Russell Martin, the hard-nosed catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, has taken up yoga.
That's right, the native of Chelsea, Que., best known for his dogged blue-collar work ethic and play-through-all-pain intensity, has made yoga an integral part of his off-season workout regimen for the first time this winter.
"I've never felt better," he said.
Fear not baseball fans, the soon-to-be 26-year-old isn't planning to trade in the tools of ignorance behind the plate to pursue the ultimate goal of unifying the body, mind and spirit into oneness.
Rather, the two-time all-star is searching for new ways to keep his body healthy and strong throughout the 2009 season, eager to avoid the late-month swoons he's experienced in each of his first three big-league seasons.
"Last year, I remember all the way through spring training and the beginning of the season even, my body was tight," Martin recalled last weekend at Baseball Canada's annual awards banquet. "When you're a baseball player, you have to feel loose and that's kind of like prehabilitation, that's what my dad calls it.
"That was my main goal, to do some yoga, still do my explosive movement type stuff, because that's all it is in baseball, reaction-type stuff, and flexibility. All those things, with a consistent work plan during the season, instead of seeing my numbers drop towards the end, hopefully I'll see more of a stability and a consistency. That's what I'm looking for."
The off-season adjustments represent a new way of thinking for Martin, who used to be adamant about playing virtually every day - not the best idea given the gruelling physical and mental demands of catching - and about grinding through all his aches and pains.
Whereas he once would shun various treatments, he's open to them now, partly because the youthful feeling of invincibility is starting to ebb from him. The fact that he's a career .298 hitter through the first four months of the season but bats .262 after that no doubt helped sway him, too.
"The window, it's not very big, so you want to try and feel good for as long as possible and that's really taking care of myself off the field as much as possible, too," said Martin. "Those are things I really didn't do that much of in the past, just because of my attitude, hard-nosed, I don't need anybody's help. ...
"I'm realizing that if I do put on ice, and do contrast hot and cold after a game, I might feel a bit better the next day, or I might feel a little bit better in August, or maybe 10 years from now. Who knows? I'm just trying to be a little bit smarter now."
The Dodgers as a team should have more smarts after the trade deadline acquisition of Manny Ramirez helped them close out the 2008 season 19-8 to win the National League West. They went on to stun the Chicago Cubs in a 3-0 division series sweep before falling 4-1 in the NLCS to a Philadelphia Phillies team that won the World Series.
The Dodgers' inexperience popped through the seams in that series, with Chad Billingsley publicly questioning Martin's calling of pitch after a bad outing, other players wondering why the starter didn't retaliate when L.A. hitters seemed to be getting thrown at, and a general sense of unhappiness around the team.
"I don't know if it was frustration, you get to a certain point and you're just disappointed that you get so far but not to the ultimate goal," said Martin. "You've got to look back in a positive way. We had a good run, and just learning from the mistakes we made in the post-season and trying to get better from those mistakes is going to get us in better position for the next season. That's the key."
So is re-signing Ramirez, who is a free agent awaiting the right offer. All signs point to a return to Los Angeles, although right now neither side is budging from its position.
Martin simply hopes it gets done one way or another, having found Ramirez to be a far better teammate than he expected given the outfielder's Manny-being-Manny reputation.
"Everybody has different opinions from their experiences with him, but what we saw in L.A. was tremendous," said Martin. "Everyday consistent attitude, consistent approach to the game, loved everybody, gave everybody hugs, and just went out there and did his thing. We just accepted him for who he is and I think he enjoyed that.
"We all learned from him, realizing you don't always have to be stone-faced and game-faced to be successful. This guy's smiling and having a good time, laughing it up, hitting homer after homer, driving guys in, really supporting the team, and carrying the team to the post-season. It made me realize you're supposed to have fun in this game."
Martin recently signed a contract of his own, avoiding arbitration with a US$3.9-million, one-year deal. There's been talk of a long-term deal like many other young stars have been getting the past few seasons, but Martin says there's nothing to it right now.
"I'm glad we didn't have to go to arbitration and worked something out. Everything in time," he said. "The team has to be patient and I have to be patient, we're just waiting for the right time."