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."
I talked to Martin just a few days after he caught every L.A. pitch -- all 215 of them -- in a 17-inning win over the Padres in San Diego that lasted four hours, 55 minutes. The day after that marathon, Little had to insist that his young catcher take a day off, though Martin claimed he was ready to go again. Nobody on the Dodgers thought otherwise.
Martin's dogged competitiveness has generated plenty of talk around the team. He will, according to one story making the rounds, keep calling for the same pitch even when his pitcher shakes him off repeatedly. "He forces you to throw pitches that maybe you don't want to throw," Lowe told a reporter last year. "For a young catcher, that's very impressive."
He has become such an integral part of the clubhouse culture in L.A. that one veteran observer of the team suggested that, if the Dodgers were to think about naming a captain in the near future, Martin might be the first choice. (The Dodgers have had five captains in their long history, none since Davey Lopes in 1979.) In a few years, as the team falls into the capable hands of youngsters such as Andre Ethier, Andy LaRoche and James Loney, Martin will be right in the middle of it all, a veteran yet to hit 30, a leader in the clubhouse and a player as capable behind the plate as he is next to it.
By that time, he might be as well known as Mauer and McCann, too. In his own way.
"I do whatever I can with what I have. I'm not like a power guy. Nothing like that," says Martin, who hit 10 homers in 121 games as a rookie and has two this year, including a walkoff grand slam. "I try to use my skills and make the best of them. I don't have great speed. But the speed I have I try to use it as well as I can. The same thing for the rest of my game. I just like to be different."
Here's a brief look at the game's three stud catchers under 25:
Russell Martin, 24, Dodgers Bats right, throws right 5-10, 210 pounds
Maybe the most important statistic to know about Martin is that the Dodgers won 16 of his first 18 starts, a mark that helped to convince the team to trade their former supposed star catcher, Dioner Navarro. Martin endeared himself to his pitchers right away, throwing out 31 percent of those attempting to steal last year. (Baseball Prospectus says the other L.A. catchers threw out just 13 percent.)
Born in Canada as the son of a Montreal street musician, Martin is the only right-handed swinger in this bunch. He's not as big as the other two. But he can hit to all fields, and he's absolute poison to lefties. He hit .366 against southpaws in his rookie season, with a .972 OPS. This year, it's .414/1.086. Overall, in his last 15 games, he's hitting .345 with a homer, a triple and seven doubles. He has a .977 OPS in that span.
Joe Mauer, 24, Twins Bats left, throws right 6-5, 220 pounds
In 2006, at 23, Mauer became the first catcher to win an American League batting crown and the youngest player at any position to win one since Alex Rodriguez did so in 1996, at 21. Mauer's season -- .347 with 13 homers and 36 doubles -- was no fluke. He was the first overall pick in the 2001 June draft and breezed through the minors (averaging .321 in three minor-league seasons). A knee injury knocked him out of all but 35 games of the 2004 season, but when he got back in 2005, he hit .294, with a .374 on-base percentage.
His sweet swing is praised for its balance, he hits equally well to all fields and he is renowned to have an extremely good hitting eye, especially for someone so young (79 walks, 54 strikeouts last year). He's also a very adept catcher, though some wonder if he'll stay there long with his size. Scouts expect his power numbers will go up as he matures, too, though the Twins like him just the way he is. Currently on the disabled list with a strained quadriceps muscle, Mauer is signed through 2010.
Brian McCann, 23, Braves Bats left, throws right 6-3, 210 pounds
If it weren't for a twisted ankle last May that robbed him of the required number of plate appearances he needed to vie for the batting title, McCann would have made a bigger splash on the national scene than he did. As it was, McCann hit .333 with 24 homers and 34 doubles, went to the All-Star Game, won the NL Silver Slugger at catcher and had a .961 OPS, the best for any catcher of any age in either league with at least 400 at-bats.
McCann is more of a pull hitter than the Twins' Mauer, and he strikes out a bit more. But he's demonstrated better power than Mauer; he had five more extra-base hits than his AL counterpart, in 79 fewer at-bats. He's not as polished defensively yet, but he's already a favorite of ace John Smoltz. He projects as a perennial high-average, 25-homer threat. He's signed through 2013.