Goodness, today is the first of the last three days of this series. By 11:59 PM on December 31, the BBWAA members entrusted with a Hall of Fame vote must have deposited their ballots—old school, printed on something that looks like one step above dot matrix—into boxy blue official receptacles, or in boxes at the end of their drives, raising the rusty flag on the side like a semaphore. Some voters submitted early, and some will wait this out until the last, and others will blow the deadline entirely, and all of these are different visions of discipline.
I am not a disciplined person, not in the traditional sense. At times I can be, and often I wish I was, and manage to fake it long enough that I give myself permission to wear the mantle of the disciplined. In college I signed up for early classes and treasured my time alone in the dining hall, carefully spooning grapefruit segments while most of the campus slumbered. But I wasn’t disciplined so much as antisocial, greedily anticipating the morning sun coming unabated through the windows and I alone to lap it up. This was before so-called smart phones, mind you, that charming anachronism; away from my ethernet cord, I was rootless. Later in life I was an ardent gym-goer, sometimes doing two classes a day; but again, this wasn’t discipline so much as an unwillingness to go home and do the hard work of living my life. Extra crunches and squats seemed a much easier task than having conversations about a relationship that wasn’t working. Again, this wasn’t so much discipline as it was fear.
But writing this series has forced me to become disciplined again. It’s not a selfish act, although I guess it is a little, in the way that having a favorite thing can be a little selfish. But it has made me set aside part of my day, every day, to think about this thing, and to think about it from different angles. It has caused me to think extensively about one player’s career and consider it both broadly—looking at career numbers and how they stack up to others—and in a granular way, looking at individual games, single hits, moments that changed something in a game, a career, a city. It’s taught me a lot about Edgar Martinez, the player and the man, but it’s also taught me about loving something deeply. Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne, “you are always new to me,” and there’s something here about a quality of love that is bottomless. I worried and wondered about how I would fill fifty-plus days of writing about one player—a player who played twenty years ago—but then I’d do some research and find something interesting and sally on forth with that.
If life imitates art, this exercise was destined to instill discipline by virtue of its subject. Maybe there have been ballplayers more disciplined than Edgar Martinez, but I don’t know about them. Reading through stories from across his career, small details jump out. His cousin, Carmelo, who scouts liked better, saying that no one worked as hard as Edgar, the “workaholic.” When Carmelo would come back from his big-league camps, younger Edgar would pester him to teach him every drill he learned from the bigs. In Double-A Chattanooga, when his fellow prospects were lounging poolside, Edgar was in the tiny weight room, trying to beef up his skinny frame. “I wish I had nine guys like him,” manager Bill Plummer said. From a May 24, 1990 article in the Times:
One of Martinez's biggest boosters is Pete Shmock, the former Olympic shot putter, who is the Mariners' strength and conditioning coach.
"God, he reminds me of track and field athletes," Shmock said. "He has found that if he takes better care of himself, he'll get better results.
He's done wonders with what he's got. He's so much stronger than he's ever been." Shmock and trainer Rick Griffin put Martinez on a rigorous program to strengthen his back and legs, primarily to help him get through a season of playing on artificial turf.
Martinez never missed lifting, whether he hit the ball well or poorly in Puerto Rico. "He has the kind of discipline I wish all baseball players had," Shmock said. "I'm proud of him, and he should be proud of himself."
His pregame ritual started five hours before the game and involved working on whatever body part was hurting him (there was always one or two), then tape study, then tee work to address problems in his swing, and finally extra batting practice. The stories of him taking batting practice are legendary: hours before the games, he would practice hitting the ball to every part of the field, aiming for corners and gaps instead of showstopping home runs. Later in his career, when he had been diagnosed with the eye disease strabismus, he would add an hour’s worth or more of eye exercises. When he saw a tiny camcorder advertised in a magazine, he bought it so he could tape himself and study on the plane, without having to rely on video setups at the ballpark. Stories are told of people coming to the ballpark on Christmas to pick something up and seeing Edgar’s car in the lot. When he switched to DH, he changed his body, too, adding bulk that would help him become a power hitter. And always, always he worked on his swing.
We think of Edgar’s swing as a fixed thing—iconic, easily recognizable. What we don’t see is the thousands of tiny tweaks he made to keep that swing the best. Edgar once said in an interview: “The thing about the swing is it looks easy, but it's not. It never was.” That’s how it is with consistency, with discipline. Relationships that look easy like Sunday morning from the outside are the product of a thousand tiny adjustments, a constant balancing act. Writing that flows like water has been scrubbed and polished and trimmed and obsessed over. What looks easy, isn’t, and never was. It’s discipline that keeps those things working. Maybe that’s something each of us could take away from this study: find the thing you want to love better, and apply some rigorous discipline to it, and see where that takes you. For Edgar, let’s hope it eventually takes him into the Hall, where he belongs.