The retirement of Edgar Martinez’s No. 11 this coming season is ceremonial because it appears that in 2017, and for many years to come, judging by Edgar’s enthusiasm for his current position as Seattle’s hitting coach, that number will grace the M’s dugout on a nightly basis.
The beauty of the Mariners’ decision to retire Edgar Martinez’s No. 11 is that the uniform is not merely going on display in ceremonial fashion. Not yet, anyway.
In 2017, and for many seasons to come, judging by Edgar’s evident enthusiasm for his current position as Seattle’s hitting coach, that number will still grace the Mariners’ dugout on a nightly basis.
More to the point, it will still be found deep in the bowels of various stadiums around baseball, hours before game time, as Martinez does the monotonous, daunting dirty work that is the essence of the job.
And the part he absolutely loves. The glamour-free aspects of teaching hitting (which is most of them), the long, arduous hours in the cage, has overwhelmed and spit out many a former player, particularly the superstars to whom the nitty-gritty of the craft were not always part of their sphere.
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That’s not Edgar. Hitting never came naturally to him, despite the prettiest right-handed swing of his generation that was the end product. He had to spend hours in the cage, hours visualizing success, hours studying pitchers, hours doing his eye exercises, hours lifting weights, before he became an overnight success.
“That’s why they’re hanging his number next to (Ken Griffey Jr.) and Jackie (Robinson), and why he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame, because he’s all about work,” said former Mariner Jay Buhner, who came to Safeco to attend his longtime teammate’s number-retirement announcement on Tuesday.
“In order to get something, you have to put in the blood, sweat and tears. He continues to do that and always will. That’s just his personality. That’s him.”
That ethos informed Martinez’s career, and now it’s permeating his second act. By all accounts, he has been an outstanding hitting coach ever since then-general manager Jack Zduriencik asked him to come to the ballpark one day in mid-June of 2015. The Mariners were going to change hitting coaches, Zduriencik told Martinez. Did he want the job?
After discussing it with his wife, Holli, he decided to accept the position. Martinez had already begun dabbling in roving minor-league instruction and enjoyed it. His children had grown to the point that he felt comfortable with the travel. And he found right away that the rewards of the position made all the hassles worthwhile.
“I think there are two sources that make you feel good,” he said. “A young player where you see improvement, and the veteran player that goes through the ups and downs, and you’re there to support and help. Those things make it fun for me, and stimulating, and keep me going.”
On Tuesday, Martinez ran through the highlights of his career and the achievements that brought him to the point that his jersey was being retired. He recalled his first day in the Mariners organization in 1983, when he landed at SeaTac from Puerto Rico, a stranger in a strange land. He was greeted by his rookie-league manager, Jeff Scott, and got on a bus with a bunch of players he had just met to head to his new home, Bellingham.
Martinez recalled the day he was called up to the majors for the first time, the first time he walked into the clubhouse at the Kingdome, his first at-bat, his first All-Star Game in San Diego. The glory that was 1995, and the biggest hit in Mariners history. His last day in uniform in 2004.
“It’s fun to look back sometimes,” he said.
I asked him if he was building a reservoir of new memories in his role as hitting coach, which began under Lloyd McClendon and continued under Scott Servais. Last year, the Mariners ranked sixth in the majors in runs scored per game (4.74), their highest ranking since leading MLB in 2001 (when Martinez hit .306 and drove in 116 runs).
He struggled to come up with specific moments; more of a recurring theme that was a visceral feeling.
“In general,” Martinez said, “it’s good to look at a player, to focus and see something and say, ‘Why don’t you try this?’ And it works. That’s the best satisfaction as a coach we can get.”
And that’s why it’s unlikely that Martinez’s number will be truly retired any time soon.
Buhner has witnessed how Mariners players react to Edgar, the awe they feel in being instructed by one of the greatest hitters of all time. That built-in respect begins the process, but the true respect grows when they see that Martinez is there to give them not just his knowledge, but his sweat.
“If you can’t listen to Edgar Martinez, something’s wrong,” Buhner said. “He’s a walking book of knowledge, and every player is like, we’re absolutely going to sponge off this guy. I think he did a wonderful job last year. He’s excited about it. He bleeds Mariner blue and breathes baseball, so this is a good fit for me. He’s happy, and that’s the main thing.”
Buhner laughed when he recalled seeing Martinez hit the weight room hard last spring after everyone had gone. When Buhner asked why he was still grinding, Edgar patted his stomach.
“He’s vain,” Buhner said, and not as a pejorative. “Once a player, always a player. He’ll always have that. The second you take that edge away, you might as well throw in the towel. He’ll never do that. Ever.”
Martinez said he’ll still occasionally step to the plate and take a few swings, either to display a technique or just because it’s in his blood. Last year, in Houston, he took two rounds of batting practice, and was surprised by how well he saw the ball.
“It felt good,” he said with a smile.
What a gift it is that Martinez will continue to wear No. 11, hopefully long after it takes its permanent home in the rafters, and in history.