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.
Reputations 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.