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Edgar Martinez brings the designated hitter to the Baseball HOF

Edgar Martinez, arguably the best DH in the history of Major League Baseball, selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his last year of eligibility.

By Robert Grayson

Once upon a time, there was a wizard in the Emerald City, and what he did was utterly enchanting. Well, actually, he’s still there. His name is Gar, he’s idolized in Seattle (known as the “Emerald City”), and his legend looms larger than ever before.

 1988 Donruss Rookies No. 36

1988 Donruss Rookies No. 36

Edgar Martinez, nicknamed “Gar,” played 18 seasons (1987–2004) for the Seattle Mariners and waved his bat like a magic wand. Gar is now enshrined in a place where generations past and yet to come can learn about all his astonishing deeds—the Baseball Hall of Fame. But, like that fabled cinematic Yellow Brick Road, the road to Cooperstown can be challenging to travel at times, even for those who do amazing things, like saving major league baseball in the Pacific Northwest.

Martinez was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year, his final year on the BBWAA (Baseball Writers’ Association of America) ballot. But he won the admiration of baseball fans, especially in Seattle, long ago, when he got a decisive hit, simply known as “The Double,” in the 1995 American League Division Series (ALDS).

Spring training 1995 revealed nothing extraordinary about the Seattle Mariners. No one expected the team to have one of the most memorable seasons in their history. As the strike-shortened 1995 season began, rumors persisted that the team might be moving to another city. The Mariners had only had two winning seasons (1991, 1993) since the team’s inception in 1977. Attendance was dwindling season after season and the club’s ownership believed that fan interest was on the wane. In addition, the Kingdome was antiquated and needed to be replaced, but the public would have to foot the bill. That was not going to be an easy sell for a team that was hardly a contender.

To make matters worse, on May 26, 1995, one of the team’s biggest stars, center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., broke his left wrist while making a spectacular catch in left center. He would end up missing three months of the season while the injury healed.

Meanwhile, the California Angels were cruising along in the American League West. It looked like another disappointing season for the Mariners, even though Seattle managed to win about half their games with Junior on the disabled list. Don’t forget: The team still had Randy Johnson, Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez. And Edgar batted .356 that season and won the American League batting crown.

 1988 Fleer No. 378

1988 Fleer No. 378

On August 2, 1995, Seattle was 13 games behind the Western Division–leading California Angels, but the Mariners saved their best for an unforgettable division title run. From August 3 through August 11, the Mariners won seven of eight games. On August 15, Griffey returned to the lineup. Now at full strength, the team was about to go on a tear.

Starting on August 24, with a 9–7 win against the Yankees in Seattle, the Mariners won 24 of their last 35 games of the season. Many of those victories were come-from-behind wins. The team adopted the mantra “Refuse to Lose.”

Yet even in the midst of the euphoria over the team’s surge, there was bad news. On September 19, a vote was held in King County, Washington (where Seattle is the county seat), to raise the county sales tax from 8.2 percent to 8.3 percent to pay for a new stadium for the Mariners and keep the team in Seattle. The referendum fell short by a mere 0.2 percent of the vote. But the Mariners kept going, and fans were starting to fill the ballpark, cheering on their home team. On the last day of the 1995 season, the Mariners ended up tied for first with the Angels. In a one-game playoff with the Halos for the division title, the streaking Mariners won 9–1 and were on their way to the American League Division Series against the heavily favored New York Yankees.

After losing the first two games in New York, the scene shifted to Seattle, and Edgar Martinez and a team of unlikely soon-to-become-Seattle-baseball-legends went to work.

“We always believed we had a good team. With Randy, Tino, Buhner and Junior, we felt we could win. We had a lot of comebacks that season and we felt we could do it again,” Edgar Martinez pointed out. “We were not going back to Seattle to lose.”

After all, the Mariners barely lost Game 2, a contest that went 15 innings, and ended with a walk-off home run by Yankees catcher Jim Leyritz.

 1989 Score No. 637

1989 Score No. 637

Seattle won a thrilling Game 3 by a 7–4 score. It was the first postseason game the Mariners had ever won. The Yankees seemed unfazed that the M’s were taking advantage of playing at home. In Game 4 the Yankees got off to a 3–0 lead in the top of the first inning and extended the lead to 5–0 in the top of the third. It looked bleak for the M’s early on, but Edgar Martinez hadn’t worked his magic yet. In the bottom of the third, with two Mariners on base, Edgar came to the plate and hit a three-run round-tripper, putting Seattle on the board. Seattle tacked on another run that inning and the score was 5–4 New York at the end of the third inning.

The M’s tied the score with a run in the bottom of the fifth and took the lead on a home run by Ken Griffey Jr. in the bottom of the sixth. The Yanks would knot the score at 6–6 in the top of the eighth, when Seattle reliever Norm Charlton uncorked a wild pitch with Yankees runners on first and third. That allowed Bronx Bomber Randy Velarde to score from third, with the tying run.

Yankees ace reliever John Wetteland came in the game in the bottom of the eighth to try to stop the pesky Mariners from scoring anymore. But Seattle loaded the bases against New York’s closer and that brought Edgar Martinez to the plate again. This time he hit a grand slam, giving the home team a 10–6 lead. Gar collected seven RBI that day.

Steve Howe replaced Wetteland on the mound, and gave up a homer to Jay Buhner, making the score 11–6. The Yankees got two runs in the top of the ninth, but Seattle went on to win 11–8. That set up the exciting all-or-nothing Game 5 of the ALDS.

“Game 4 was a great game for me. Many people who don’t live in the Seattle area, forget about Game 4, but that was a critical game. We don’t win, it’s over. That was a pretty exciting night for me,” Edgar Martinez said.

Of course, he had no way of knowing what was to come. The “Refuse to Lose” Mariners would prove they could back up their rallying cry.

There was tension in the air on Oct. 8, 1995, as Game 5 started. A winner-take-all game was something new for Seattle fans. Seattle second baseman Joey Cora hit a home run in the bottom of the third to give Seattle a 1–0 lead, but that lead was short-lived. The Yankees scored two runs in the top of the fourth to take a 2–1 lead. The M’s then came back and tied the game with a run in the bottom of the fourth.

 1989 Bowman No. 216

1989 Bowman No. 216

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Seattle starter Andy Benes walked the bases loaded and Yankees captain Don Mattingly doubled home two runs to give the Yankees a 4–2 lead. The Mariners roared back again, scoring two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning and tying the game 4–4. 

The game went into extra innings, with Seattle starter Randy Johnson coming into the game in the 10th inning for a rare relief appearance. He sailed through the 10th but gave up a run to the Yankees in the top of the 11th inning. The M’s had their backs to the wall. All the Yankees needed was to get three Mariners out to claim victory.

The Yankees had one of their aces, Jack McDowell, on the mound in relief. Joey Cora laid down a weak bunt along the first-base line and beat it out for a single. Ken Griffey Jr. then singled to center, moving the speedy Cora to third and setting the stage for the red-hot Edgar Martinez to come to the plate. McDowell’s first pitch was a strike but with the count 0–1, Martinez smacked a double down the left-field line. Cora scored from third and Griffey motored all the way from first, sliding into home ahead of the throw.

The Mariners poured onto the field, piling on Griffey as he sprawled across home plate. The scene became one of the most iconic photos in the history of the Emerald City, and it’s still displayed proudly to this day. Gar became a Seattle sports legend and not only for “The Double.” During the 1995 ALDS the right-handed-hitting Seattle DH had a .571 batting average with 10 RBI, three doubles, two homers, six walks and a .667 on-base percentage. M’s manager Lou Piniella calls the Martinez double “the hit, the run, the game, the series and the season that saved baseball in Seattle.”

On Oct. 14, 1995, six days after “The Double,” the Washington State Legislature held a special session and came up with a way to fund a new stadium for the Mariners. Safeco Field, now T-Mobile Park—retractable roof and all—opened on July 15, 1999. There’s a mural of Griffey sliding into home plate after Gar’s double in T-Mobile Park with a sign identifying it as “The Defining Moment.” The ballpark borders several streets, including Edgar Martinez Drive.

The Mariners went on to the 1995 American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians. The M’s lost the ALCS 4 games to 2, but for most people in Seattle the team became champs after beating the Yankees in the ALDS.

“Yes, I still see that hit in my head. Of course, there are still memories of it all over town (Seattle). I’m proud of what it meant to Seattle,” Edgar Martinez said. “Without a doubt, you would have to say that hit defined my career and I can tell you, I don’t mind that.”

In recalling the 1995 ALDS, he said, “In that series I was in a groove. That happens sometimes and when you get in that groove you have a lot of confidence. I felt good at the plate.”

 1990 Topps No. 148

1990 Topps No. 148

The seven-time All-Star added, “If you get one big hit, it carries over to another big hit and another big hit. I was getting good swings that whole series. I was getting big hits and my confidence was really high at that moment when I came up in the 11th inning in Game 5.”

Martinez notes that one of the keys to hitting in big spots is having positive thoughts.

“The mental aspect of the game is very important. When you have positive thoughts, thinking about going to the plate and getting a hit, it puts you in the right frame of mind to get a hit,” he said.

The two-time American League batting champion said he put an emphasis on visualizing success at the plate throughout his career.

The new Hall of Famer was born in New York City in 1963. After his parents divorced when he was two years old, the future baseball star, along with his older brother and sister, lived with their grandparents for a while in Dorado, Puerto Rico. In 1971, while still living with his grandparents, Edgar heard his aunt cheering loudly as she watched Roberto Clemente and the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1971 World Series. Clemente hailed from Puerto Rico and ended up being named the 1971 World Series Most Valuable Player after the Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles in seven games, with Clemente batting .414. Edgar and his aunt were glued to the television, watching the 1971 World Series.

“I never thought much about baseball, but after that series I went outside and started playing the game every day,” Martinez recalled.

He played baseball with his older cousin and future major leaguer Carmelo Martinez. Carmelo was two years older than Edgar and the pair used sticks to hit rocks in vacant construction sites to develop their hitting skills, Gar remembers. They took turns pitching the rocks to each other.

The boys used baseballs when they could find them, Gar said, but they mostly threw rocks. They also used bottle caps to learn how to hit breaking balls, because bottle caps used to curve so much when they were thrown, he said.

Edgar’s parents reconciled when he was 11 years old. While his brother and sister went back to New York City to live with their parents, Edgar, who had grown very close to his grandparents, felt that his grandparents needed him and he insisted on staying in Puerto Rico.

Edgar graduated from Jose Santos Alegria High School in Dorado and attended college studying business. He also played semipro baseball and held down a couple of jobs. Opponents on the diamond were wary of Edgar’s potent bat throughout his semipro career; in the field, he skillfully patrolled third base. At the urging of the owner of the semipro team he played for, Martinez went down to a tryout that the Seattle Mariners were holding in Dorado in December 1982. Edgar would be 20 in early January 1983, which was older than most of the players trying out and a bit old to start a professional career.

Marty Martinez (no relation), the Seattle Mariners’ scout at the tryout, liked what he saw and offered Edgar $4,000 to sign with the organization. Edgar didn’t want to leave his grandparents and was making more at the jobs he had in Dorado than the Mariners were offering. But Gar’s cousin Carmelo urged him to take the chance, and, after some prodding, Edgar signed with the team.

“I really didn’t know if I had what it took to make it,” the new Hall of Famer recalled.

In 1983, Edgar was sent to the Bellingham Mariners of the Northwest League in Class A short-season ball. It was quite a culture shock for the warm-weather-loving Martinez. Bellingham is located in the state of Washington, just 21 miles south of the Canadian border, and there was a chill in the air during night games.

Edgar said with a smile, “I didn’t know people could live in such cold weather.”

He also didn’t know a great deal of English, a language he would start teaching himself immediately.

 1991 Upper Deck No. 574

1991 Upper Deck No. 574

After batting only .173 with Bellingham in 1983, some members of the Seattle brass felt Edgar might never hit in the majors. But Marty Martinez, the scout who had signed Gar, convinced the team to send Edgar to the Arizona Instructional League for a reboot. He responded by batting .340 and that earned him a spot on the Wausau (Wisconsin) Timbers in the Class A Midwest League in 1984.

“In the beginning, playing in the minor leagues was tough for me. I had to leave my grandparents. As a kid coming to the States, it was difficult. But I think I learned a lot by coming to the States and playing the game I loved,” Edgar said.

Gar batted .303 at Wausau and was on his way. In 1985, the right-handed batter split the season between the Double-A Chattanooga (Tennessee) Lookouts in the Southern League and the Triple-A Calgary (Alberta, Canada) Cannons in the Pacific Coast League. While he batted only .258 in 111 games with the Lookouts, he still got promoted to Triple-A Calgary and batted .353 in 20 games there. He was back with Double-A Chattanooga in 1986 where, interestingly, he led all third basemen in the league with a .960 fielding percentage. But he hit only .264. Battling back from his subpar hitting performance at Double-A, Edgar went to Triple-A Calgary in 1987 and hit .327 with 31 doubles in 129 games.

That got him a callup in September with the Mariners, where he compiled a .372 average in the final 13 games of the 1987 season.

“The thing about the minor leagues is that if you have the skills and if you have the ability, they have the coaches who can teach you how to play the game right and you learn the fundamentals that I didn’t learn when I was in Puerto Rico,” Edgar said.

While he was in the minor leagues, Martinez was diagnosed with an eye condition known as strabismus. The condition, which affects eye coordination, causes one eye—in Edgar’s case the right eye—to wander and lose focus. For a hitter, it impairs depth perception, and the ability to pick up changes in the velocity of the pitch. It also gave Edgar problems seeing the ball as it left the pitcher’s hand.

Strabismus could be a career-ending condition for a professional baseball player, but Edgar was given special exercises, which he did without fail every day, even during the off-season. Besides the exercises, early in his career he also avoided watching television before games to prevent eyestrain. He continued that practice throughout his career, and, when computers came into vogue, avoided viewing screens of all kinds before taking the field. He would struggle with the eye condition his entire career, which makes his hitting accomplishments all the more amazing.

The 1988 season found Martinez once again at Triple-A Calgary. The Mariners had a solid third baseman, Jim Presley, at the hot corner and they were happy with him. For his part, Edgar was being very patient. He hit .363 at Calgary, winning the batting crown in the Pacific Coast League. At that point, injuries began to derail Presley’s career, and that would eventually open up more playing time for Edgar at third.

“The Mariners had a great third baseman in Jim Presley and he did well for the organization. I think, at the beginning of my major league career, I just wasn’t as consistent as I needed to be to play every day,” Gar said. “When you are a young player and you are trying to establish yourself, you have to be consistent. It’s just a reality of the game.”

Martinez started the 1989 season with the big club, joining rookies like Ken Griffey Jr. and Omar Vizquel in the opening day lineup. But Edgar got off to a rough start, and was soon back at Calgary, where he patiently found his rhythm again. The determined hitter never got frustrated going back and forth between the minors and the big club. He was just happy to be playing the game.

Gar would ultimately return to the Mariners in 1989, but 1990 would be his breakout season. Edgar batted .302 for the Mariners in 1990 and followed that up with a .307 season in 1991.

 2003 Topps Heritage No. 197

2003 Topps Heritage No. 197

“I think once I was given the position (third base) for a while, a month or so, I felt I belonged,” he said. “I was making a difference and that gave me the confidence I needed to stay with the big club.”

An interesting aside to Edgar’s career: On June 1, 1991, Gar started an around-the-horn triple play against the Texas Rangers while playing third. With Rangers on first and second, Martinez snared a grounder hit by Rangers batter Brian Downing and stepped on third before throwing to Harold Reynolds, playing second, who stepped on the base and threw to Pete O’Brien to complete the triple play.

In 1992, Martinez fulfilled a childhood dream when he was named to the American League All-Star team. He was hitting .328 at the All-Star break, with 14 home runs and 26 doubles.

Hitting doubles would become Gar’s trademark: He ended up hitting 514 of them during his career. Martinez finished the 1992 season with a .343 batting average and 46 doubles. He won the American League batting title in 1992, the first time a member of the Seattle Mariners had ever accomplished that feat. In that banner year, Martinez also won his first American League Silver Slugger Award. He would end up winning five of them (1992, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2003).

By the end of the 1992 season, Edgar was gaining national recognition as a feared hitter. He was embraced by Seattle fans, who easily took to Edgar’s quick smile and quick bat. But the 1992 off-season was a tough one for Martinez on several fronts.

His grandfather died and his grandmother had a stroke. He also came down with a stubborn flu, which took a while for him to shake, so he couldn’t get in shape properly for the upcoming season. Then in an exhibition game in early April, before the start of the 1993 season, Edgar would face even more adversity and a challenge to his career.

The exhibition game was played between the Seattle Mariners and the Milwaukee Brewers at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia. During the game, Martinez caught his spike in the turf while trying to steal a base and tore a muscle in his left knee. The injury would cause the Seattle hitting star to miss most of the 1993 season. He ended up playing only 42 games that season.

Poised to put the ill-fated 1993 season behind him, Martinez got hit by a pitch on his right wrist on opening day in 1994 and had to do a stint on the disabled list.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening again, after all the hard work I did to come back from the knee injury,” Edgar said. But he played in 89 games in the strike-shortened 1994 season, including 65 at third base. Martinez hit .285 with 23 doubles, and was starting to regain his hitting prowess of years past toward the end of the season.

In 1995, Mariners manager Lou Piniella made Martinez the team’s full-time designated hitter. Gar’s knee was causing him problems and limiting his range of motion in the field. But Piniella, a savvy hitter himself during his playing days, was well aware of the offensive contributions Edgar could make to the club.

“I was worried about being a full-time DH at first,” Gar recalled. “I thought about what would happen to my career if I had a bad year. I didn’t know what the future held for me. At first I didn’t want to DH. I was afraid of the unknown.

“But then I realized that I could make a meaningful contribution as a DH. I was helping the team and the team was better with me in the lineup. We had a good team and with me at DH it was an even better team. So I looked at it as a matter of what I can do to help the team and make it better and that’s how I approached the job. There was another thing. Lou (Piniella) told me how much he needed my bat in the lineup every day. That meant a lot.”

 2018 Topps Archives No. 241

2018 Topps Archives No. 241

Looking back, Martinez said he’s glad he accepted the challenge of being the DH. The heroics of the 1995 season were the start of a seven-season stretch (1995–2001), where the M’s were one of the best teams in baseball. Edgar was on all those teams.

The 1997 Mariners won the American League West, but lost to Baltimore in the ALDS 3 games to 1. The 2000 club finished second in the AL West, and was the league’s Wild Card team. The M’s won the 2000 ALDS against the Chicago White Sox, but lost in six games to the Yankees in the ALCS.

The 2001 Seattle Mariners notched an American League record 116 wins. That also tied the major league mark for wins, set by the Chicago Cubs in 1906. The 2001 team beat the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS 3 games to 2, but then lost the ALCS, once again to the Yankees, 4 games to 1.

Edgar would go on to become, arguably, the best designated hitter in the history of the game and certainly one of the best hitters ever. He retired in 2004, ending his career with a .312 batting average. He hit over .300 ten times during his career, had 2,247 hits, 309 home runs and 1,261 RBI. He had success against some of the greatest pitchers who toed the rubber during his career.

One of those hurlers was Mariano Rivera. Rivera, who will be entering the Hall of Fame this year together with Edgar Martinez, has said on multiple occasions that the only hitter he didn’t want to see coming up in a tough situation was Edgar Martinez. Against Rivera, Gar batted .579 lifetime, with two home runs and three doubles.

“Facing Mariano was always a challenge as far as I am concerned,” Edgar said. “I may have had some good numbers against him, but, when he comes in late in a game, you know it’s going to be a challenge. He’s one of the best in history—consistently good. I never felt comfortable hitting against him. I may have gotten lucky hitting against him a few times, but I never felt comfortable.”

Martinez said he never tried to do too much against Rivera.

“I looked middle away and just tried to meet the ball where he threw it. Funny, I never felt like I had a good at-bat against him,” he said.

But Rivera had a different point of view.

 An autograph relic card featuring Edgar Martinez.

An autograph relic card featuring Edgar Martinez.

“When Edgar retired, I said, ‘Thank God,’ ” Rivera recalled. “When you face the type of hitter that Edgar was, you have to bring your best game or he will eat you for breakfast, lunch and dinner, like he did to me.”

Rivera was not the only Yankees hurler traumatized by Gar’s bat. Edgar was a Yankee killer. He batted .317 against the Yankees during his career in 138 regular-season games against the Bronx Bombers, garnering 158 hits, 44 doubles, 22 homers, a triple, and 88 walks, with a .423 on-base percentage and a .542 slugging percentage.

Gar always looked very relaxed at home plate, never appearing to sweat any situation.

“It looked that way, didn’t it? I would have to say that I learned how to manage the pressure in difficult situations. That didn’t mean I didn’t feel it. I just learned to focus on the task ahead,” he said. “If you focus on what you want to happen, it helps. Sometimes people focus on what they don’t want to happen. They think about the negatives. I learned early on to focus on what I wanted to happen, and it really helped.”

A five-time winner of the Outstanding Designated Hitter Award (1995, 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2001), Martinez acknowledges that being a DH is not an easy job.

“When you are a full-time DH, you have to work on hitting even more to make sure you are consistent,” said the 56-year-old Mariner legend, who had a knack for hitting to all fields.

“It takes a lot of work to do this job. And one problem: If you are going badly, there’s a lot more time to think about your poor performance when you don’t have to go out and play defense. That can really hurt your game. One of the toughest parts of the job is staying positive when things are going bad.”

He added, “I learned how to be a better hitter over the years, to keep improving, and, most importantly, to minimize my slumps.”

Another very important facet of hitting is patience, and Edgar has plenty of that. He became eligible for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010. It took him 10 tries to make it into Cooperstown.

“Getting into the Hall of Fame was something I had no control over. So, I tried to stay positive. Never lost hope,” he said.

Though he admits that getting into the shrine is one of his crowning achievements, he received many other honors along the way, including having his number 11 retired by the Mariners and having major league baseball name the annual Outstanding Designated Hitter Award after him.

“I think the DH position is starting to get some respect. It takes time. It was the same with closers,” he said.

Respect, however, is not something Edgar Martinez ever has to worry about. He got that a long time ago.

Robert Grayson is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at graydrew18@aol.com.