Watching Edgar Martinez be the respectable, graceful stoic he always has been Saturday night at Safeco Field, I couldn’t help thinking how much fun it would have been to see him turn to the visiting dugout and say, “Hey, Angels — you suck!”
Except that it would have induced about 45,000 heart attacks, and no one wants that. Everyone wanted Martinez to be Martinez, so he was. It was plenty.
As if he had a choice. Martinez has been metronomic in his steadfast earnestness, be it batter’s box or TV commercial, for all 18 years of his playing tenure, through his return to the club as hitting coach. His character is almost as amazing as his hitting feats.
And the hitting feats were accomplished despite a vision condition, called strabismus, that required a relentlessly boring routine of exercise and rest to maintain his extraordinary skill in doing sports’ most difficult routine feat — hitting a baseball thrown by a major league pitcher.
Two descriptors about Martinez come from all his former teammates: Work ethic and preparation. He willed himself into a career that will be recognized, if justice remains in the world, in the Hall of Fame.
In his remarks after No. 11 was unveiled upon the centerfield facade, Martinez made gracious mention of many, including his grandparents who raised him in Puerto Rico after his parents split up.
“I wish they were here,” he said, the emotion audible.
His grandfather, Mario Salgado, was the source of Martinez’s devotion to detail and repetition. During a 2001 interview with me for my book, Out of Left Field, Martinez explained his experience.
As all Seattle school children are taught, Martinez’s immortal double beat the Yankees in Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series, which remains the most significant play in Seattle’s sports history. The book’s narrative sets it up:
The player whose reputation within baseball far outstripped his public profile was about to reverse that order, with what Lou Piniella would describe later as “the hit, the run, the game, the series and the season that saved baseball in Seattle.”
Anonymity suited Martinez well. Although he won his first batting tittle in 1992, he had little recognition outside Seattle. “It has a lot to do with my personality,” he said. “I just try to do my job and stay quiet. I do what I’m told, and not cause problems.”
That sort of approach won over a lot more teammates and fans than it did headlines, which made him happy. Raised in Puerto Rico by his grandparents, Martinez would watch his grandfather, Mario Salgado, fuss over a task until it was done to near perfection. A truck driver, Salgado would not accept any imperfection in his vehicles.
“He hated to do mediocre stuff,” Martinez said. “If he did a thing wrong, he would do it right until it was perfect. When I was younger, a lot of times I didn’t understand it. But as I got a little older, I found myself doing things the way he did them.
“My friends would complain a lot about me.”
He applied the same relentless attention to detail to his job as designated hitter. His perfection would annoy the Yankees as much as it did Martinez’s childhood pals. His .356 average that won the batting title was the highest for a right-handed hitter since Yankees great Joe DiMaggio hit .381 in 1939. For the ALDS against New York, Martinez would hit .571, tying a major league record for most times on base in a playoff series (12 hits and six walks).
A moment before he stepped into the on-deck circle, relief pitcher Norm Charlton came up to him, knowing Martinez had struck out in the nnth.
“He kept repeating that I was going to be the one again — I was going to do it,” Martinez said. “I told him, ‘This is my chance again.'”
As the concrete shed trembled, the chance came on a 2-1 count, when Jack McDowell served up a split-finger fastball that hung instead of sinking . . .
From there, your Seattle-trained mind follows Martinez’s liner, follows Ken Griffey Jr., around the bases and the rest is jiggly because you’re jumping and crying. Happens every time the replay is shown at Safeco, which we all agree is way too much, just as we all agree we eat too much ice cream.
What Martinez learned from his grandfather came around to help save baseball in Seattle, and made for a splendid reflection Saturday in a celebration of the kind the Mariners do better than anything in the franchise’s deeds.
It is hard to imagine those little Puerto Rican kids being annoyed by Edgar. But upon reflection, it is hard to imagine Edgar Martinez, if we hadn’t spent decades in his thrall.