LOS ANGELES (AP) - One of the best days in Russell Martin's life occurred on a basketball court alone with his father, not a baseball field.
He'll treasure that day forever, and it says a lot about him.
``Winning is what's important to me. At the end of the day, that's what makes you feel good,'' said Martin, who's become a team leader for the Los Angeles Dodgers and arguably the best catcher in the National League in just his second major league season.
``Playing basketball with my dad, the day I finally beat him, it felt great,'' Martin recalled. ``Heck, yeah, it did.''
Martin said he was 14 or 15 when he finally got the best of his father, Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin Sr., in a one-on-one basketball game after too many losses to count.
``He'd probably say I was 16,'' Martin said with a chuckle.
``I got a couple elbows in the chin - a lot of sweat and tears,'' the younger Martin said. ``How do you beat somebody bigger and stronger? It's me getting older and stronger and my dad getting older and weaker.
``You've got to find a way. I finally did.''
That's the kind of mentality the 24-year-old Martin brought with him nearly 13 1/2 months ago when he made his big-league debut for the Dodgers. He was recalled when first-string catcher Dioner Navarro broke his right wrist.
Martin established himself as the permanent No. 1 catcher within a matter of days with a hard-nosed style that impressed manager Grady Little and his teammates and made him an immediate fan favorite.
``When you get called up, you have to go out and prove yourself,'' Martin said. ``I remember feeling extra pressure. Now, it's 13 months later and I'm feeling pressure to prove myself to myself.
``I enjoy pressure - it gives you energy. I try to use it to my advantage.''
After a fine rookie season in which he hit .282 with 10 homers, 65 RBIs and 10 stolen bases, Martin has blossomed into a star. He leads NL catchers in the All-Star balloting for next month's game in San Francisco.
And deservedly so. Going into June 14 he led the NL in hits (65) runs scored (40), RBIs (41) and stolen bases (11). He's hitting .291 with seven homers, and has thrown out 16 of 53 baserunners trying to steal.
``We're proud for him, we're proud for the fact that people across the country are seeing what we see every day, the value of the kids and how he continues to improve all the time,'' Little said.
Martin leads Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca by nearly 13,000 votes, with Atlanta's Brian McCann another 136,000 behind.
Lo Duca has no argument with Martin being No. 1.
``He's the complete package. His makeup is what makes him so good,'' said Lo Duca, who befriended Martin when he was the Dodgers' starting catcher and Martin was a young farmhand.
``He does everything the right way, and that's hard to find,'' Lo Duca said. ``I wasn't as talented as Russell at his age. He's so polished behind the plate.''
And that's a bit of a surprise considering Martin didn't become a full-time catcher until the Dodgers converted him from third base after the 2002 season - his first with the organization after being drafted in the 17th round.
``The decision turned out to be a good one, I guess,'' Martin said. ``I caught 18 or 20 games in college. I pretty much played everywhere as a kid. My favorite position was shortstop, that's why I still take ground balls. I liked Ozzie Smith.
``I remember seeing a ground ball taking a bad hop, he barehands it. The next day, the same thing happened to me in practice. It wasn't as hard, I wasn't diving. But I thought it was the coolest thing - yeah!''
Perhaps the most impressive part of Martin's game at his young age is his ability to handle a pitching staff.
``He's by far the best catcher I've ever thrown to just by the way he calls the game, receives the ball,'' reliever Joe Beimel said.
``Even though it's only his second year, he's gained the respect of everyone,'' starter Derek Lowe said. ``You want your catcher to be the leader of your team. He's been good ever since we got him.''
Jeff Kent, baseball's all-time leading home run hitter among second baseman, said it's Martin's ability to adjust that impresses him the most.
``The kid loves to compete,'' Kent said. ``When you get to this level, a lot of people are complacent, a lot of people are satisfied. I don't see that in him. He's got coachable skills, which is very important for his progress.''
Not long after Martin arrived, the Dodgers traded Navarro to the Tampa Bay, where he's hitting .179.
The injury to Navarro turned out to be a huge break for the Dodgers.
``He has talent behind the plate you don't see very often,'' said Mike Lieberthal, who spent 13 seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies before the Dodgers signed him last winter to be Martin's backup. ``If I had the first pick in the National League draft for a catcher, he would be the one.''

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