I was working in the media center at Chambers Bay when the news was posed to me in the form of a question Saturday afternoon:
“Did you hear about Edgar?”
My brain was locked into an all-golf, all-the-time mode, and for a few seconds, I assumed “Edgar” was the last name of a U.S. Open participant and not the first name of one of the most beloved pro athletes in Seattle sports history.
“The Mariners just hired him as hitting coach. He’ll replace HoJo,” I was told, and again, I needed a moment to process the information. The Mariners had replaced a hitting coach nicknamed HoJo?
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Ah, yes, Howard Johnson, who had taken over for Dave Hansen, the guy who succeeded Chris Chambliss after Chambliss replaced Alonzo Powell in 2011, a year after Alan Cockrell was canned in the middle of the season.
If you get the sense that there’s a pattern of instability with the Mariners and their hitting coaches, it’s because there’s a pattern of instability. The team has gone through 13 of them in 20 years, searching for that special somebody capable of imparting knowledge about a skill that’s difficult to teach.
Heck, merely identifying what kind of instructor they want has been difficult. The list of former Mariners hitting coaches since 1995 includes somebody with no big-league experience (Jeff Pentland), somebody with limited big-league experience (Lee Elia), several with extensive big-league experience (Jesse Barfield, Gerald Perry, Lamar Johnson, Don Baylor, Chambliss and Johnson) and one Hall-of-Famer (Paul Molitor).
Molitor has been a revelation as first-year manager of the surprising Minnesota Twins. But the skis were way over his head when he accepted the job of overseeing Seattle hitters in 2004. No player in the regular lineup was under 30 — four were over 35 — and the Mariners finished last in the league in runs scored, homers and slugging percentage.
Molitor’s most ambitious plan didn’t so much backfire on him as explode. He wanted Ichiro Suzuki to accept the premise that a walk is as good as a hit and, thus, take more pitches.
“It’s almost like he thinks if he walks, he misses an opportunity to get a hit,” Molitor explained during spring training. “Hopefully, he’ll get on a little more frequently by taking a few more walks, which will result in more runs and lead to more wins.”
Ichiro got on base quite frequently, but not by coaxing walks. His 262 hits that season broke a major-league record set in 1922.
Martinez won’t bring any preconceived notions into his first full-time baseball job since his 2004 retirement. He’ll watch, give advice to anybody open to advice, and console, console, console.
After a week spent listening to the world’s best golfers bemoan the paucity of gimme putts that awaited them in the U.S. Open, I was able to reacquaint myself with the Mariners on Monday night at Safeco Field, the baseball hitter’s equivalent of Chambers Bay: Well-struck shots aren’t always rewarded.
At least Chambers Bay assured contact would be achieved with every swing. The Mariners guaranteed nothing of the sort at Safeco Field, where Robinson Cano’s solo homer off journeyman Kansas City starter Joe Blanton gave them a 1-0 lead in the first inning.
Blanton ended up working six innings without throwing a pitch from a stretch windup. He struck out seven before turning things over to the Royals’ hour-of-power bullpen, which struck out six more.
The Mariners produced no singles and one walk during a 4-1 defeat that found them held under three runs for the 43rd time in 70 games. Their record over those 43 games is 13-30.
The starting pitching is dependable, the bullpen has stabilized, and the defense, while not flashy, more or less can be relied upon to convert routine outs into outs.
But the swing-and-miss flails at balls thrown out of the zone, and the take-and-see approach to balls thrown in the strike zone, is dreadful.
On the bright side? Unlike Molitor, challenged to develop a rapport with veteran hitters past their prime — they weren’t inclined to ask for tips, let alone follow through on them — Martinez might have mystical, horse-whispering ability to connect with the likes of Brad Miller and Mike Zunino.
It’s possible Miller never will develop into a consistently solid defensive shortstop, but he’s got some pop at the plate and a ferocious desire to excel. There’s some there there, and if Martinez can improve Miller’s .224 batting average into the .270 range — easier said than done, to be sure — the new hitting coach will be heralded as a difference maker.
And if Martinez can convert Zunino from a strikeout waiting to happen into a 25-homer threat who strikes out only occasionally, the new hitting coach will be heralded as a miracle worker.
When he’s not making a difference with Miller, or working miracles with Zunino, Edgar Martinez’s role still could be substantial as a kind of triple-threat coach with three items on his agenda.
Console, console and console.