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The News Tribune
Still Hitting At 41; Edgar Martinez Is More Than A Great Hitter; He's The Soul Of The M's Franchise
By LARRY LARUE
April 6, 2004
Most of the Seattle Mariners call him "Papi," Raul Ibañez calls him "Sensei."
"He's my teacher," Ibañez said.
Edgar Martinez has taught hitting for more than 15 years, and not just to players. It's hard to find anyone in baseball who hasn't learned something from him.
"The first year he was in our system, they tried to make a second baseman out of him," said Roger Jongewaard, a Mariners vice president who has been in the organization 19 years. "He struggled with the position - he'd never played it - but the funny thing was everyone was more worried about his bat.
"They didn't think Edgar could hit."
It was 1983, and Martinez batted .173 in 32 minor-league games.
"The next year he hit over .300," Jongewaard said, "and he hasn't stopped. It taught us all that the first year in baseball may not mean much.
"Some kids have trouble making the transition from wooden bats to aluminum. They're thrown in with a couple of roommates, and they may not like that. Can you imagine if we'd let Edgar go at that point?"
Martinez was 20 that season. After having spent much of his young life in Puerto Rico with his maternal grandparents, he was a stranger in a strange land playing baseball in Bellingham.
"I remember driving by the Kingdome after flying into Seattle," he said. "It was late at night, so I didn't stop. I just drove to Bellingham ..."
Ken Griffey Jr. can recall going to The Edgar whenever his swing felt wrong.
"We came up together and he knew my swing as well as anyone," Junior said. "He could watch a couple of swings and tell you what you were doing differently."
Second baseman Roberto Alomar called Martinez "the greatest right-handed hitter I've ever seen."
"All young Latin players coming up study Edgar," he said.
Alex Rodriguez was one of them.
"I watched him at the plate, in the dugout, in the clubhouse, on the field," Rodriguez said. "That's the way I wanted to hit. It's the way I wanted to carry myself, too."
Jamie Moyer, who seems to know pitching as well as The Edgar knows hitting, comes to Martinez with questions. So do most of Seattle's starting rotation.
"You want to know what's going through a good hitter's mind in a certain situation, a certain count, Edgar knows," Moyer said. "It's something worth learning."
He teaches more than hitting. He is a professor of Mariners history, a man who has played for four general managers, five managers and with a few hundred teammates.
The stories Martinez could tell - if he could only remember stories.
How about something on Alvin Davis?
"Great person, great leader," The Edgar said. "Alvin was always friendly."
"What I remember is how hard he played - you could see how determined he was to win," Martinez said.
"I can't say a lot. He didn't say much to anybody."
"A good friend, an intense player, hard-nosed. Jay had great tools, and in the clubhouse he'd play his jokes," Martinez said. "No matter what had happened in a game, Jay could always make me laugh."
Remember an example? Martinez thinks.
"Not really," he said.
To get anything close to anecdotal history from The Edgar, he has to be reminded of a story told by someone else. Omar Vizquel, for instance, remembered being in the minors with Martinez when their only transportation was a Volkswagen on its last days.
"I remember that car," Martinez said. "We had to tie the muffler up with shoestrings, and every time we saw a cop, I put it in neutral. But it got good mileage."
OK, memories of Joey Cora? Martinez laughed out loud.
"Joey didn't have many tools, but he got the best from the ones he had," Martinez said. "After that double in the '95 playoffs to beat New York, most guys ran to home plate and mobbed (Ken Griffey) Junior. Joey came out to me at second base and hugged me."
To date, that may be the single largest at-bat in franchise history, a two-run double to lead the Mariners from one run down in the 11th inning of the final game of a five-game playoff series with New York.
Martinez smiled when asked about it, but considered it just another job well done. Not everyone took it so lightly.
Tony Gwynn, now a college coach, but then a player en route to the Hall of Fame, remembers sitting at home watching that game - and that at-bat.
"Edgar vs. Jack McDowell, and the first pitch was a fastball down the middle that Edgar took," Gwynn said. "I turned to someone and said, 'He's setting Jack up. He knows exactly what he's looking for. He's going to win this game."
Martinez waited, got the pitch - a slider - and doubled into the left-field corner. Cora scored the tying run, Griffey the winning run from first base."
Seattle went on to its first appearance in the American League Championship Series.
"That was the best," Martinez said.
The at-bat, the win, the postseason - what?
"All of it," he said.
It is hard to get much out of Martinez, impossible to wait long enough for him to say something negative about anyone. He is asked about manager Jim Lefebvre - whom Buhner wanted to kill and most players weren't fond of.
"Wow," said Edgar.
"Let it go at, 'wow,'" The Edgar said.
Martinez has played with the rag-tag Mariners and the best teams in club history. He tutored Alex Rodriguez, grew into the big leagues playing beside Junior, watched Randy Johnson emerge from an out-of-control lefty to a dominant pitcher.
Asked about all three, Martinez smiles and leans back into a chair.
"Alex loved to learn, loved to work, so it was fun working with him. He listened, he asked questions," Martinez said. "When he left here, it hurt in some ways. I wanted to play together longer. I didn't want it to end when it did.
"Junior was just a special player, a special person. He was so good, it was fun to watch, and he loved the game and loved the clubhouse. He was a great player and a great teammate."
And the "Big Unit?"
"We all watched him improve, year to year, until he just took off as a pitcher," Martinez said. "Playing behind him in the no-hitter was one of the special games I've been in. That and watching him go from a pitcher with a great arm to a great pitcher."
Now the questions get tough. If Martinez could pick one teammate from all the Mariners rosters he'd been a part of, and play his whole career with, who would it be?
"Two guys," The Edgar said. "First, Randy Johnson. He might not talk to you three, four days in a row, but on that fifth day he was the best pitcher in the game. If I'd played my whole career with him, I'd have been in a lot more postseasons."
And the second player? Martinez grinned, shook his head and pointed down a row of lockers.
"Bret Boone," he said. "Boonie's great to watch play. He loves to win, he has a passion for playing and he knows how the game should be played. He knows how important it is to keep the guys in a clubhouse loose - whether you're going good or going bad.
"He's crazy, but I've never been around anyone who could make me laugh so hard."
A little later, Boone is told what Martinez has said and he nods, not surprised.
"Since I've come back to Seattle, we've become good friends," Boone said. "I have played with great teammates all my career, great players, but if I had to say which was my all-time favorite, it would be Edgar."
"The hitting, the toughness, the desire - and the fact that he cares about his teammates," Boone said. "You want to talk, Edgar will listen, and I mean really listen. He's a great hitter. He's a greater person."
He was 27 before he played as many as 100 big-league games in a season, and lost years of his career at the front end.
"I don't know how he managed it," Jongewaard said. "He tore up Class AAA in 1987, but Jim Presley was playing well so we sent him back. He tore it up even more - and the next spring we sent him down again."
In one three-year span, Martinez batted .329, .362 and .345 for the Calgary Cannons, and not once did Seattle give him a long shot at playing in the majors.
Martinez shrugged off any thoughts of bitterness during those years, or since.
"I wasn't sure how good I could be, why should I have thought they'd know?" he said.
His third season with Seattle, Martinez won the AL batting title, hitting .343. In 1995, at age 32, he won his second by hitting .356.
Now 41, Martinez will open the season today with a .315 career average, with 2,119 hits, 297 home runs and 1,198 RBI.
Add in the lost early years, or the 1,225 walks he's taken in his career, and Martinez would have even better numbers.
"If we could give him back those first three seasons, and he'd hit like he always hit ..." Jongewaard shook his head. "If you could take away the serious injuries ..."
Martinez tore a hamstring on the final day of spring training in 1993, then played in only 42 regular-season games. In 1994, Cleveland pitcher Dennis Martinez hit The Edgar on the right wrist - an injury that hindered him for months.
About the time he was healthy, he collided with catcher John Marzano and bruised his ribs so deeply it hurt him to breathe. He played just 89 games that year.
In 2002, he tore a muscle and underwent an experimental surgery to remove a tendon. He missed 65 games that year, limped through most of the rest.
And last season, Martinez fouled a pitch off his foot and broke his left big toe. He kept playing, hardly able to run. And despite that, he batted .294 with 24 home runs and 92 RBI.
"He's a proud man, a very determined guy," trainer Rick Griffin said. "He was 40 and playing on a broken big toe. We've never had anyone at any age do that. I don't know anyone in the game who's ever done that."
Martinez wants to play every day, perhaps more now that he feels career mortality.
"If I stopped working out for a week in the offseason, that might be it," he said. "It's harder to stay ready, to stay in shape now. If I ever got out of playing shape, I'd never get back in."
The year Martinez turned 35, then-manager Lou Piniella thought the Mariners might want to consider trading Martinez - his theory being that at age 35, his own hitting skills began to slide away from him.
"He could have been right," Martinez said, and shrugged.
In the five full seasons since then, Martinez has averaged better than .300 with 123 home runs and 509 RBI. Love of the game kept him coming back, from injury and retirement rumors.
Is this it? Will 2004 be his final season?
"I don't know," he said. "I feel pretty good."
For Martinez, that amounts to a speech - and a pointed one at that. Injuries have left him with a perpetually pained neck, legs that are strong yet fragile. He can no longer play in the field. He can no longer run well.
"Can he hit?" said Boone, repeating a question. "Edgar will be hitting when he's 50. I don't know where he'll be then - I'll be out of the game by then - but I guarantee you he'll still be able to hit. You might have to carry him around the bases, but he'll still be hitting."