When Russell Martin tried to score on Tuesday, I never imagined he'd hyperextend his leg, causing a hip injury that would end his season and, unless the Dodgers make the playoffs, possibly his Dodgers career. Martin has been my favorite Dodgers player since he reached the Major Leagues on May 5, 2006, because he was determined to play every day. He is facing one of the toughest battles of his professional career, but I know he will triumph.
Martin has caught an amazing 88 percent of the Dodgers' games since his promotion. Often he has caught in pain, but he has refused to come out because he felt like his team needed him. He has guided patched-together pitching staffs to greatness. He never complained about the unreal work load.
For his first two-and-a-half seasons with the Dodgers, Martin was an offensive dynamo. He seemed to drive in runs whenever the Dodgers needed them. Though he displayed some power, he was at his best when he went to right field. Then, after the All-Star break of 2008, he began to struggle offensively.
Some people say Martin became distracted by off-the-field circumstances, while others say the number of innings that he played had taken a toll on his body. I have another opinion. On one ESPN telecast, Orel Hershiser said that the Dodgers felt Martin could win a batting championship. I shook my head and thought, "This is putting too much pressure on the 25-year-old kid." Then the Dodgers acquired Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake for extra power. With every home run hit by Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Ramirez, the crowd roared and the Dodgers organization cheered.
I believe this sent a message to Martin that the Dodgers believed the only important offensive trait was power. Martin began to pull everything and got himself into bad habits. This season, Martin was trying to revamp his opposite-field swing. He didn't see results until after the All-Star break.
Since the All-Star break, though, Martin had been the team's leading run producer. He had a batting average of .271 and an on-base percentage of .352. The night that Martin was injured, he drove in the only two runs the Dodgers scored.
Many Major League catchers have trouble separating their offensive struggles from their defensive duties, but Martin didn't seem to have this problem. I think Grady Little, a former catcher who was Martin's first Major League manager, stressed the importance of playing good defense. In 2007, Martin won a Gold Glove. His defensive excellence fell off a little in 2008, but he rededicated himself to be an excellent defensive catcher.
This season, the media has criticized Martin's ability to block pitches in the dirt. In my opinion, this has been unfair. I have watched baseball for 32 years, and I've never seen a pitching staff that has thrown more pitches in the dirt than this year's Dodgers pitching staff. Occasionally, Martin failed to transfer his body to block pitches, but he never has done that after an off-day. Since the All-Star break, Martin blocked almost everything in the dirt.
Over the course of Martin's time in the Majors, the Dodgers have compiled a winning record when he's been behind the plate, but the Dodgers are thirty games below .500 in games in which Martin has rested.
On Tuesday, after driving in two runs, Martin tried to score on Ryan Theriot's fly ball. He didn't know whether he should slide or not. Usually, the player on deck tells the runner attempting to score whether to slide, but newcomer Ted Lilly was on deck. Martin decided to come in standing up. He tripped over the catcher's leg. Obviously hurt, Martin stayed in the game until Lilly came out five innings later. He was worried about blocking Hong-Chih Kuo's slider with his limited mobility.
Martin has a hairline fractured right hip and torn labrum. He will be on crutches for three weeks. Three hip specialists have said they don't think Martin will need surgery, at least initially. If the Dodgers make it to the playoffs, there is a possibility that Martin could return to action.
Since Martin is eligible to go to arbitration and make $6 million, the Dodgers might let him go as a free agent. In my opinion, that would be a mistake the Dodgers would come to regret. When the Dodgers traded for Casey Blake, they gave the Cleveland Indians a promising young catcher named Carlos Santana. Last week, Ned Colletti traded Lucas May. The Dodgers have A.J. Ellis, but he hasn't shown good offensive skills on the Major League level yet. Brad Ausmus, who just returned from the disabled list after major back surgery, announced that this season will be his last.
Finding a good catcher is extremely difficult for any team. Without a good catcher, no team can be successful. What Russell Martin has done for the Dodgers should be rewarded. If he is able, he will be as durable as he has been. During a difficult rehabilitation process, Martin will have this writer's support.
Sarah D. Morris is the editor of Sarah's Dodger Place. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.