I've learned so much by watching Manny [Ramirez]; he does everything the right way," Martin says. "He's the same guy in every at-bat, doing the same routine, so it doesn't matter who is pitching. He just puts so much into preparation, beginning early in the morning in the gym . . . "

And what were the chances Martin might've run into Ramirez in the gym last season?

"No chance," he says.

And this year?

Probably depends if the girlfriend wants the rough and tough catcher to join her.

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t.j.simers@latimes.com

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