The Backstop of Notre-Dame-de-Gr√¢ce

With a cool demeanor and a hot bat, Montreal-raised Dodgers catcher Russell Martin is an All-Star favorite whose coming-of-age story could be straight from a novel
July 01, 2007

THE LOS ANGELESDODGERS orchestrated a campaign to get Russell Martin elected as the NationalLeague's starting All-Star catcher. The push included a rally at DodgerStadium, promotional T-shirts and bilingual stickers emblazoned with vote forrussell! and voix pour le russell!, a gimmick that might have helped liftMartin past Paul Lo Duca of the New York Mets--Martin led by 120,000 votes asof Sunday--but certainly cut into the high school French teacher support. Ofthe four French words on the sticker, two were misused. Not to go all Flauberton your derrière, but voix, as vote, works only as a noun. And to insert anarticle before his name and call him Le Russell implies, like the Donald, thereis something pompous about a player who does not have an ounce of pretension onhis 5' 10", 210-pound frame. Martin is the good-natured son of aFranco-Manitoban mother and an Anglophone Quebecer father, a bilingual24-year-old who learned his baseball in the middle-class district of Montrealcalled Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. When he first heard of the clunky translationduring the Dodgers' three-game series in Toronto last week, he groaned,chuckled and bolted from the dugout in search of a team official.

Martin wasgoing--what are les mots justes?--to break some Balzac.

If the campaignstickers were lost in translation (the Dodgers later corrected their French),the All-Star balloting nonetheless made clear that the baseball world hasidentified a new cornerstone catcher. Maybe manager Grady Little's analogy ofMartin as Seabiscuit, a West Coast thoroughbred who didn't get much initialattention, was valid three weeks ago, but the presumptive All-Star turned intoNorthern Dancer when he was greeted by seven Canadian television outlets at apress conference before the Blue Jays' series opener.

The encomiums pourin. "The guy is an offensive player, a defensive player, a runner,"Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin says. "He's very aware at a youngage of how the game is played. He'll be a multiple All-Star, in my opinion. Hedoes everything." Colorado Rockies bench coach Jamie Quirk, a former majorleague catcher, says he would take Martin as the first player, even ahead ofNew York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, if he were starting a team. "I'd beentrying to convince the Dodgers for two years that they had a little PudgeRodriguez on their hands," says Texas Rangers reliever Eric Gagné, theformer Los Angeles closer who attended the same sport-and-study Montreal highschool as Martin. "I don't know if he'll win 10 Gold Gloves, but he has achance to become that [good]. He's got a perfect body, sets a perfect targetand is really, really quiet back there. Already he's one of the best at callinggames." In Martin's 192 games since joining the team in May 2006, managerGrady Little and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt have found reason to carp aboutpitch selection perhaps five times. "That," Little says, "speaksvolumes." Martin also is a formidable offensive presence, at least by thescaled-down expectations of his grinding position. Through Sunday he had eighthome runs. He also led National League catchers in hits (72), runs (42), RBIs(47), stolen bases (13), walks (28), slugging percentage (.454), on-basepercentage (.359), games (71) and, presumably, names. He has five. He is,formally, Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin.

"Is that aname," Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf muses, "or a novel?"

The ambling storyof Martin's still-young life has many devices of a novel. There's a journey:Martin was born in Toronto, moved to Winnipeg, split the rest of his boyhoodbetween his mother's home across the Quebec border from Ottawa and his father'sin Montreal, except for those two years (grades 3 and 4) with his mother andstepfather in Paris, a city he didn't much like at first because France didn'thave the right kind of Game Boy.

There are issuesof race, language, culture: His mother, an exuberant woman who works for theCanadian heritage department, is white; his father, a contemplative musician,is black.

There is anepiphany: the incident in Double A Jacksonville in 2005 when he and a teammatewere robbed at gunpoint. (We will get to that episode later in the novel.)

There is a quirkybackstory that includes a suitable amount of sax, which takes us back toMartin's evocative name.

Martin's father,who is also named Russell, is a tenor saxophonist of enough pedigree that heplayed the national anthem at Dodger Stadium last season; Coltrane was added tothe boy's name in honor of one of the elder Martin's muses, sax legend JohnColtrane. Gagné, who remains close to the catcher, describes his friend'sfather as "a down-to-earth guy." In fact, when he had Little Russellwith him during summers in the early 1990s--Martin and Susanne Jeansonseparated when their son was about a year old--Big Russell was abelow-the-earth guy. At the time he earned his living principally as a buskerin the Montreal subway. He would awaken early, nab a prime location, and thenplay his saxophone during rush hour in either the Snowdon or Villa-Maria métrostations, hurrying home to give Little Russell his breakfast by nine o'clock.Father and son would spend the rest of the day in the Notre-Dame-de-Gr√¢ce parksplaying games that sprung from Big Russell's fertile mind, including a modifiedversion of pepper designed to improve bat control. (Martin would credit thatgame for his opposite-field, run-scoring single on a 1-and-2 slider in the 10-1Los Angeles win against Toronto on June¬†19.) His father would leave theboy with friends while he serenaded commuters on their way¬†home.

This was not achildhood ripped from the Chip Hilton novels of 50 years ago, but it preparedMartin for the big leagues of the 21st century, in which the ability to adaptand to work with teammates from other countries is invaluable. Martin's backup,12-year veteran Mike Lieberthal, notes that Martin has soft hands, a strong armand uncommon agility from the waist down--a trait generally associated with aninfielder, which Martin had been until Los Angeles switched him from third baseafter a season of rookie ball. Martin's handling of pitchers is equallydistinctive. "He's really open-minded," Gagné says. "The thingabout him is, he adapts not only to the pitcher's stuff but to the pitcher'spersonality."

Dodgersrighthander Derek Lowe compares Martin's innate leadership with that of JasonVaritek, his former catcher in Boston. In one of Martin's first games catchingLowe, Martin jogged to the mound and told Lowe, who was viscerally upset abouthis command, that he wasn't leaving until the pitcher calmed down. Martinrecalls, "I say, 'What's going on, bro?' We're winning at that point andhe's throwing the ball well, so I say, 'Just relax, man. I'm not leaving tillyou calm down.' And he stopped and said, 'O.K., I'm good.' " Martin tellsthe story with wonder rather than bravado.

Lowe's commandwasn't life and death, but this was. Late one night in the summer of 2005 hewas sitting on a stoop with minor league teammate Beau Dannemiller, trying tocheer up the struggling reliever, when two thieves approached, one wielding agun. The pair demanded wallets and car keys. "Beau just started gettingangry, like he was going to do something," Martin says. "And I'm like,'Beau, O.K. man, relax.' You never know how you're going to react in asituation like that, but I was so calm. Gave them my wallet and the keys to mybuddy's Escalade. They told us to get behind the bushes, so I did." OnceMartin was camouflaged by the shrubs, he sprinted away, en route scaling asix-foot fence, which is why you have to love those catchers who run well. Hesays the thieves were never caught. "The next day I was like, Wow, younever know what might happen to you at any given time. I was just happy to bealive and playing baseball. This was the turning point of my life. You realizehow fragile it is, so why not give a little extra effort and have fun with whatyou're doing?"

The fun translatesinto work. Although Randy Hundley's 1968 big league record of catching 160games in a season seems almost as unassailable as Cy Young's 511 wins, Martintugs on the tools of affluence nightly. Of the 209 games the Dodgers haveplayed since he arrived, he has caught in an astounding 88% of them. (LosAngeles is 112-69 when he's the starting catcher, 6-21 when he isn't.) Histoughness was underscored in June of last year when the Philadelphia Phillies'Chase Utley, trying to break up a play at the plate, wallpapered Martin, whowas vulnerable because a poor throw had pulled him up the first base line. Thecatcher bounced back up with a gash on his chin but without comment orcomplaint. "He's a great competitor," says Atlanta Braves rightfielderJeff Francoeur. "In Double A he would catch the day game after a nightgame. And I'd kid [Braves catcher Brian] McCann and say, 'See, Martin's ananimal,' because McCann would get that day game off." Martin played all 15innings last Aug. 25, a Friday night in Arizona. He homered in the fourth andlater singled with two out in the top of the 15th, then attempted to stealsecond as centerfielder Jason Repko struck out to end the inning. Martinproceeded to catch the entire game on Saturday night, the entire game on Sundayafternoon and the entire game on Monday night at home against Cincinnati beforebeing given the day off on Tuesday, which merely meant he did not enter thatgame until the ninth. (He caught the rest of the way in a 16-inning Dodgerswin.) "If he can play, he's in there," Little says. "What makes himspecial is he keeps getting better. I always say he's well beyond his years,not only as a catcher and a player but also as a person. Somebody did a goodjob raising that young man."

The credit goes toSusanne and Russell, who set aside their differences and gave their sontoughness (Dad), joy (Mom) and love (both). "Russell's very aware he's arole model," says Jeanson, who with 40 family members and friends made thetrip to Toronto to see Martin's first major league appearance in Canada."Being a baseball celebrity comes with a big responsibility. How you livereally matters. You can't make dents in your moral standards. You have to bereally straight, really strong, really honest." Shouldn't that be whatparents mean when they say their children are grounded?

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"He's got a perfect body and sets a perfecttarget," says

Gagné. "Already he's ONE OF THE BEST at callinggames."

Surviving the 2005 gunpoint robbery "was theTURNING POINT in my life," Martin says. "You realize how fragile lifeis."

PHOTOPhotograph by Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesFront-runner Boosted by a Dodgers campaign, Martin led NL catchers in All-Star votes--and he could become a perennial pick. ILLUSTRATION PHOTOPHIL ELLSWORTHCATCHING FIRE Through Sunday, Martin led NL backstops in slugging (.454), RBIs (47), runs (42) and stolen bases (13). PHOTOPETER GREGOIREROLE MODELSMartin's mom, Susanne (left), and dad, Russell (right), taught their son the importance of staying grounded.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)