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Dylan Hernandez: Russell Martin’s career arc becomes a circle with return to the Dodgers

LOS ANGELES – You’re still playing?

Russell Martin looked up.

“You’re still here?” he playfully responded. “They haven’t fired you yet?”

Martin threw his head back and laughed.

Same smile. Same light spirit. Same old Russell Martin.

Martin is where he imagined he would be in his mid-30s, a veteran leader on the Los Angeles Dodgers opening-day roster.

“It feels great,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

This is where he is supposed to be.

Except that what it means to him today is different than what it did when he was a rising star. A career he pictured as a straight line turned out to be a circle. He now understands he wouldn’t be here as a 36-year-old if he hadn’t been forced to leave first.

So when Martin recalled recently what it was like to be unceremoniously dumped by the Dodgers eight-plus years ago, he thought more of what he gained from the experience than the emotional wounds.

“I’m going to take the positives,” he said. “No hard feelings.”

Before Clayton Kershaw, before even Matt Kemp, there was Martin. The most advanced player in a celebrated group of prospects that included future All-Stars Kemp, Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsley and James Loney, he was considered a franchise cornerstone. By his third season, he was a two-time All-Star, as well as a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger catcher.

Martin had visions of spending his entire career with the Dodgers, and why not? He was enamored with the city and the city loved him back.

Which made the events of 2010 shocking. In August of that year, he tore the labrum in his right hip while trying to avoid a tag at the plate. The Dodgers were uncertain of whether Martin would completely recover and weren’t in the financial position to gamble; the team filed for bankruptcy the next season. Rather than go to arbitration or meet his demand of a $5 million salary for 2011 – the same amount he was paid in 2010 – the Dodgers let him walk.

“I was pissed off,” Martin said. “My opinion was they were losing by not having me on the team. I just believed I could always bring something to the team.”

The Dodgers didn’t reach the postseason the next two seasons. Martin went to the playoffs in his next six seasons, twice each with the New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates and Toronto Blue Jays.

“Obviously, it takes a team to get to the playoffs, but I felt like I played a part in getting to the playoffs every time,” he said.

Martin felt vindicated. But in retrospect, he also understood why then-general manager Ned Colletti made the decision to let him go. Finances were only a part of it.

“He wasn’t totally wrong,” Martin said. “I wasn’t Mr. Professional. I wasn’t taking care of myself. I did some stupid stuff.”

He enjoyed the nightlife. He was good enough of an athlete to play third base on occasion. He was certainly capable of recovering from a night of partying to strap on his catcher’s gear and play nine innings the next day.

“I was just young, doing what young people do,” he said.

What in part inspired him to change was his drive to prove to the Dodgers they made a mistake by letting him go.

He started making a greater effort not only to eat right, but to make sure he got adequate rest. He thinks the changes in his lifestyle are responsible for his longevity. This season will be his 14th in the majors.

He entertained the idea of returning to the Dodgers the last time he was a free agent, after the 2014 season. But the Blue Jays offered him a five-year contract and the Dodgers wouldn’t. Plus, the Blue Jays were based in his home country of Canada.

Ironically, the Dodgers will have Martin in the final year of that contract. In exchange for Martin, the Dodgers sent two prospects to the Blue Jays, who are covering $16.4 million of his $20 million salary.

Martin hit 10 home runs in 90 games last season, but batted a career-worst .191. He is expected to share time at catcher with Austin Barnes, with manager Dave Roberts estimating that of the team’s first seven games, Barnes will catch four.

“He checked all the boxes that I expected, that I hoped for,” Roberts said. “He’s prepared for whatever role I have for him. He has really been a mentor and good teammate for Austin. He already has the respect of his teammates, some that he knew before, some that he didn’t know. He’s continually wanting to learn how we do things as the Dodgers, which is great.”

Catching prospect Will Smith was in major league camp in spring training and said Martin offered him advice on everything from bullpen sessions to catching drills.

“He’s very approachable, very personable, very easy guy to talk to,” Smith said. “He’s been great to me.”

Martin returned to Dodger Stadium on Tuesday for the final game of the Freeway Series against the Los Angeles Angels. During batting practice, he fielded grounders at third base, much like he did the last time he was here.

“Body feels a little better now than it did back then,” he said.

He clarified: “I used to catch every day back then.”

He also noticed the changes in the Dodgers clubhouse. The locker room was widened in a renovation commissioned by Guggenheim Baseball Management. There are now state-of-the-art weight rooms and training rooms.

“The whole facility, it’s probably the best I’ve ever seen,” he said.

The stakes are especially high this season. Martin will be fighting to stay in the game.

“I feel too good to think about retirement,” he said. “If I have another crap year like I had last year, then I’m probably going to think about it. I want to keep playing. That’s what’s driving me, to keep playing at a high level because I want to keep playing this game. It’s fun.”

Especially because he’s experiencing a new era in the franchise’s history.

The owners are different. The manager is different. Almost all of the players are different.

“I’m just happy to be a part of it,” he said.

The journey took longer than he expected, but he ended up where he was supposed to be.

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