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DODGERS

It's a new Russell Martin

After more communication with Joe Torre, catcher says he is willing to take days off.

March 01, 2009|Dylan Hernandez

PHOENIX — Looking down at the clubhouse carpet, Russell Martin repeatedly nodded his head.

"At this point," Martin said, "I'm going to let him work his magic."

Umm . . . Who are you? And what did you do with Russell Martin?

This couldn't be the same restless kid who did whatever he could to talk his way out of days off last season and played 155 games, could it?

But there was Martin, seated in front of his locker, nodding in agreement when told of Manager Joe Torre's desire to limit him to 140 games behind the plate this season.

A similar conversation last spring led to some interesting dialogue between catcher and manager for newspapers to play out on their pages for a couple of days. Based on what Martin has said so far, there probably won't be any of that this spring.

"I'll make sure I communicate with him when I don't feel too good," Martin said.

C'mon, could you really be honest with him?

"Now I can be," he said. "Before I just lied to myself even if I didn't feel good. I was just hardheaded, saying I was ready to play 162 games. You just lose that edge, you lose that explosiveness, you know? A day off can do a lot further down the road."

From the time Martin showed up in Los Angeles in February to be part of the Dodgers' community caravan, something was clearly different about him.

The player who, in third base coach Larry Bowa's words, used to squeeze the sawdust out of his bat looked relaxed. He sounded calm. Asked whether he was smoking something to settle his nerves, he laughed and offered another explanation for his newfound tranquillity: "I feel I know who I am more than ever. I'm not trying to be anyone but myself."

Torre says he has noticed a change.

"He just seems very upbeat," Torre said. "He seems to be in a real good place."

This new version of Martin says he has come to like his role as the team's player representative, which he took reluctantly last year when Scott Proctor had to be replaced. He hired a new agent and has said he would be open to signing a multiyear deal with the Dodgers that would let them buy out his arbitration years, something he wasn't open to a year ago. Yoga has become a part of his off-season regimen.

"For me, it's been an off-season of a lot of personal changes," he said.

No change more important than his new live-in girlfriend, a model from his home province of Quebec, Canada.

"She's helped me with a lot of things," he said. "I'm just trying to learn things. That's the ultimate goal. How to treat people. To try to realize stuff before it's too late."

Failing to realize things before it was too late happened plenty of times last season, he acknowledged.

When he didn't hit, he said, he became overly frustrated. Sometimes he let a bad at-bat affect his defense. His game-calling was called into question, enough so that the Dodgers made an inquiry this winter into the availability of free-agent catcher Jason Varitek.

"He was fighting himself a lot," said Torre, who believed that Martin's mentality was getting in the way of his being the .320 hitter he thought he could be.

Last season, Martin's numbers went down in almost every offensive category from 2007: batting average (.293 to .280), home runs (19 to 13), runs batted in (87 to 69), stolen bases (21 to 18) and slugging percentage (.469 to .396).

His defense also suffered. He threw out only 22.1% of potential base-stealers, down from 28.7% the previous year.

"I used to put a lot of pressure on myself," he said. "At times, it was frustrating."

Randy Wolf, who was picked up by the Dodgers this winter, said he saw that side of Martin in his first go-around with the club in 2007.

"He has a very strong desire to win," Wolf said. "I think sometimes it was untamable."

Martin unleashed that frustration one day late last season at Dodger Stadium. He didn't run out a routine fly ball, costing him a chance to take two bases when the ball dropped. When Torre reminded him of his mistake, Martin snapped.

"I was kind of sensitive at that point," he said. "I wasn't feeling that good. My left knee was kind of bothering me, and I was picking my times when to run. I blew up for no reason."

Torre told him that he couldn't read his mind, that if he was hurting, he had to say something.

"Communicate," Torre told him.

He did.

When he called Torre over the winter to talk about the season, the manager suggested they speak every other week. A routine was started. They talked about baseball. They talked about life.

They even spoke when Torre was vacationing in Australia, as Martin tracked down his manager in his hotel room.

"I was impressed," Torre said.

Martin said he was expecting a call from Torre that day and figured it was his manager's call that he missed when he saw a 10-digit number he didn't recognize on his caller ID. Martin dialed back, not knowing where in the world he was calling.

"It probably cost me $22 a minute," Martin said, laughing.

The conversations served their purpose. Martin reported to camp with what he described as a broader view of baseball.

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