It’s easy to romanticize Martinez, whose number will be retired Saturday, as a chosen one whose success was preordained. But there were numerous junctures that could have stopped him from becoming what former second baseman Bret Boone called “the greatest Mariner of all-time.”
Edgar Martinez had a blessed baseball career, one that has earned him a street in his honor outside Safeco Field and an award for designated hitters in his name, brought him to the brink of Cooperstown and won him a lifetime of affection in his adopted hometown.
But as he settles in for the latest incarnation of unabashed Edgar love — the retirement of his No. 11 jersey on Saturday at Safeco Field — Martinez’s mind wanders back to the not-so-good old days.
He reflects on Bellingham in 1983, a 20-year-old fresh from Puerto Rico experiencing culture shock and hitting .173 in the Northwest League. He thought of Wausau, Wis., the next year, when he broke out with a .303 average in the Midwest League but still was stamped as a good-field, little-hit, borderline prospect. And he pondered all those years in the late 1980s he dominated the Pacific Coast League in Calgary, only to be blocked from a major-league job by the Mariners’ third-base incumbents, Jim Presley and Darnell Coles.
“When I reflect, that’s where my mind tends to go,” Martinez said this week from the Oakland Coliseum just before heading off to batting practice in his current job as the Mariners’ hitting coach. “All the hard work in the minor leagues. Those were the times I didn’t have any idea of what was going to happen in the future.”
What would happen, of course, was two batting titles, a Hall of Fame statistical portfolio and the most famous hit in Mariners history. Martinez was the rare guy that would draw opposing players to the bench during batting practice to try to glean some mechanical tip, but mostly just to admire an artist at work.
In talking this week to former Mariners manager Lou Piniella, who regretfully will miss this weekend because of illness, I could hear the reverence for the man they called “Papi” long before David Ortiz earned a similar honorific.
“If every player I ever managed was just like Edgar, believe me, I would have never had any problems,” Piniella said.
Yes, it’s easy to romanticize Martinez, with that sweet swing still emblazoned in the minds of Mariner fans, as a chosen one whose success was preordained. But in retrospect, there were numerous junctures that could have stopped him in his tracks from becoming what former second baseman Bret Boone called “the greatest Mariner of all-time.”
No sure thing
As Edgar reminded me, it was once murky and uncertain, dating to his childhood in Maguayo, the neighborhood in Dorado, Puerto Rico, where he grew up. Born in New York, Martinez had moved in with his grandparents in Maguayo as an infant, along with his two siblings, when his parents split up.
At age 11, Martinez’s parents reconciled and summoned the children to New York. His younger brother Elliott and older sister Sonia went. After anguishing soul-searching, Edgar chose to remain with his grandparents.
“I was in a real hard situation,” Martinez told me in 2001 when I visited Maguayo for an article on his roots. “I wasn’t sure what I was doing, really, but I went with my feelings. I felt my grandparents needed me. I remember all the work they needed to do. I just felt great staying with them. I felt it was the right decision.”
Who knows what path Martinez’s baseball career would have taken in New York? Instead, it was nurtured in the backyard of his home on Calle 13 in baseball-crazy Maguayo, where he and his cousin, future major-leaguer Carmelo Martinez, would play ball, hitting anything that the other threw at them — balls, rocks, bottle caps, even taped-up Christmas ornaments. When it rained, Martinez would go outside and swing at raindrops. And when his grandfather was involved in one of his frequent backyard construction projects, Edgar would take a broomstick and hit rocks all over the yard.
All that made him a solid youth hitter, but scouts flocked to Carmelo and largely ignored Edgar, deemed too skinny and weak to provide much power. Instead, Edgar enrolled at American University in San Juan to study business administration. He worked a day job supervising a furniture store and a night job at a General Electric factory. At age 20, he figured his baseball career would be limited to the semipro team for which he played.
“I was thinking, ‘Well, I have to go and prepare myself for a good job,’ ” he told me. “At that point, I sort of lost hope of signing.”
But fate intervened once more in the form of an early-morning tryout in nearby Bayamon, run by Seattle scout Marty Martinez (no relation). The owner of Edgar’s semipro team convinced him to give it a whirl, but Edgar, who had worked through the previous night, nearly missed the tryout when a friend who was supposed to tell him the time forgot to call. The owner, however, rousted him and made sure he got to the field, where Marty Martinez was impressed enough to offer a $4,000 bonus.
“That’s amazing, right?” Edgar said. “It took someone to think of me and show up at my house.”
And then it took Carmelo beseeching his cousin to sign when Edgar had concluded that the bonus offer and an uncertain future in pro ball wasn’t enough to offset what he felt was a comfortable life in Puerto Rico.
“I had a good job that paid well early in my life,” he said. “I had a new car, I was going to college at night, playing semipro and making some money at baseball. At that age, I thought I didn’t need to take that risk right now for the amount of money offered. But Carmelo convinced me to take that chance.”
‘I was wrong on Edgar’
And thus was Mariner, and baseball, history altered once more. There would be more bumps along the way, and more moments when providence — or more accurately, people who believed in Martinez — intervened. For instance, after his struggling debut season in Bellingham, Marty Martinez had to convince Hal Keller, then Seattle’s general manager, to send Edgar to the instructional league in Arizona. Keller felt the league was reserved for prospects, which wasn’t how he viewed Edgar. But Martinez hit .340 in the instructional league and was on his way.
“I was wrong on Edgar,” Keller would tell me years later. “I never thought he’d hit in the big leagues.”
As brilliant as Martinez’s career was, one still has to wonder how much even better it would have been if the Mariners had called him up to stay in 1987, when he hit .329 in Calgary, or 1988, when he hit .363, or 1989, when he hit .345. Instead, he had only brief stints in the majors those years, which kept him from a full-time job until 1990, at age 27.
“It might have made the decision on the Hall of Fame a heck of a lot easier,” longtime Mariners executive Lee Pelekoudas said.
Another obstacle presented itself in the minor leagues when the Mariners’ new eye specialist, Dr. Douglas Nikaitani, diagnosed Martinez with strabismus, a condition that prevents his eyes from seeing in tandem. Nikaitani still hasn’t heard of another MLB hitter who has successfully conquered the abnormality, as Martinez did.
The doctor, early in his tenure, told Martinez he would do everything he could to help him, and Edgar eagerly bought in. During his career, he would faithfully do the eye exercises that Nikaitani prescribed for him, up to 30 minutes a night, and it allowed him to overcome the issues with depth perception and focus inherent in strabismus.
“He was diligent from Day One, minor league to the end,’’ recalled Nikaitani, now semi-retired. “Amazing. It’s a tribute to him, his dedication and work ethic. Edgar had the personality where someone like me wanted to keep helping him. I loved the person he was.”
Martinez had a vision crisis in May 1999 that caused him to fear the worst. He suddenly was losing sight of pitches, leading to such apprehension of an errant ball to the head that the Mariners were on the verge of putting him on the DL. Edgar himself thought he might even have to retire.
“He was really struggling and afraid,” Nikataini said.
Martinez made an emergency call to Nikaitani, who went to his house on an off day with a bold strategy. The doctor put his eye charts on the wall, and while Martinez was reading them, Nikaitani bombarded him with stimuli. He fired tennis balls at Edgar, making him swat them away. He confronted him with martial arts kicks and punches that Martinez had to thwart. He even called out math problems to solve while Edgar did his eye work.
“What I tried to do was bring in all his senses and challenge his visual system,’’ Nikaitani said. “After an hour or two, he said, “I think I’m good.’ ”
Martinez returned to the lineup and hit two homers against the Twins in his next game. And in the game after that, he hit three home runs. Crisis averted — and some of the most productive years of his career lay ahead before his retirement in 2004.
“He was able to get his concentration to a higher level than guys who had better vision,” Nikaitani said. “He had a problem, but he overcame it, and he built it up to a level higher than guys who didn’t do it.”
M’s heart and soul
There might have been no Mariners player more respected by his teammates, or revered by the fans.
“He was just steady Eddie,” former outfielder Jay Buhner said. “That was his deal. He was very quiet, but he was deadly.”
“The Latin players respected him immensely, but he was respected by everyone,’’ Piniella added. “There was no one I wanted at home plate in a tight situation or game-winning situation more than Edgar.”
Pelekoudas said Martinez was the glue holding together a clubhouse filled with strong and sometimes volatile personalities.
“He was pretty much the heart and soul of the organization, I think,” he said.
Fans picked up on Martinez’s genuine decency, and their affection only grew when he stayed in Seattle while other superstars left. Martinez recalled one year when his contract expired without a new deal, “and I became a free agent for eight hours. But we had an agreement the next morning.” Otherwise, he was never tempted to leave and said he envisions spending the rest of his life in Seattle.
That consistency has made him an icon. Jim Copacino, the creative director of the Copacino+Fujikado ad agency that has done Mariners commercials for years, knew that any spot involving Edgar immediately would be a big hit. Mulling it over now, Copacino believes it was Edgar’s authenticity and humility that shined through.
“He wondered why people wanted him in it,” Copacino said. “He believed he wasn’t that interesting, but he was. He could have read the ingredients on a cereal box, and people would have loved it.”
One can only imagine the local reaction if Martinez makes the Hall of Fame, as he should, and I believe increasingly, will. With two years left on the ballot, he has jumped from 27 percent in 2015 to 58.6 percent last year, putting the 75 percent requirement within range. Martinez is gaining increasingly vocal support from influential analysts such as Jay Jaffe of SI.com, author of the recently published, “The Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Who Should Be In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques.”
After crunching the numbers, Jaffe concluded that even with the built-in penalty assessed to a designated hitter in statistics such as Wins Above Replacement, Martinez still attained value commensurate with a Hall of Fame player.
“We’re talking about a guy who transcends the limitations of the DH role,” Jaffe said.
Transcending limits has pretty much been the Edgar Martinez life story.