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Mariners icon Edgar will be missed
by Alan Schwarz
SEATTLE—You've heard of Blake Street and of Broad Street, of Addison Street and Yawkey Way. But for the warmest boulevard in baseball, walk down First Avenue in Seattle.
Down the third-base line of Safeco Field, a mantle of Mariners greets passersby—mammoth 12-by-10-foot posters of most every player on the club, all identified by first name only. JAMIE. BRET. ICHIRO. MIGUEL. Their pine-tarred hands might as well jump out of the concrete and high-five you right there on the street.
The names have changed a lot recently, with RANDY, JUNIOR and A-ROD all leaving town. But SoDo (South of Downtown, the area where Safeco Field sits) now must brace for its saddest so-long of all, to a player who all but inspired this club's first-name-only familiarity.
No player in Mariners history ever embodied the workingman grit of Edgar Martinez, who in August announced that he will retire at this season's end. For 18 years, none carried his class and conscientiousness, his ever-temperate pursuit of the perfect swing. None became more embraced by the Pacific Northwest as its club escaped the undertow of mediocrity and became an American League powerhouse.
And none will be more missed as fans walk down First Avenue toward the turnstiles. Edgar—or even just "Gar" to his good friends, of which he has maybe a million here in Seattle—is slipping his bat into the rack for the final time.
A-Rod's Role Model
Martinez played his first games in the Seattle organization in 1983, when Pat Putnam was at first, Richie Zisk was DH and Gaylord Perry was in the rotation. In the two decades since, there have been better players in Mariners uniforms. But not one was more respected than Edgar Martinez.
Rather than bristling at becoming the DH back in 1995, Martinez made the science of his swing a daily class, self-taught and self-maintained. He developed eye exercises long before they were en vogue. He smoothed his stroke as if with a bricklayer's trowel; in time he became baseball's mason, a blue-collar, lunchpail type of worker who gave an honest day's work day after day, as reliable as the sunrise.
"I've never seen him have a bad at-bat," Alex Rodriguez said of his former teammate. "It's amazing—he's always on every pitch, always knows what he's doing up there. He was a great player to learn from."
"I think he was the best righthanded hitter in baseball," said Twins DH Matt LeCroy, echoing many major leaguers during Martinez' tenure. "A lot of times you think of the best hitters, they're lefthanded—Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Rafael Palmeiro. But Edgar gave a quality at-bat every time. He knew his zone. He knew his plan. And he executed."
The numbers bear that out. Through late August, Martinez had lifetime statistics of .313-306-1,250 in 2,025 games, most of them as the best and most consistent DH ever. His on-base (.420) and slugging (.518) averages were astounding for someone who gradually ran as if wearing ankle weights.
Martinez can still hit. But those legs have finally given out.
"From my lower back to my legs, I feel they haven't been good enough to play this game at a very competitive level," said Martinez, 41. "In the past I've had injuries. At this point I don't feel injuries. It just is the most they can do. They don't respond."
The Great Debate
Fans respond to nothing like a good Hall of Fame argument, and there'll be a doozy with Martinez. Lesser players hurt him: Jim Presley blocked him at third base until he was 27, leaving his career numbers short of the truly elite; and when Mike Blowers was a better third baseman in 1995, Martinez moved to DH and spent 70 percent of his career having no defensive value at all. Martinez was spectacular from 1995-2001, but was he Sandy Koufax spectacular?
His being called "the best DH ever" will forever advertise his limitations as much as his strengths. Ever the gentleman, Martinez understands this. "When you're classified in the best in one area, it is a compliment," Martinez said. "I accomplished something people can remember about me."
Martinez' denouement will not be filled with meaningful hits—like his double to win the 1995 Division Series against the Yankees, the most meaningful hit in Mariners history. Two days after he announced his retirement plans, the three pitchers for a suddenly disastrous Seattle team were named Madritsch, Atchison and Sherrill, who had about three hours of big league experience among them. It seems fitting that it's only as Martinez leaves that an entire new Mariners era must enter.
These folks will be well served to remember the example this earnest Puerto Rican set for all of baseball these last 18 years. His teammate, Bret Boone, still is amazed at how, even on his days off, Martinez walks around the dugout with his gloves on, a bat in his weathered and accomplished hands.
"You ever put that thing down?" Boone will say.
"No," Martinez replies. "I like the feel."
So did we, Edgar. So did we.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to [email protected].