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Backstop backbones

Martin belongs among game's top young catchers

Posted: Wednesday May 9, 2007 11:48AM; Updated: Wednesday May 9, 2007 12:41PM
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Only in his second season, Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Russell Martin has asserted himself as a team leader.
Only in his second season, Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Russell Martin has asserted himself as a team leader.
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It wasn't long after Russell Martin first strapped on the shin guards for his Major League debut last May that the Dodgers found out just what they had in their new kid-faced catcher.

Some say it became evident in the very first game, at Dodger Stadium, when Martin lined a two-run double into right field in his second big-league at-bat, then stuffed Milwaukee's Corey Koskie on a play at the plate a couple of innings later.

Some remember his mound showdown with Dodgers pitcher Derek Lowe later in the year, when Martin told his overheated starter, in words maybe not this nice, that he wasn't leaving until he calmed the heck down.

Still others tell the story of a dugout dressing-down he gave an infielder who was a little tardy covering the bag for an on-a-rope throw down to second base. All of those instances proved eye-opening to people in Los Angeles -- if not elsewhere, still -- especially considering that they came from an otherwise unassuming 23-year-old who was drafted as an infielder.

"He," Dodgers manager Grady Little says of his catcher, in the loftiest of baseball terms, "is a dirtbag."

And then, after showing a sly smile, Little explains in his gravelly voice: "He's a baseball player."

Martin, in just about every way, is to the Dodgers exactly what Joe Mauer is to the Twins and what Brian McCann is to the Braves. They are the three best young catchers in baseball, all dangerous hitters, all considered at least pretty good behind the plate (and probably more than that), all critical parts of their teams' futures. And all under 25, too.

Mauer and McCann are well known, All-Stars already with long contract extensions in hand. And Martin?

He's not there yet. But he will be. Nobody doubts it for a second.

"The guy," Little says, this time in his most deadly serious monotone, "has a chance to be great."

It's hard to say why Martin, who turned 24 in February, hasn't gained quite the recognition that McCann, 23, and Mauer, 24, have earned. Playing most of his games past prime time on the East Coast can't help. He wasn't a high draft choice like the other two. He hasn't played in quite as many games as Mauer or McCann, though it's close. He doesn't have the batting title that Mauer earned last season or the power than McCann flashed last season.

But what he has -- the presence behind the plate, the clubhouse leadership, the ability to hit and get on base (he posted a .355 OBP as a rookie in '06 and has a .398 clip going so far this year), the knack for hitting when it counts (he has a .321 career average with runners in scoring position) and the skill to run the bases unlike many catchers -- is comparable to the other two. And in some aspects of the game, Martin is undoubtedly better.

Just being mentioned with Mauer and McCann, though, is plenty good enough for Martin. At least for the time being.

"They're extremely talented men who like to play the game, and they play hard. I consider myself one of those guys, too," Martin said recently. "Those guys both compete. They wanna win. They're both All-Stars, aren't they? That's cool. I'd like to be there one day, too."

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