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Martin must learn how to catch knuckleball

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It's not as if Russell Martin has never caught a knuckleball pitcher before.

Let the record show that back in 2009 and 2010, when he was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he caught aspiring knuckleballer Charlie Haeger in two starts and five relief appearances totaling 13 innings. But that was just the warm-up act for the challenge Martin is about to undertake with the Toronto Blue Jays.

"It's a challenge. And I'm always up for new challenges. I'm excited to see how I can handle it."

Russell Martin, Blue Jays catcher,
on catching knuckleballer R.A. Dickey

His new team has a real need to have him catch Cy Young knuckleball whiz R.A. Dickey, because it creates roster ramifications if that doesn't work. So stay tuned. The Dickey-Martin pairing is about to become one of the Blue Jays' most interesting stories of spring training.

"He told me from the outset that he doesn't have a lot of experience," Dickey said Monday, after meeting Martin for the first time. "But he's gung-ho. He wants to do it. And that's half the battle."

On Day 1 of spring training, manager John Gibbons decided to spare Martin the fun of catching a bunch of knuckleballs right out of the chute with his new knuckleball-catching mitt. But Gibbons said he plans to have Martin catch Dickey's next bullpen session, on Wednesday. It just might not be out in front of the public, for the whole world to see.

"There's no doubt that he can do it," Gibbons said, "but it's not going to be easy. From here on out, you'll see him do it. But there may be some times where it happens out [on a back field] when Dickey throws his sides, just so, if a ball goes ricocheting somewhere, nobody around him ends up taking a baseball in the shins."

Dickey knows from experience that not just anybody can catch him. And he thinks Martin's combination of athleticism, hand-eye coordination and attitude make him almost an ideal candidate. But Dickey also knows it's going to take a lot of work -- and the more this spring, the better.

"It's hard to quantify [how much work], because sometimes a guy can get it in three bullpens," Dickey said. "Or it can take all spring. You never know till you get going. The key is just to get started. Plus I'll get stronger, too, as the spring goes on. So the knuckleball I have now won't be the same as the knuckleball I'll have later in the spring. So as much work as we can get in, the better."

And that, Martin said, is cool with him.

"It's a challenge," he said. "And I'm always up for new challenges. I'm excited to see how I can handle it."

For the record, in his 13 innings catching Haeger, he committed zero passed balls and allowed just one wild pitch. That was the good news. The bad news was, Haeger had an 8.31 ERA in those outings. But he'd also never won a Cy Young award. So Martin is pretty sure this is going to go slightly more smoothly. But how much more, he isn't ready to say yet.

"I have no idea, really, how I'm going to do," he said. "One thing I do know, I'm going to do my best, and learn from the mistakes, and trial and adjustments. And there's a lot of guys here who can help me, that have had experience and stuff. So I'm definitely going to have open ears."