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Martin carries a lot on his plate

That little piece of square real estate behind home plate is sacred territory for a player in a Dodgers uniform. Sacred as in Roy Campanella, John Roseboro, Mike Scioscia and Mike Piazza.

They are legends. The new kid in town is, well, the new kid in town.

But oh, my, how quickly Russell Martin is convincing Dodgers fans that their catcher’s box is well manned now and for the future.

Martin came out of nowhere last year, caught the most games of any National Leaguer with 118, just one shy of Jason Kendall’s major league lead for the Oakland A’s, and squatted behind home plate Monday night for the 58th time in 64 games this season. Going in, he was hitting .299, with seven homers and 40 runs batted in. Currently, he is batting third in the lineup.

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He is also being noticed beyond the confines of Dodger Stadium.

Before the game, the Dodgers announced that Martin had taken the lead in voting among NL catchers to start the All-Star game. He is 13,000 votes ahead of Paul Lo Duca, the former Dodger who was in the same real estate behind home plate Monday night for the Mets.

Two weeks ago, the Dodgers said, Martin was 140,000 votes behind Lo Duca and in fourth place.

The voting ends Sunday for fans in stadiums around the country and June 28 for online balloting, meaning the new kid in town is just 17 days away from clinching a starting spot in the bright lights of All-Star night July 10 in San Francisco.

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Martin is still catching up to the reality of last season, when he was brought up in early May, cranked his first major league homer a few days later, dug in behind home plate and never really left.

“I was so busy playing that I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it,” Martin said. “Then, in the winter, I was sitting there and I thought about it and I realized I had just played a year in the big leagues.”

Not just played. Excelled. And still doing so.

Manager Grady Little said he saw something in Martin the first time he met him.

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“It was right here in Dodger Stadium, in the bullpen, in the winter before spring training last year,” Little recalled. “There was hardly anybody else around, maybe a few people working on the dirt and a few others putting in the new seats.

“It was one of my first trips to L.A., and we were out to take a look at Eric Gagne, see him throw a few pitches. The guy who came out to catch him was Russell Martin. They were both Canadian and I think Eric asked him to do it.”

If first impressions are important, Martin was on his way.

“All I knew was that he was in our organization,” Little said. “But his mechanics were there, and the way he shook my hand, looked me in the eye and gave me the yes-sirs and no-sirs. I had an immediate positive reaction.

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“I remember thinking, the parents who raised this kid knew what they were doing.”

Little did Little know how much more there would be. Such as Martin’s desire to play every game.

Of the six games he hasn’t started behind the plate, he has gone in to pinch-hit three times.

“My body feels great,” Martin said. “Grady and the coaches are always asking me how I feel, if I’m OK. I’m fine.”

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He caught 16 2/3 innings in one game last year and went to Little the next day to assure his manager he could play.

“He laughed at me and told me I was a rookie and he still made out the lineup card,” Martin said. “So I had to sit one out.”

Randy Hundley caught 160 games for the Cubs in 1968, an incredible iron-man season. Don’t think Martin doesn’t know that record. He is tough, durable and proud of it.

The conversation got around to home-plate collisions and Martin said, “I got hit pretty hard at the plate one time in Montgomery (Ala.) in the minors. A guy named Cortez. He wasn’t very big but really fast, clocked me good. Had my head turned toward right field and he blindsided me.”

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Martin had a concussion, which meant he only pinch-hit the next day, delivering a game-winning home run. Also, he hung onto the ball in the collision.

How many has he dropped in those situations?

“Never. Not one,” he said.

Little said he is amazed by Martin’s durability.

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“He is always getting in these collisions and you always think he’s hurt and he never is,” the manager said.

Another bonus for the Dodgers is Martin’s speed, something normally squeezed out of catchers’ legs in all those hours of squatting.

“Catchers aren’t supposed to do that,” said Tom Lasorda, who managed more than his share over the years. “Scioscia and Piazza, they couldn’t even steal a hot dog in their own clubhouse.”

Martin stole 10 bases last year, and stole his 11th of the season Monday night in a three-run fourth inning in which he also contributed an RBI single and scored.

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“I’m not that fast,” Martin said, “but I study the pitchers, if they drop their hands first on their move, stuff like that. And I talk to guys like Maury Wills and [Rafael] Furcal and Juan Pierre about base-stealing.”

Lasorda shook his head.

“Never heard of a catcher talking to base-stealing guys,” he said.

The admiration society goes on and on. Jason Schmidt says he loves having Martin behind the plate for him and cited the time he was keeping the ball well down on hitters and Martin came to the mound and told him not to worry, to “bounce ‘em in the dirt and I’ll block ‘em.”

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Mike Lieberthal, a 14-year veteran who is Martin’s backup, called Martin a great athlete with “quick feet and soft hands.”

Even Lo Duca said, “Russell deserves to go” to the All-Star game and said, if he had a vote, it’d probably go to Martin.

Since Martin is fluent in French and English, he was asked which language he dreams in.

“You know, that’s kind of weird,” he said. “A lot of times, I dream in Spanish. Then I wake up and realize I can’t even speak it.”

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Ah, a flaw. The way things are going for Martin these days, that makes nada sense.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

All-Star breakdown

National League catchers with the most votes (through Monday). The All-Star game will be July 10 at AT&T; Park in San Francisco:

Player, Team; Votes

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RUSSELL MARTIN, Dodgers; 615,406

* .298 batting average, 7 HR, 41 RBI

PAUL Lo DUCA, New York; 602,629

* .305 batting average, 3 HR, 17 RBI

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BRIAN McCANN, Atlanta; 466,341

* .278 batting average, 3 HR, 28 RBI

JOHNNY ESTRADA, Milwaukee; 405,275

* .277 batting average, 6 HR, 20 RBI

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BENGIE MOLINA, San Francisco; 335,171

* .309 batting average, 6 HR, 33 RBI

* See the complete list of top vote-getters by position on latimes.com/sports.

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Sources: Associated Press, MLB.com

Los Angeles Times


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