erik lundegaard

Seattle Mariners posts

Saturday August 20, 2011

No One in the Wings: The Underappreciated Career of Edgar Martinez

This essay was originally published in The Grand Salami in September 2004 on the occasion of Edgar Martinez's retirement from baseball.

If Edgar Martinez worked a 9-to-5 job he’d be the guy who arrived early, performed, excelled, was slapped on the back by the boss, and when the time came for that big raise or promotion … someone else would get it. At meetings he’d be silent while loud-mouths took over. He wouldn’t complain even as lesser-talents were elevated past him. He’d just keep doing the work, quietly and efficiently, and eventually he’d retire with an afternoon party, a slice of cake, and maybe a parting watch for his decades-long efforts. The quintessential company man: underutilized and underappreciated.

In baseball, thank goodness, we can quantify talent. We just look at the stats. Yet even in baseball—one of the purest meritocracies around—it took the Seattle Mariners years to figure out what kind of talent was toiling away in their mail room.

Edgar Martinez on his last Grand Salami cover before retirement: September 2004Reputations are made quickly and are hard to shake, and Edgar made his in 1983 in Bellingham when he hit a paltry .173, and again in 1985 and ’86, at Double-A Chattanooga, when he led Southern League third-basemen in putouts, assists, and fielding percentage. As a result, even after he hit .329 with Triple-A Calgary in 1987, director of player development Bill Haywood said the following about him when he was called up in September: “His glove is his strength. Hitting over .300 is a pleasant surprise.”

Translation: We have no clue what we have here.

Other people’s reputations are even harder to shake. In 1985, Jim Presley, a 23 year-old third baseman, set a Mariner record with 28 homeruns, and fans licked their chops imagining what this kid might do when he reached his prime. Except, it turned out, that was his prime. Three years later, when good-glove, no-hit Edgar was leading the PCL with a .363 batting average, Presley slumped to .230 and 14 homers. But he still had his rep, and Edgar had his, so even in 1989 Presley played twice as many games as Edgar; and even when Presley was finally traded before the 1990 season, Edgar still wasn’t part of the Mariners’ plans.

“I think Darnell Coles is going to surprise a lot of people,'' manager Jim Lefebvre told The Seattle Times in February 1990 about his new starting third baseman. “He knows there is no one in the wings, just Edgar Martinez to back him up. I think it is time for him to realize that he belongs at third, because to play that position you have to be an athlete. And Darnell Coles is an athlete.”

Translation: Edgar Martinez is not an athlete. He’s just a back-up. He’s no one in the wings.

Yet the numbers were there. Mariner management just had to look at them with a clear mind. Stats guru Bill James did, and in 1990 wrote, “What a sad story this one is. This guy is a good hitter, quite capable of hitting .300 in a park like Seattle, with more walks than strikeouts. Martinez has wasted about three years when he could have been helping the team.”

A month into the season Coles lost the job, and Edgar was finally allowed to help the team that never helped him.

In 1991 Jim Presley retired from baseball with the following batting average and on-base and slugging percentages: 247/.290/.420. Darnell Coles managed to hold on until 1997 with these lifetime numbers: .245/.307/.382. When Edgar Martinez retires on October 3, 2004, he’ll be only the 15th man in baseball history to retire with a batting average over .300, an on-base percentage over .400, and a slugging percentage over .500. Who didn’t make this list? How about Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Joe DiMaggio (they didn’t walk enough); Wade Boggs and Jackie Robinson (they didn’t have enough power); and Mickey Mantle (he didn’t hit .300).

More importantly, all but one of the .300/.400/.500 guys are in the Hall of Fame, and it would’ve been a clean sweep except Charles Comiskey was a cheap bastard and Shoeless Joe Jackson went looking for money in all the wrong places. So does this means Edgar will go into the Hall of Fame? Probably not. His percentages are out of sight but his raw numbers aren’t high enough to justify making him the first DH to be enshrined. If only he’d been able to play a few more good seasons. If only he’d been brought up earlier. If only Bill James had been running the team.

The man has reason to complain but that’s just not our Edgar. In a world of look-at-me swagger, Edgar is egoless and uncomplaining. His calm is almost comical. He’s been his own straight man for years in a series of very funny Mariners commercials. “Yes, we have a coupon.” “What's that all about?” “That’s a problem.” The ad campaign told us “You gotta love these guys,” but none was more lovable than Edgar. “I think he's a guy,” Mariner broadcaster Dave Niehaus once said, “that every grandmother likes to have around to cuddle. Just to say ‘He's my grandson.’ He's that type of guy.”

It’s more than grandmothers. When I was going to all those amazing games in September and October 1995, my girlfriend, who wasn’t a fan, began to watch them on television, and Edgar quickly became her favorite player. “He has all this pressure on him,” she said, “yet he stays so calm.”

Grace under pressure. Men want it and women dig it and Edgar has it. And of course, famously, he came through, with that double down the left field line, the most famous swing in Seattle history. But it wouldn’t have even been possible if the game before Edgar hadn’t driven in seven runs to force the deciding fifth game. I know a Yankees fan who recently admitted the following: “When Edgar came up in Game 4, bases loaded, none out, I knew from my Yankee perspective the game was lost. There was an absolute-zero possibility that Edgar would not come through. He was too hot, too good. Thus when he hit the grand slam I thought the hysteria was completely irrelevant, because the Mariners had already won the instant he stepped into the batter's box.”

It was Ken Griffey Jr. who wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the nom de guerre “Yankee Killer.” I’m sure SI had their marketing reports about who appealed to the proper demographic and who didn’t. News wasn’t news anymore but marketing. Junior appealed. Edgar who? Other Mariners eventually graced the cover of SI: Randy, Bone, A-Rod, Ichiro. Edgar who? He was A.L. Player of the Month five times but that didn’t matter. He won two batting titles but that didn’t matter. He kept ringing up .300/.400/500 seasons but that didn’t matter. He’d been overlooked before—by us—and now the national media was overlooking him, even as we were finally celebrating him. In April 1991 Mary Harder began bringing a sign to the games: “Edgar esta caliente!” Others caught on. The Diamond Vision screen caught on. Senor Doble. Senor Octubre. Gar. Papi. Eddddgrrrrrrrr… Edddddgrrrrrrr….

One by one, other players left us. They felt they weren’t appreciated. We didn’t pay them enough money or attention or love. Mostly money. Edgar stayed. Edgar doesn’t leave. In a business where players upgrade agents the way CEOs upgrade wives, Edgar has had the same agent since Double-A ball. He was raised by his grandparents in the Maguayo neighborhood in the town of Dorado, Puerto Rico. They were poor, and his grandfather ran a transport business, and when Edgar was 11 his parents reconciled and he had to choose between moving back to New York or staying in Puerto Rico. “I felt my grandparents needed me,” Edgar told Larry Stone in 2001. “I remember all the work they needed to do.”

The Mariners had work to do, too, and they nearly did it in 2001, when they won 116 games but got clobbered in the ALCS by the Yankees, whose management loves winning more than ours. So no World Series ring, or even a World Series, for Edgar, who got into baseball watching his hero, Roberto Clemente, triumph in the 1971 World Series. Edgar could’ve jumped ship. He could’ve gone over to the Yankees, like so many great players before him: Wade Boggs, Chuck Knoblauch, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez. Quick! I need a World Series ring! But Edgar doesn’t leave. Not for something as frivolous as jewelry. There was work to do.

Mariner records fell before his steady, blistering bat. In 1996 he passed Alvin Davis for most career doubles, and in 1997 most career walks. He passed Junior for most games played in 2000, most at-bats and hits in 2001, most runs and extra-base hits in 2002, and most RBIs and total bases in 2003. The Mariner record book is his now. This season he sliced his 500th double and clobbered his 300th homerun. In his first at-bat after announcing his retirement he went deep into the left field stands. The place went crazy. Such pandemonium this calm man causes.

It was from his grandparents that Edgar learned his famous work ethic. Former Mariner Dave Henderson:

He starts with the simple hitting off a tee: one-handed left-handed, one-handed right-handed, then flips [hands], then two hands. Then he goes into batting practice. And this is in January…When he gets into the batter's box, he's all done with his work. He's just applying it.

Former Mariner Stan Javier:

I've never seen anybody—maybe Don Mattingly—work as hard as Edgar Martinez. I'm talking about eyes, hands, feet. He spends hours and hours in the batting cage. He probably does more stuff for his eyes than for his swing.

The players know. The way other writers know who the good writers are, other players know who the good hitters are. In the end this may be his best chance for Cooperstown. Because if the Baseball Writers Association of America won’t vote him in, maybe the Veterans Committee will. Eventually. Good things come to those who wait, and Edgar is good at waiting. Just ask Jim Presley. Just ask Jim Lefebvre. Just ask any pitcher who tries to get him to nibble at something outside the strike zone.

As he limps into retirement, slower than any professional athlete has a right to move, the recipient, surely, of no infield hits since 1992, attention must be paid. So let’s turn September into one joyous retirement party. You see no. 11 striding to the plate? Get off your seat. Put your hands together. Point him out to the kids. Chant his name. Enjoy these last lingering moments. Because for a man who was no one in the wings, Edgar Martinez turned out to be the most special someone who ever put on a Mariners uniform.

Posted at 09:24 AM on Aug 20, 2011 in category Seattle Mariners, Baseball
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Sunday July 31, 2011

M's Game Report: The (Two) Kids Are Alright

The last time I was at Safeco Field, June 25th, the M's lost to the Florida Marlins but were flirting with (standing next to, pretending to know, engaging in conversation with but totally being dissed by) .500. They were only a few games out of first place, and, among fans, there were crinkled noses and thoughts of “Really? This team? No. Yet there they are...” We assumed they wouldn't stay there but hope began beating its tiny wings anyway. That 17-game losing streak earlier this month stilled those wings. In a way it was a relief. We knew, no matter what the standings said, that a team with the worst offense in baseball could only go so far.

Yesterday afternoon, a beautiful Pacific Northwest afternoon, I returned to Safeco and watched the M's win for only the second time in 20 games, 3-2 over Tampa Bay, behind two rookies: Michael Pineda, who pitched no-hit ball into the sixth, and Dustin Ackley, who hit a 2-run homerun in the 1st inning, a line shot over the 405 sign in right-center, then a 2-out, ringing double in the sixth (almost to the same spot), which led to the M's third and final (and winning) run when Mike Carp lined a single to right to plate him.

Dustin Ackley rookie cardI'm now 5-2 on the season.

Pineda, with the usual snap to his fastball, wasn't quite as sharp as the numbers indicated. He threw 46 balls with his 64 strikes, and walked four while striking out 10. His strikeouts, inning by inning, indicate he probably tired: 7 Ks through 3 innings, then 3 Ks for the final 3 1/3. He only gave up one hit, a single, but left with two on, both walks, in the 7th. The bullpen, though, Jeff Gray and Brandon League, didn't give up a hit, either. So a combined one-hitter! Not bad. Gray added two strikeouts, too. Meanwhle, the Rays starter, Alex Cobb, another rookie, struck out 9. So close. How often do both starting pitchers, both rookies, wind up with double-digit strikeouts? Can't be common. I was almost bummed when they took Cobb out in the 7th.

I sat with my friend Jeff R., between old folks to our left and young folks to our right, talking old UBS shit and housing prices. The guy to my immediate right, who had the slouching posture of a teenager on a bus, kept dissing Jack Wilson. The M's crowd, near 25,000, kept dissing Chone Figgins ... even though no one else (besides Ackley and maybe Carp) are hitting. The future star of spring, Justin Smoak, is now 12-for-July, a .146 average, dropping his season totals to .218/.313/.385. Again: Is he injured? Should he be rested? Most of the rest of the team has OPSs hovering in the mid-.600s: Brendan Ryan: .650; Ichiro: .633; Miguel Olivo: .631. Those are our better guys, too. Jack Wilson? .509. Chone Figgins? .479. Franklin Gutierrez? .457. Eech.

Despite the game's good news—Pineda, Ackley, Carp—the best news might have been this: The M's are no longer stuck with the 30-30-30-30 label! They are still last in the Majors in runs scored, on-base percentage, and batting average; but are, for the moment, and by a hair's breadth, 29th in slugging percentage. Thank you, San Diego!

Posted at 09:00 AM on Jul 31, 2011 in category Seattle Mariners, Baseball
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Tuesday July 26, 2011

At Seventeen

I wrote about the Mariners fall from grace a week ago (“The 30-30-30-30-Club”), when they'd lost nine in a row. Now it's 17. A loss to Oakland on July 6th. A four-game sweep by the Angels. All-Star break. A four-game sweep by the Rangers. A three-game sweep by Toronto. A three-game sweep by Boston. Now the first two games to the Yankees. They've been outscored 101 to 47 during the run. In eight of the games they've been shut out or managed only one run.

Joe Posnanski posts about their sad streak here.

Seattle Mariners logoTonight was the worst. C.C. Sabathia had a perfect game going into the 7th. Then Brendan Ryan singled with one out. At .264, he's nearly our best hitter. Dustin Ackley, a June call-up, and our best hitter, struck out. Miguel Olivo, our home run leader (he's got 13), struck out. It was Sabathia's 14th strikeout of the game.

In the 8th, Sabathia loaded the bases on walks with nobody out and was promptly relieved. A chance! Followed by strikeout, groundout (for a run), strikeout. And the groundout should've been a double play.

For some reason, maybe to give him work, the Yankees brought in Mariano Rivera in the 9th. Seemed overkill: strikeout, line out, strikeout. Final line for Yankees pitchers: 9 innings, 18 strikeouts, one hit. That was no. 17 for the Mariners. As if in a cartoon, it rained on them, too.

Posted at 08:37 PM on Jul 26, 2011 in category Seattle Mariners, Baseball
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Monday July 18, 2011

The 30-30-30-30 Club

The Mariners' season came undone while I was visiting family in Minneapolis in early July. They were getting by, as my friend Jim said, with Smoak and mirrors, and on July 5, despite getting swept by the Nationals and Braves in late June, they were 43-43, .500 exactly, and only a few games out of first place in the weak American League West.

On July 5 they beat Oakland 4-2 in 10 innings. The next day they lost to the A's, 2-0, but still won the series, 2-1.

They haven't won since.

The Angels swept them in four games in Anaheim. The Rangers swept them four games here. That's a nine-game losing streak. Now they're more than 10 games back. Season over.

Seattle Mariners logoIt's not just that they lost, it's how they lost. In the four games here, the M's gave up 17 runs and scored two: one on Saturday night, one on Sunday afternoon. In 36 innings, they not only never had the lead, but, since Texas scored in the first inning in three of the four games, the M's actually trailed for 34 of those 36 innings. Even though every game starts out 0-0, they can't even hold onto the tie.

Last season, the M's set a record for fewest runs scored by a Major League team in a non-strike-shortened season since the advent of the DH rule. They were last in almost every offensive category. Runs: 30th. Batting Average: 30th. OBP: 30th. Slugging: 30th. So it is again. They're the sole members of the 30-30-30-30 club. They don't seem interested in sharing that dishonor.

So how could it get any worse? This way: We're down to just mirrors. Justin Smoak, who currently leads the team in HRs (12) RBIs (43) and OBP (.324), is in a downward spiral. Here are his numbers, month-to-month:

Month AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB HBP SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG OPS
April 74 9 21 6 0 4 17 14 0 18 0 0 .284 .393 .527 .920
May 96 8 22 6 0 4 14 14 1 27 0 0 .229 .333 .417 .750
June 93 5 21 6 0 4 9 12 1 16 0 0 .226 .318 .419 .737
July 45 2 6 2 0 0 3 4 0 10 0 0 .133 .196 .178 .374

Ouch. Remember that Springsteen song, “I'm going down”? I'm going down down down down, I'm going down down down down ... That's what we've got here.

Is he injured? Are fans talking about it? Are there fans?

M's management is doing the right thing. I have to say that. They're going young now. They're building from within. But the team is suffering from the bad moves and worse picks from earlier in the 2000s. The question is how long they—and we—will be suffering.

Posted at 01:23 PM on Jul 18, 2011 in category Seattle Mariners, Baseball
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Saturday June 25, 2011

Game 6: How a Home Victory Equals a Loss

At least we saved ourselves a half inning.

In other words, yes, it was cool that because of a scheduling conflict with a U2 concert, the Florida Marlins had to abandon their own stadium and play their home series against the Seattle Mariners here, at Safeco Field, under National League rules—meaning the M's wore road grays, batted first, and pitchers hit. All of that was cool to see. But the best part of the game may have been that, for this Mariners loss, we got to leave a half inning early. If you're going to see a home loss, better to see one that lasts a mere 8 1/2 innings instead of the full 9.

My sixth game of the season was an altogether unthrilling affair. In the bottom of the first, the Marlins got their first three batters aboard on solid base hits and plated them all. The Mariners only scored two the entire game. That's pretty much it.

But for the first time in a long time, I did get to see the game with both Tim and Mike, with whom I shared a 20-game package back in '94, '95, '96, etc. It was throwback night for us and we trotted out some new Chris Bermanisms to go along with the old standards: Bobby “I Am Curious” Ayala; and Bob “With Six You Get” Ayrault. Mike came up with: Omar “Au Revior Les” Infante. I came up with: Dustin “Heart attack, ack, ack, ack, ack” Ackley.

OK, so we're rusty.

Final score was 4-2, Marlins, which is also my score this season. Not final.

Seattle Mariners logo   Florida Marlins logo

In the battle of the water-themed teams, the Mariners couldn't catch themselves some Marlins...

Posted at 10:37 PM on Jun 25, 2011 in category Seattle Mariners, Baseball
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