The baseball gods giveth, and the baseball gods taketh away.
From the Mariners, the baseball gods have mostly taketh. I don’t need to run down the list of times our meek team has been smote by the unfathomable deities that rule the baseball diamond. You have lived through the long, playoff-less seasons and watched the years of unconscionably cruel performances. To appease them, the trident was jettisoned and a new ballpark was built in honor of the heroes on the field.
You may remember, then, those years when the gods smiled upon our team, when they blessed our fandom with an abundance of gifts. They gave us one of the greatest players of all time in Ken Griffey Jr. We got to watch him in his youth and in his prime, playing the most exciting center field we’ll likely ever see. He hit home runs at a pace few other players have matched. We were given the surly Lou Piniella who made us laugh and cheer with excitement at his petulant antics. We saw the rise of Randy Johnson, from wild-child thrower to mature, fire-throwing pitcher. We had the thrilling playoff race in 1995 and we won 116 games in 2001.
Those gifts were spectacular. We still talk about them. We bore the youths when we recount those golden years and we make our children roll their eyes in annoyance at hearing about those moments yet another time. However, the greatest gift the baseball gods bestowed upon us came in the form of a hero more humble than brash, more cerebral than haughty. He fit into our sensibilities, and like us, was often discounted and unappreciated in the wider world. He was cherished as a family member, and as loved as any Seattle player has ever been.
On Sunday, he will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There’s a cool sense of satisfaction in repeating those words slowly, and savoring every syllable.
Edgar Martinez. Baseball Hall of Famer. Lifetime Seattle Mariner. And the greatest gift the baseball gods have ever given us.
He was a gift to the organization, of course. He was a good investment, the signing who was able to excel on his way through the minor league system and not only reach the major leagues, but propel his team to the postseason. He won awards and acclaim for his team and the organization itself.
Edgar Martinez was really a gift to the fans though. It was the baseball gods saying, “You know, you’ve taken a lot of L’s in your existence. We’re gonna give you this one.”
He changed the role of the designated hitter from a way for a player to take it easy for a game into a full-time professional hitting position. He set the standard for a full-time hitter, and the position has been left in his mold. He was one of the first players to really get into weight training and finding ways to maximize performance. He was disciplined and regimented.
His impact on baseball was so great, the award for the best designated hitter in the major leagues is named after him. You could even argue he was a gift to all of baseball from the baseball gods.
Edgar Martinez was certainly for baseball, but he was really for us. He was there when we wanted to believe that anything was possible. He was there with a steadiness and easy-going nature that belied his determination and focus on improving. He made us believe in impossible things. He gave us magic.
He was injury-prone. It’s why he stopped playing defense. He tore his hamstring during an exhibition game just prior to the beginning of the 1993 season, and was never the same. He didn’t want to be a designated hitter, but he took it on with the focus and determination he took on every challenge he faced. He had an eye condition called strabismus and underwent an intense, daily set of exercises to strengthen them so he could hit.
Edgar is the story we tell to children about working hard and believing in yourself. He’s the story we tell to adults who have lost belief in the good in the world. He’s the example we set for ourselves when we want to be good people, when we need an example of what it means to care intensely about things that matter, and how to forget the rest.
This gift the baseball gods gave us could easily have lost its way. Edgar signed with the Mariners when he was nearly 20, old for a player coming out of Puerto Rico. He could have stayed home where he had a job, school, a car, a girlfriend, and a fun little gig playing semipro baseball. He says it was his cousin, former major leaguer Carmelo Martinez, who convinced him to sign. He told Larry Stone of the Seattle Times in 2004, “I had good possibilities for a good living, but I had that dream to play in the big leagues someday.” He had a dream the baseball gods convinced him was worth going after.
The baseball gods didn’t help the Mariners with many decisions in those days. In fact, they seemed to be absent, letting the team do what it would. The Mariners never cleared a path for their small, skinny third baseman to have an easy leap to the big leagues. A myriad of players were thrown in his path, blocking him. Edgar stayed the same steady Edgar, and he wore them down.
No one predicted he would become a prolific hitter. It was his defense that earned him praise. The scout that originally signed him pictured Edgar as a future middle infielder. He played third base, but he just wouldn’t develop the power to stay there. Edgar proved them all wrong. He studied hitting and pitchers and learned to see the different pitches. He became a technician with his swing, and a scientist with his bat.
He almost got too good for the Mariners. Prior to 1995 the front office publicly wondered if it could afford to keep him. The system of signings and arbitration was in flux, and no one knew what to expect coming out of the 1994 strike which had resulted in a cancelled World Series. He remained on the team because the baseball gods had things for him to do in 1995.
Near the end of the 1997 season, baseball was abuzz with talk of radical realignment. It was essentially a geographic realignment of the teams into an eastern and western league, which the Mariners supported being the team that traveled the most. The downside was that the western teams would be in the National League, and lose the designated hitter. Team president Chuck Armstrong seemed flippant about the possibility of losing the DH saying, “We’ve come to like the DH, but to get realignment we’ll do whatever is necessary for the good of the game.”
Edgar, then 34, talked candidly about retiring if the Mariners were to switch leagues. He said he talked with his wife, Holli, about the possibility, “Holli and I want to stay in Seattle…we want to raise (our children) in Seattle.” He added, “I really don’t want to move anywhere else…I have to be happy to help my family be happy.”
Luckily, baseball abandoned its radical idea. Whether it was the pressure of tradition, or an intervention from baseball’s deities, we can only guess.
There was a brief period of time when he was on the trading block along with Randy Johnson in 1998. The defending AL West Champions lacked any resemblance of the team the year before. Of course, Randy would go and Edgar would not. The next few years were filled with talk and debates about whether the Mariners would retain Ken Griffey Jr or Alex Rodriguez. As it turns out, neither. They were not destined to remain Mariners.
In 2002, Edgar was briefly a free agent for the first time since signing his first contract when he was 19 years old. But still, he remained. It was what the baseball gods wanted.
Edgar as a Mariner was what we all wanted.
He wanted to be here in Seattle. After Griffey left and Rodriguez followed, it felt good to be wanted. When one of the best hitters in baseball wants you? It means that maybe your team is going to be okay.
Alas, the baseball gods giveth, and the baseball gods taketh away.
As Edgar’s career wound down, they gave us Ichiro. They took away the playoffs and contention. They never took away Edgar though. Even when he retired, it felt like the natural end. He dedicated himself to us as long as he could. It was time for him to step out of the batter’s box.
On Sunday, he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. 15 years after he retired, the baseball gods were still looking out for him. All these years we worried he would not be elected. We worried that baseball wouldn’t acknowledge him the way he deserved. We should have known all along the baseball gods would take care of it.
Edgar Martinez. Baseball Hall of Famer. Designated hitting pioneer. Lifelong Seattle Mariner.
Our beautiful gift from the baseball gods.