ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Edgar Martinez overcame a series of long odds to reach the majors and become one of the top right-handed hitters of his generation.
By Bob Finnigan
Seattle Times staff reporter
Mike Campbell knew.
When Edgar Martinez came up at the end of the 1987 season and filled in for ill Jim Presley by reaching base six times in three games, including two doubles and a triple, manager Dick Williams reserved judgment and talked of taking a look at the new guy the next spring.
But while Williams, a 40-year baseball man, hesitated, Campbell, then a Mariners pitcher who had been Martinez's minor-league teammate, said, "I think he could help this team."
Help is hardly the way it turned out.
Once Martinez came to stay, he never left. In fact, he has finished a career that is a rarity today, all or parts of 18 big-league seasons in one uniform.
"There is something special about turning over your baseball card and seeing many years and one team," George Brett, only a Kansas City Royal, once said.
There was something special about Martinez, the player and the person.
"He fits perfectly in Seattle," former Mariners catcher Scott Bradley said. "He was born in New York City, but no one is less like a New Yorker. He is like Seattle, a place where you can be a nice person."
Once described as "Saint Edgar" on a Kingdome fan's sign, Edgar has been near-beatified here and at his previous home of Puerto Rico, a dutiful grandson devoted to the grandparents who raised him, Mario Salgado and Manuela Rivera, both now passed. There is still a sense of wonder in his words when he says: "People in Seattle have always been positive with me. If it was how they saw me, that's great. It was very comfortable to play here, to have my life here and now have my family here."
Everyone has their Edgar moment — for most, it's The Double (in the Pacific Northwest, there is no need to describe it further) — but for those who were around him every day, Edgar simply meant presence.
For a decade and a half, he has been the heartbeat of the Mariners, a constant in the clubhouse as well as the lineup, steady and steadying. While the names and abilities changed around him, Edgar was always there contributing.
Homespun yet poetic, Mike Cameron said it best last year when Edgar got his 2,000th hit in May: "Edgar is that tree stump in the middle of our lineup. He's just there all the time. He's going to beat you ... He's always patient, he never gets 'chasey.' He's just Edgar."
Over the years it was a common sight to see him sitting at his locker doing his daily eye exercises or pulling out his little kitchen scale, checking every bat of a new shipment, carefully writing the weight in ounces on the knob, and occasionally shaking his head over discrepancies.
For years, this was with Junior and Jay (again, no need for further description) creating a Def Comedy Jam uproar around him.
Edgar would look up from his quiet routines, laugh, maybe say something that was always funny because he can be funny and because it was, well, Edgar.
Fans saw his humor in the renowned Mariners commercials, in which he taught the young Latino player how to say, "Geoduck," had a remote control for a garage-door opener in his car for the Safeco roof (his favorite) and carved that bat lamp (the legendary "it's a light bat").
"I never got the bat lamp," he says, feigning sadness. "I don't know where it is."
There was the Edgar Duck, Edgar Bobblehead, Edgar Bank, Edgar Bear. "The promotions I enjoyed," he said with a smile. "I don't think too many looked like me, but they were all done for a good cause."
keep Edgar's eyes on ball
The daily eye exercises were not just work, but necessity. Edgar has strabismus, wandering eye. He wore glasses as a child, but kids teased him. A doctor diagnosed it when Edgar went to his first Mariners camp.
"They also found I was left-eye dominant, which is good," he said. "They gave me exercises for the eye muscles, and I do them every day, sometimes twice. Without them I'd have been gone a long time ago."
But while Edgar and his routines never change, the Mariners' team personality morphed in recent seasons from the maniacal personas of Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner to methodical. "I miss those guys, I miss our great lineups, but after they left we kept winning," Edgar said.
Then that last enjoyment — the level of play and the winning — faded late in 2002 and 2003 and has melted away this season.
"We've come full circle," Edgar said. "We started slow when I was first here, then we had the great teams. In those days it was like if we didn't get you in one game we knew we'd get you in the next.
"Now, it's slow again. It's not the way I wanted it to be. But maybe it was also a message, reinforcing the decision I have made."
While he has been constant and productive for 16 years, his retirement creates a dilemma for those who look at his career with an eye to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He may stand his best chance with the veterans committee in a decade, but his qualifications are twice-cursed, by his late entrance to the majors and by his injuries.
Inspired to play ball by childhood hero Roberto Clemente, working at home in Maguayo with cousin Carmelo Martinez, Edgar became a deadly batsman playing semipro in Puerto Rico.
They hit rocks with sticks on construction sites where his grandfather was building houses, and learned to hit a curveball by pitching bottle caps to each other.
After Carmelo came home from his first year in the minors, he showed Edgar some new drills.
"I learned there was more than see the ball, hit the ball," Edgar says.
But once he refined his stance — though he tinkered with it ever after, chin tucked, hands high, leg kick, knock-kneed or pigeon-toed — he lined the ball from baseline to baseline.
Still, he did not show enough power to initially convince the Mariners, who kept fellow prospects Presley or Darnell Coles at third base ahead of him.
Yet, after finally making it to the big leagues and hitting a combined .304 with 101 RBI in 1990-91, Edgar hit 18 homers with 73 RBI in 1992 and won his first batting title with a .343 average.
"I had learned to make adjustments," he said, but as he proved himself a big-league hitter, Edgar was often injured. His left leg plagued him through the years, and the first injury was the worst, tearing the hamstring at Vancouver's B.C. Place, running from first base in the last exhibition game in 1993.
"After the 1992 season I got married, then shortly after that my grandfather passed away. I got the flu for a long time. My grandmother had a stroke. From the time I came to spring training I was behind and I felt I got hurt because I wasn't in good enough shape. After that I decided I would never let that happen again."
Hard work in offseason pays off for Edgar
In the 1993-94 offseason he started the regimen that has become his hallmark, taking a week off and hitting the weight room or batting cage every day of the winter after that.
"I can recall two years I came to the office the day before Christmas," said Randy Adamack, the Mariners' vice president for communications. "The parking lot was empty except for one other car, Edgar's."
But the leg was never really right, with more hamstring troubles, the quad strained in 2001, two tendons removed in 2002, and a broken big toe in 2003.
While the injuries and his late start stole precious at-bats at the height of his prowess, there were lesser subplots to Edgar's story.
• He might have been a Cub. They first tried him out at age 16 in 1979 and signed Carmelo that day instead. "They said I was too small," Edgar recalled.
• He thought for two days about rejecting a $4,000 offer from M's scout Marty Martinez. "Others were getting $20,000."
• He missed home that first year and hit .173 at Bellingham and was ready to be cut when Marty Martinez suggested him for an opening at third base on the Arizona instructional team, where he hit .340.
• He might have been a second baseman, getting temporarily moved to second in 1985 as Seattle thought about trading Harold Reynolds.
• He might have been traded before The Year of The Double. Looking at his $3 million contract and the fact he had missed most of the previous two years, Seattle looked to move him and could find no takers.
• He nearly lost his designated hitter's slot when, after 1997, Seattle nearly moved to the National League in the proposed realignment.
• He was actually a free agent (undeclared) during a contract impasse in November 2002 for about 12 hours. "It was different for me. I didn't feel comfortable."
But none of those came to pass, Edgar remained and remains Seattle's forever.
The Double — the hit that saved baseball in Seattle — was the high-water mark, for the man, the fans and the franchise.
Obviously, without him there would have been no clutch two-bagger off an 0-1 split-finger fastball from the Yankees' Jack McDowell in the 11th inning of Game 5 (the same pitch he had fanned Edgar on in the ninth) for the amazing 6-5 comeback win on Oct. 8, 1995.
But what some forget is that there would have been no Game 5 without Edgar, either. In Game 4, he led his team back from an early 5-0 deficit with two homers, one a game-winning grand slam in the eighth, and a record seven RBI.
Yet, beyond that series, Edgar struggled in league championship series in 1995, 2000 and 2001.
"I don't think you can call it regret, I'd say disappointment," Edgar said of his ALCS problems. "I don't dwell on it too much, but sometimes I think back on it and as a player you blame yourself. While I was feeling guilty, others were feeling the same. When you don't win you ask, 'If I had only done this or that.' I found everyone has the same thoughts."
Said Lou Piniella, his former Mariners manager: "They knew what Edgar meant to us, and they worked him hard." In the end, it remains a tribute that stopping Edgar was a key to stopping Seattle.
In a sense, those misses add to the lasting image of Edgar's valiant effort in an unfulfilled quest. Others got glory, but blue collar to the end, he got respect and love for his loyalty, for the purity of his game and sweetness of spirit he brought and kept.
He finished with two batting titles, his .356 in 1995 the highest by a right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio's .381 in 1939, and seven All-Star appearances.
He was among the top 10 in MVP voting twice — third in 1995, when he carried much of the load with Griffey out with a broken hand, and sixth in 2000.
He was the hub of two great and yet different offenses, the slugging Mariners of the mid-1990s and the small-ball teams of 2000 and 2001.
He finished with more than 2,200 hits and 1,200 walks, 500 doubles and 300 homers, and a .400-plus on-base percentage, numbers achieved by only Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Barry Bonds.
Yet it is unlikely that Edgar will join them in Cooperstown, at least right away.
"They can't hold that against Papi," said former teammate Alex Rodriguez. "He belongs there. The only reason he had to DH was his legs."
Martinez's .315 lifetime mark as a DH, where he is the only one with 1,000 RBI, is by far the best of that category.
Edgar: Hall of Fame voting out of his hands
"It is for others to decide," Edgar says of the Hall. "But I don't see how it makes sense to keep a DH out because he does not play a position, if pitchers are voted in. They are specialists, too."
Earlier this year, he admitted privately he was considering his departure. "But when I go, it will be forever," he said, "And forever is a long time."
But he had obviously slowed up, and he knew if he came back he'd be even slower.
"I tried every adjustment I ever made to hit better," he confessed. "But I just could not pull the ball any more. When I was young I couldn't hit to left, so I'm finishing where I started.
"As long as I could be productive and contribute, I was all right. That is not the case now. It is time."
With that and the Mariners losing, the long run played out, the decision was made for him.
So Edgar has played his final game, the last player ever to wear No. 11 in Seattle blues. The number will be retired someday and fittingly so, for it is not 11 but two ones: Edgar Martinez is not only the No. 1 player in Mariners history, but he is also No. 1 in the hearts of M's fans.
Years from now, when grandsons tell their elders, this guy can hit or that guy, they will smile at the children and say, "Those are fine hitters, but you should have seen Edgar. You should have seen Edgar."
Bob Finnigan: 206-464-8276 or email@example.com
EAGLE HARDWARE / EVANSGROUP, 1997
Edgar Martinez's role in the commercials helped the designated hitter connect with Mariner fans. One of his most popular ads featured the construction of the 'light bat.'