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#EdgarHOF - Day 5

“FIRST!”: On MLB debuts spectacular and unspectacular

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Edgar Martinez #11...
I’m just happy to be here

When Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant made his debut last year, baseball media stopped just short of forcing everyone to don white gloves and make a St. James Bow. Writers turned in thousands of words on his 0-for-4 performance, including a three-pitch strikeout in his first at-bat. And then striking out in his next at-bat. And the one after that. Despite being sick of Bryant-mania by that point, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the kid. On my first day on the job as a maid (I was terrible) I accidentally dropped and broke a client’s perfume bottle. There wasn’t even anyone there and I wanted the earth to swallow me whole, so I can’t imagine an 0-for-4 performance on a national stage. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise, then, for the prospects who arrive with little hype: the September roster expansion candidates or injury call-ups, those who need to do little, because little is expected of them.

On September 12, 1987, when Edgar Martínez made his MLB debut, he didn’t even start the game. The Mariners were well out of the playoff race by then, and would go on to finish fourth in the AL West at 78-84. Edgar only entered the game, a 12-2 drubbing of the Chicago White Sox, in the sixth inning, as a pinch runner for starting third baseman Jim Presley, he of the robust .247/.296/.433 slash line. Dave Valle would then come up and ground into a double play to end the inning, meaning the Mariners couldn’t add to what at that point was a ten-run lead. Edgar would get one more chance to bat, in the bottom of the 8th. He popped out in foul territory.

There’s so much cultural import built up around firsts: first days of school, first kisses, first legal drink. Often, there’s a performative aspect to this, whether it be someone taking your picture or making a speech or toast; it’s a signal from society that you were one thing, and now you are this other thing. It’s a tradition that is codified in baseball, as well, with play-by-play announcements and the ball from a player’s first hit or first strikeout being given special treatment. Unfortunately, not every first is good. Sometimes your first kiss is a drooler; sometimes your first MLB game is played late in the season, late in the game, in a blowout in front of 10,000 people. Kris Bryant’s first, despite the media coverage, was a game to forget. He would come back the next day, however, and collect two hits and three walks. Edgar had to wait a little longer for his second shot in an MLB game, but he made it count; on September 14, 1987, he hit a triple off of Reggie Ritter of the Indians and scored his first run when fellow amateur free agent Mario Díaz hit a sacrifice fly. 7,000 people were there to witness it.

A first is merely a vessel, a hollow thing that has to be filled up with meaningful experience; simply the fact that it is first is not enough. And yet there is a performative aspect to marking many of these firsts, be it the parent with a camera on the first day of school or your friends jostling for the right to pour something terrible down your gullet on your 21st. We as observers celebrate firsts because they are for us, markers of people making their progression across the chessboard of our lives, mobile but predictable pieces of our personal orrery. But no one wrote 2,000 words about the backup third baseman who played in 13 games for the Seattle Mariners in the tail end of the 1987 season, and it wouldn’t have mattered if they did. That brief flash of offensive production—16 hits in 13 games, for a line of .372/.413/.581—gave a preview of the kind of hitter who would develop over the next decade-plus in Seattle. But in 1988, Edgar would only play in four games in May before being sent back down to the minors. That’s the other thing about firsts; it’s usually not your sole decision when they happen, and for Edgar, it would take another year before he would have his first full season in baseball.