John McGrath

Edgar Martinez a baseball legend devoted to the Mariners, beloved by the fans

Seattle Mariners former designated hitter Edgar Martinez smiles as he speaks at a news conference announcing the retirement by the team of his jersey No. 11, Jan. 24, 2017, in Seattle. The Mariners will retire Martinez’s number Saturday, Aug. 12, as part of a weekend celebration.
Seattle Mariners former designated hitter Edgar Martinez smiles as he speaks at a news conference announcing the retirement by the team of his jersey No. 11, Jan. 24, 2017, in Seattle. The Mariners will retire Martinez’s number Saturday, Aug. 12, as part of a weekend celebration. AP

Four years ago, during a pregame event that had little of the pageantry awaiting Safeco Field fans Saturday afternoon at 5:30, Edgar Martinez lobbed a ceremonial first pitch over the heart of home plate.

The occasion was memorable not for the ovation Martinez drew, but his demeanor after it. Having replaced a Mariners jersey for a sport shirt, he ambled into the Hit It Here Cafe with some friends. Dining at a table behind two rows of seats above right field, wearing sunglasses, the quiet pillar of four Mariners playoff teams went virtually, and very contentedly, unnoticed.

An assumption could be made that Martinez went incognito in an effort to avoid autograph seekers and their inevitable request for him to pose for a photo. The assumption is wrong. No Seattle pro athlete has been more accommodating with the public than baseball’s original “Papi.”

More likely, the namesake of Edgar Martinez Drive didn’t want his presence to cause a stir. Such humility helps explain his status as the most beloved player in Seattle Mariners history.

Other factors contributed to Martinez’s enduring appeal: His loyalty to the only professional baseball organization he’s ever known; his remaining in the Seattle area after retiring as a player; his humanitarian efforts, and, of course, the game-winning, series-clinching double in the 1995 playoffs, produced by his signature swing – a mechanically precise and yet fluid piece of work that renders him prevalent in any conversation about the most accomplished right-handed hitter of the 1990s.

But at its core, Martinez’s popularity is steeped in his determination to carry himself with a kind of understated demeanor fans recognize as dignified. It’s why a sellout crowd is expected Saturday for the official retirement of a No. 11 jersey that hasn’t been worn by anybody else in two decades.

“For what he’s meant to the game and baseball fans in the Pacific Northwest who’ve followed his career, it’s awesome to honor him like that,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said Thursday. “People have an appreciation of what he did for such a long period of time, year after year after year.

“His numbers are unbelievable: on-base (percentage), extra-base (hits), the number of hits, the clutch hits. It’s crazy what he was able to do.”

Martinez’s master craftsmanship at the plate suggested he was a natural, born with a bat in his hands. Actually, the first bat was a broomstick, used to hone his eye-hand coordination while growing up in Puerto Rico.

“My grandfather did construction work at several locations,” Martinez recalled before the opener of the Mariners four-game series against the Angels. “I would go there with a broomstick and hit, sometimes for hours. I hit bottle caps and any type of thing that could be (construed) as a baseball. We had Christmas ornaments with foam inside, and we’d put tape around them and play with those.

“We didn’t have video games, so we were very creative.”

From those hours spent with a broomstick until his final big-league plate appearance in 2004, nobody put more effort into the task of hitting a ball than Martinez.

The work ethic extended beyond baseball. While attending classes at American College in Puerto Rico, Martinez took a night-shift job as supervisor of a pharmaceutical plant assembly line for $4 an hour. When a Mariners scout offered him $4,000 to sign in 1982, he was approaching his 20th birthday, a late bloomer rooted in the notion that hard work could overcome all odds.

He made his big-league debut as a September call-up from Triple-A Calgary in 1987. The first of his 2,247 career hits was a triple. His second and third hits were doubles. Over 13 games, he hit .372, but he was a third-base prospect on a club committed to veteran Jim Presley, a one-time All-Star, and in 1988 it was back to Calgary, where The Guy Blocked By Jim Presley won the PCL batting championship with a .363 average.

Martinez didn’t play a full big-league schedule until 1990, by which time he was 28. Had the Mariners recognized his potential a few years earlier, it’s likely there is no debate over Hall-of-Fame credentials that are rich in prime-season numbers but fall short of the standard career milestones.

Consistent with his low-key style, Martinez has resisted touting his candidacy in the spirit of, say, Hall-of-Famer Bert Blyleven, a great pitcher never particularly shy about reminding the world how great he was.

Amid the tired debate about the Hall-of-Fame worthiness of a designated hitter who spent the brunt of his career as a specialist, Martinez can take consolation that his peers regarded him as a freakish talent.

“The only guy I didn’t want to face, when a tough situation comes, was Edgar Martinez,” peerless Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, the ultimate specialist, said during a 2008 TV interview with Charlie Rose. “It didn’t matter how I threw the ball, I couldn’t get him out.”

(The recollection was accurate. In 23 plate appearances against Rivera, Martinez hit .573.)

“Oh, my God, he had more than my number,” Rivera told Rose. “He had my breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Martinez feasted on Rivera, and was remarkably productive against just about everybody else who didn’t throw a knuckleball. Between 1990 and 2001, he hit over .300 every season but 1993 (when a hamstring tear limited him to 42 games) and 1994 (when the labor dispute limited him to 89).

But no statistic more accurately describes Martinez than 18, as in number of years spent with the same major league team.

“I think fans appreciate that I stayed here my whole career,” said Martinez, the Mariners hitting coach since 2015. “At the beginning, the organization was down. We didn’t have great success, and then we had success. I was here through the lows and highs. That means a lot to fans.”

Such iconic Mariners as Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez and Lou Piniella chose, for one reason or another, to leave Seattle. Martinez not only stayed put, he stayed out of the news on those occasions he negotiated with management.

From the Now It Can Be Told file: Edgar Martinez once was a free agent.

“One year we didn’t have an agreement on a contract by the deadline,” he said. “I became a free agent for eight hours. The next morning, we got it settled, and I stayed here.”

Come Saturday at Safeco Field, so will his jersey number.

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