Martin changes name, attitude for '09

Martin changes name, attitude for '09

LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers have a new catcher this year, and we're not talking about backup Brad Ausmus.

As the lettering on the back of his jersey will attest this spring, it's "J. Martin" this year, and that's not the only change Russell Martin would like to announce.

The "J" is Martin's way of paying tribute to his mother, as it represents her maiden name -- Jeanson. Martin's legal name is Russell Nathan Jeanson Coltrane Martin.

"It's kind of cool to give her that. She deserves the recognition," Martin said of his mother. "She's a huge part of my life, and it's time for me to do it."

Martin believes this also is the time he puts his game back on track. Those who had seen his first two seasons in the Major Leagues, and even those watching him for the first time, sensed something wasn't quite right in 2008.

Although still an All-Star and postseason starter, Martin wasn't the same player or person as the National League's Gold Glove and Silver Slugger catcher the previous year.

Speculation ran the gamut from a hidden injury to a swollen ego. Whenever asked, Martin said nothing really had changed.

But not anymore.

"I understand completely why people thought that," Martin said this week. "A lot had changed in my life. I think it's just part of growing up and maturing. I'm finally just taking responsibility and taking control of everything.

"If you watched me play the game, you couldn't question my desire or intensity. But things like nutrition, my preparation, my rest -- I wasn't 100 percent in those elements."

Martin said he credits his new girlfriend, a model and fellow native of Quebec, with teaching him an organized, grounded way to run his life. And he credits teammate Manny Ramirez with showing him how to prepare for the game, and reminding him how to enjoy playing it.

"The idea is that when you come to the park, you know what to expect," said Martin, who turns 26 next month. "You stretch in a certain way, take batting practice in a certain way. I used to have the mind-set that I would always get better just by working hard. Now, I'm working more efficiently.

"I was disappointed in my play last year and I was disappointed every time I heard somebody say I wasn't the same. But I expect more out of myself. Some people say I had a good season, but I wasn't happy with it."

Through the wonders of the collective bargaining agreement and the salary arbitration process, Martin nonetheless received a raise from his $500,000 salary last year to $3.9 million for 2009.

"Can't complain about an 800 percent raise," he said.

The settlement was for one season, even though the Dodgers wanted to lock Martin up long term a year ago, only to be rebuffed by an agent Martin said he's since replaced.

"In due time," he said of long-term security.

Martin said he has trained this winter at the API facility in Arizona, along with teammate Andre Ethier and a handful of other Major Leaguers. His goal is to avoid last year's slow start (3-for-29 to open the season), which he said was the result of getting homer-happy, only for the strategy to backfire.

"I came into the season wanting to hit for more power," he confessed. "But I guess I didn't really understand what that meant. I went to the gym to make my muscles bigger and didn't concentrate on flexibility. So I didn't have the same body control and feel.

"So I started slow, and, as the year progressed, I didn't do as much in the weight room and my body got leaner and I started hitting better (peaking at .326 on May 31). But then I got beat up, as you do when you're catching, and tailed off at the end."

Statistically, Martin's season-ending average slipped from .293 in '07 to .280 last season. His homers fell from 19 to 13 and the RBIs from 87 to 69.

Martin said he's now learned from watching Ramirez and former teammate Jeff Kent to, "save everything for the game."

"This year I'm taking a different approach," he said. "Maybe I'll hit the weights three times a week, maybe do more yoga."

There's something else he learned, especially from Ramirez -- to have a little more fun while playing a game for a living.

"I think we all learned from him, realizing that you don't always have to be stone-faced to be successful," said Martin.

"This guy is smiling and having a good time, laughing it up, and he's hitting homer after homer and driving guys in and really supporting the team and carrying the team to the postseason. It made me realize that you're supposed to have fun in this game. If you have fun, then you enjoy it, and it's going to be a better experience."

And Martin, despite impressive stints at his original third-base position, said he still has fun catching, is glad he's catching and expects to continue catching, especially with Casey Blake signing a three-year contract to be the everyday third baseman. The club signed Ausmus to be Martin's backup and, equally important, a mentor.

"I don't think anybody really thinks I'm going to change positions at this point," Martin said.

"I love where I play. I love catching, because you're always involved. There are so many things to work on and it makes you learn more about the game. It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made, with the Dodgers' help and everybody that decided it was a better idea for me to go catch.

"But getting rest every once in a while by playing a different position -- a mental rest and a physical rest -- has definitely helped me a lot in the last year. I'm always up for that. Wherever they need me to play to help the team, that's what I'm there for. I just want to make sure the team is doing what's best for the team."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.