One by one, they approached Edgar Martinez, eyes brimming with joy, sometimes even with tears. Almost every person, in the brief allotted time, had a story, an anecdote, an affirmation, they wanted to relate.
In fact, felt compelled to.
“Edgar, you’re the reason I fell in love with baseball.”
“Edgar, I just wanted to say thank you for the years of joy you gave me.”
“I’m going to Cooperstown for your induction – I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Edgar, I named my cat after you.”
“Edgar, I named my son after you.”
One of the great privileges of working with Martinez on his autobiography for the past 18 months has been to see, first-hand, the profound effect he has had on so many. Sitting next to Edgar at book signings, what I experienced was a mere snapshot of what I know is a constant tableau for him.
“What’s most touching for us is that the fans have embraced Edgar not only for his tremendous ability with baseball; they’ve fully embraced him as a person,’’ said his wife, Holli Martinez.
Martinez the baseball player will receive the sport’s ultimate honor on Sunday when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Martinez the person is what has elevated him to a level of such adoration and reverence that his long-delayed acknowledgement by the Baseball Writers Association of America in January was met with rapturous joy around here.
For the entirety of his career, Martinez was in many ways a secondary star in Seattle in terms of national impact, nestled at various times behind Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro. Yet he never left, unlike the others, and that allowed fans an opportunity to get to know him in a slow, genuine, unforced way. And gradually come to adore him.
“He was everyone’s unsung hero for all those years, because we had bigger-named people,’’ said the Mariners’ long-time athletic trainer, Rick Griffin. “He was a lot of people’s favorite player.”
There is a steadiness, a gentleness, a grace, a determination – dare I say, an essential goodness — that exudes from Martinez. I sensed that long before he and I collaborated on the book. That association merely cemented those feelings.
I first got an inkling in 2001 when I went to Edgar’s hometown of Dorado, Puerto Rico – specifically, his neighborhood, Maguayo — for an in-depth article on his roots.
I found a modest town of immeasurable pride, a place where Edgar learned the value of hard work and kindness from the grandparents who raised him.
“It’s the kind of town where everybody helps each other,’’ Edgar’s cousin, Carmelo, told me in the course of researching the book.
“Edgar is the silent hero here,” said Mako Oliveras, a legendary manager in the Puerto Rican winter league. “You say something wrong about Edgar in Maguayo, and you’ll have to be fighting all day long.”
The mere mention of Edgar’s name in the course of book research opened doors and knocked down walls. Everyone, it seemed, was eager – compelled – to share their affection for the man. That included family members, his minor-league managers and teammates, and a cross-section of the most visible Mariners’ players of the past two decades.
There remains a deep appreciation, of course, for Martinez’s transcendent skill with the bat. That’s where it all begins. Harold Reynolds, an early teammate, called Martinez a hitting “genius” on par with a handful of other luminaries like Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew.
Dan Wilson marveled at Martinez’s “relentless pursuit of hitting.” Jay Buhner said, simply, “There was no one better. At the end of the day, there’s not enough things I can say to eloquently talk about what a great pure hitter he was.”
Virtually everyone – from Todd Francis, who encountered Edgar in his first year of professional baseball in Bellingham and never made it farther than Single-A, to current Mariners manager Scott Servais, next to whom Edgar stood in the dugout the past three years as Seattle’s hitting coach — spoke incredulously of Edgar’s uncanny ability to both set up, and break down, pitchers. He would tell you precisely how an at-bat would unfold, said Norm Charlton.
“And to watch the scenario play out exactly the way Edgar said was unreal,’’ Charlton marveled.
But it went well beyond merely his craft, marvelous as that was, right down to the meticulous way Martinez took batting practice, with regimented routines involving tee work that never wavered. “I mean, you could sit and watch his batting practice three or four days in a row, and it seemed identical,’’ Mike Blowers related. “To the point of even the way he was hitting the ball, the direction it was going.”
All that helps shed light on the hitting savant, the guy “holding sermon” on the nuances of his batting approach to teammates listening raptly in the back of team charters, according to Charlton. And of whom closer Eddie Guardado said, “The guy you didn’t want to face was Edgar. Edgar was danger.”
When it came to the respected teammate and treasured friend, Martinez’s colleagues were eager to extol a different set of virtues. Like perseverance, loyalty, humility and inclusion. And how effortlessly Martinez exuded leadership, not with fiery speeches but rather by the sheer strength of his presence.
“He was the silent, soft-spoken right-handed batting champion sitting in the corner,’’ Bret Boone said. “He wasn’t one of the main personalities in the room, because Edgar didn’t say much. But he had the respect of the entire room.”
“Edgar was the block,’’ Griffin said. “He was the granite. He was always the steadying force. He was always there.”
They all saw how Martinez delved into the mental side of baseball. And how diligently Martinez worked to overcome the eye condition, strabismus, that could easily have derailed his career. It required up to an hour of eye exercises every day for nearly two decades. And at various junctures when his eyes wouldn’t respond, Martinez required even more intense drills to pull him out of it.
In a long interview for the book in which he detailed just how perilous it was for Martinez to face 95-mph fastballs with eyes that didn’t properly align, Dr. Douglas Nikaitani marveled at his ability to not just get by, but thrive.
Nikaitani, the Mariners’ team optometrist at the time, believes that Martinez should be regarded with the same awe that someone like the Seahawks’ Shaquem Griffin garners for thriving in football despite a handicap.
“People don’t realize what Edgar overcame,’’ Nikaitani told me. “But I lived it with him, so I know how difficult it was. How dangerous it was, on top of that. He was risking his life when he went to bat.”
They all saw a man whose decency never wavered, no matter how much attention, fame or money he got. Martinez’s agent, Willie Sanchez, told me how Edgar remained fiercely loyal to Franklin Sports, who provided him with batting gloves early in his minor-league career when he was an anonymous third baseman whose future was far from guaranteed.
“Nike came up later and said, ‘We could give you more (money),’ ‘’ Sanchez related. “Edgar said, ‘Not on your life. Where were you when I needed you?’ He stayed with Franklin.”
Martinez also stayed with Sanchez, whose client list was minimal, when the bigger agencies tried to woo him as his earning power grow.
“A lot of players today bounce around from agent to agent, whoever tells them what they want to hear,’’ Sanchez said. “Edgar was different.”
And Martinez stayed with the Mariners, season after season, 18 of them, never seeking the bigger paydays that would have come by hitting the free-agent market in the prime of his career.
“Some ballplayers just fit a certain city,’’ Sanchez said. “Others don’t care who they play for – just show me the money. That’s not Edgar. If you put him in New York, would he have shined the way he did in Seattle? It’s all hypothetical, but I don’t think so.”
Teammates saw all that and many tucked it away for their own use. They saw Martinez’s involvement in the community and in charitable activities and learned even more.
“He taught a lot of us that kind of thing,’’ Wilson said. “I’m grateful for those lessons.”
“When I look at Edgar, I smile,’’ said John McLaren, long-time Mariners’ coach under Lou Piniella. “I see a warm, compassionate man that was a great baseball player.”
Now all that remains is the pomp of the induction ceremony – the fun part, though Martinez will have to sweat out the speech, like every inductee. It’s what you yearn for, and yet the prospect of facing the 50,000 fans in front of you on the lawn in Cooperstown – and perhaps even more daunting, sensing the 80 or so Hall of Famers on the stage behind you – can be unnerving.
“I know I will be nervous, but I’m up to the challenge,’’ Martinez said recently.
In typical Martinez fashion, his speech was more or less finished weeks ago. Now he’s honing it, refining it, and working on his delivery. While many inductees are still finalizing their speech the night before, for Martinez it was just another task to grind out.
“He started writing it, I think, the day after he got the call,’’ said Holli with a laugh. “That’s one of the things I appreciate so much about him. It’s in line with what made him so successful in baseball. He prepares. He approaches things in a methodical way. He’s very much revising and editing and practicing. He’s ready to go.
“That’s the No. 1 question Edgar gets – how’s the speech coming? He’s as prepared as anyone can possibly be.”
The speech, Holli said, “came from the heart.” Martinez said he wanted, most of all, to acknowledge all the people who played a role in his success – and to do so, more challengingly, in the eight to 12 minutes allotted by the Hall. And so Martinez rehearses the speech over and over to an audience that sometimes consists of just his dog.
“If you want to do it right and do it well, you have to practice,’’ Martinez said. “In a way, it’s like you’re preparing for some performance, whether it’s hitting, or the game, or a speech.
Edgar and his family had a preparatory trip to Cooperstown in April that helped invest him with the gravity of his pending inclusion into this ultra-exclusive club. Given a special insider’s tour of the Hall of Fame’s archives, Martinez got to hold Babe Ruth’s bat, and touch Roberto Clemente’s cap – “which for him was deeply moving,’’ Holli said, “because Roberto was his hero.”
That’s when the reality began to settle in for Martinez – this is really happening. When you see the Hall of Fame program with your likeness on the cover, you can’t ignore that fact, Holli said.
“You know Edgar – he’s always good about keeping his blood pressure low,’’ Holli said last week. “I think there has been a gradual realization that this is really happening. Every week, we get shipments of memorabilia from the Hall of Fame shipped to the house. That was a sign – reality sinks in when you see your name listed with the amazing icons of baseball.
“This is not something you can ignore. We have a tendency to very much be introverts, to settle into our own rhythm and ignore the hype. You cannot do that. There are too many reminders, too many people excited. So we’re starting to lean into it more.”
So, too, are the legion of fans, teammates and supporters of Martinez. They will feel connected to him in deep and emotional ways on Sunday when he is handed his Hall of Fame plaque and takes the microphone.