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LETHAL WEAPON PITCHERS KNOW A BAT IS A DANGEROUS TOOL IN THE HANDS OF SEATTLE'S RELENTLESS EDGAR MARTINEZ

March 12, 1996
March 12, 1996

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March 12, 1996

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Scouting Reports

LETHAL WEAPON PITCHERS KNOW A BAT IS A DANGEROUS TOOL IN THE HANDS OF SEATTLE'S RELENTLESS EDGAR MARTINEZ

Carmelo Martinez can still picture his cousin Edgar as a boy of
13, standing under the eaves of his grandparents' house in
Dorado, Puerto Rico, after a rainstorm. With a broomstick cocked
behind his right ear, he waits patiently for a drop of water to
form and fall from the roof. And then swish, the water drop,
like countless ones before it, is blasted into a fine mist. Bits
of rubble from a nearby construction site would get similar
treatment. "Every morning," says Carmelo, a former major league
first baseman who grew up three houses away from Edgar in
Dorado, "I'd hear Edgar making contact with those rocks. We'd
pitch bottle caps at each other, too. But whether it's bottle
caps or baseballs, Edgar has always been the same hitter. He has
always had the swing."

This is an article from the March 12, 1996 issue

Edgar Martinez will tell you differently, that the swing that
once atomized raindrops and cast bottle caps toward distant palm
trees is not precisely the same swing that last year earned him
a second American League batting title and carried the Seattle
Mariners deep into October for the first time. The Martinez
swing of the mid-'90s is the distillation of innumerable hours
of videotape viewing and years of weightlifting and running. It
has been tempered by injury, sharpened by experience and honed
by infinitesimal adjustments and infinite pondering. It has
been, in short, his occupation and his preoccupation. "What is
Edgar thinking about when he wakes up in the morning?" asks his
wife, Holli. "Home plate."

How single-minded is Martinez? His dog is named Swing. His
37-foot powerboat is christened Seaswing. He swings a bat in the
tunnel of the clubhouse, and he swings one in the entryway of
his home. For his teammates, imagining Martinez without a bat in
his hand is like imagining Picasso without his paintbrush,
Sinatra without his microphone. "Edgar is always carrying a bat
around," says Seattle outfielder Jay Buhner. "It's like a
security blanket for him."

"When I step to the plate, I want to feel comfortable and
confident," says Martinez. "I want to know that I have done
everything I can to prepare myself mentally and physically for
the pitch. That way, if things don't go well, it won't be for
lack of work or thought."

Overall, things went very well for Martinez at the plate last
year, his first as Seattle's full-time designated hitter. His
.356 average made him the first American League righthander to
win two batting titles since Luke Appling of the White Sox won
his second in 1943. (Since 1970, only three righties besides
Martinez have won even one: Carney Lansford, 1981; Kirby
Puckett, 1989; and Julio Franco, 1991.) He also led the league
in on-base percentage (.479) and was second in hits (182),
extra-base hits (81) and slugging percentage (.628). He made a
case for himself as a power hitter by crushing 29 home runs, 11
more than his previous best. Furthermore, Martinez was named to
his second All-Star team and finished third in the league in MVP
voting, a rank that may, as much as anything, reflect an anti-DH
bias among voters. "For me, Edgar was the MVP," says Mariners
second baseman Joey Cora. "When Ken Griffey got hurt [with a
broken wrist in May], Edgar put the team on his shoulders and
carried it."

That he was able to do so is one reason Seattle manager Lou
Piniella calls Martinez "the best hitter in the league."
Ex-Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson has called him the best hitter
in baseball. Period.

Martinez's swing, as pretty as it is deadly, does not lash out
indiscriminately. Poking a hole in the stereotype of the
impatient Latin batter, Martinez drew 116 walks last season,
second only to Chicago's Frank Thomas in the American League.
"Edgar never swings at bad pitches," says Rangers slugger Juan
Gonzalez, perhaps a bit enviously. "He has great peace of mind
at the plate."

Indeed, what an about-to-be-Martinized pitcher sees is this: a
pleasant-looking, 5'11", 190-pound guy crouched slightly at the
plate, chewing gum with all the concern of a cow munching grass.
The only hint of menace lies in the barrel of his bat, which is
pointed straight at the mound and is circling above his head
like the second hand of a ticking bomb. Still, when the bat
explodes, it often surprises the defense. "Because no one was
supposed to be able to hit that pitch," says former Mariners
first baseman Tino Martinez (no relation), who was traded to the
Yankees in the off-season.

When T. Martinez arrived at his new club's training complex in
Tampa this winter, the greetings went something like this: "Hi,
Tino. Nice to have you. How do we pitch Edgar?" The Yankees have
a keen interest in the answer, as E. Martinez personally ruined
their postseason last October. With his team down 2-1 to the
Yankees in the best-of-five AL playoffs, E. Martinez had two
home runs and a playoff-record seven RBIs in the Mariners'
do-or-die Game 4 victory. His first homer, a third-inning shot
off Scott Kamienicki's up-and-inside pitch, defied all batting
logic. "I do not understand how he hit that first home run,"
said Jackson. "Most hitters, even power hitters, would hook that
ball foul into the leftfield stands. But Edgar is so strong, he
has such a great stroke, that he just fought it off."

Suddenly the media--which had long found Martinez too quiet, too
humble, too undemonstrative and too uncontroversial to waste ink
on--went looking for him. Even in 1992, when Martinez batted .343
for Seattle's last-place team and won his, and the club's, first
batting title, reporters had paraded past his locker without
pausing, moving on quickly to bask in the glow of Griffey's
smile, trade chortles with Buhner or pick the simmering brain of
pitcher Randy Johnson. Which was just fine with Martinez, who
says of media attention, "No, thank you. Junior and Randy can
have it." As recently as last September, Martinez could happily
eat in a Seattle restaurant with Holli and their son, Alex, now
16 months old, virtually unmolested by autograph seekers.

Indeed, until Game 4, Martinez created his biggest stir on
Seattle's highways, where his unhurried pace moves cops to issue
him tickets and other drivers to flip him the bird. "We get the
finger all the time," says Holli, "because Edgar drives soooo
sloooow. But it doesn't bother him at all. He just says, 'Gee,
what's that guy's problem?'"

If the media had known the first thing about Martinez before
Game 4, they would not have been surprised to find him absent
from his locker afterward. While reporters hovered around
anxiously, he was off in another part of the clubhouse, calmly
doing his accustomed 20-minute postgame workout on a stationary
bike.

On the way home Holli encouraged her husband to wallow in a
little glee--just this once. "Honey, what a great game!" she
cried. "Are you excited?"

"I am thinking," he said, "about the next game."

In that next game his shot to leftfield in the 11th inning sent
Griffey home from first to win Game 5 and the series. After he
had felt the champagne flow over him and had indulged the
overflow media at his locker, Martinez got back on the bike--just
as he would every day of his disastrous ALCS against Cleveland,
during which he fell into an uncharacteristic slump and batted
.087 as the Mariners lost in six games. Every day means every
day, win or lose. "He doesn't take time to glory or mope," says
Holli. "He's like a machine. The only time he really relaxes is
when he's on the boat or with the baby. Otherwise, it's work. He
doesn't take anything for granted, because nothing has come easy
for him."

Holli should know. Four years ago, at the suggestion of a mutual
friend, Martinez called her up and, sight unseen, asked her for
a date. Aware of a certain unsavory reputation associated with
baseball players, she said no. Undaunted, he called her the next
day and the next and the next until she finally caved in.
"Typical Edgar," says Holli, a Seattle native. "Whatever he
decides to do, he is determined to be successful at it. The man
has an iron will."

His family saw that steeliness at an early age. Martinez was
born in New York City but was taken to Dorado to be raised by
his maternal grandparents when his parents divorced shortly
after his birth. When he was 11, his parents remarried,
intending to bring Edgar and his brother and sister back to New
York. But Edgar wouldn't budge, preferring to stay with his
grandparents.

That was the same year Martinez started playing organized
baseball. "I wasn't a very good hitter that first year," he
says. "But since then I've always been pretty good." Good enough
that the Mariners offered him a contract in December 1982. At
the time, Martinez was 19, attending college in Puerto Rico and
helping to support his grandparents with a job on the assembly
line at a local pharmaceuticals plant. The Mariners' offer of
$4,000 a year represented a dream come true--and a 50% pay cut.
It was, says Martinez, "a very tough decision. A future in
baseball at that point didn't seem very realistic."

"The scouting report on Edgar at the time was that he wasn't
fast enough for second base and didn't have enough power for
third," says Carmelo, who had signed with the Cubs in 1978. "But
I told him, 'Edgar, I've been there, and I know you can hit.'"

And so Martinez signed. After seven years of minor league ball,
he landed a permanent job as the Mariners' third baseman in
1990. When he won the batting title and his first All-Star spot
in '92 despite a sore right shoulder that would require surgery
at the end of the season, it looked as if the 29-year-old had
finally arrived. But in the final exhibition game the following
spring, Martinez pulled a hamstring trying to steal second. The
injury plagued him all year, reducing him to a virtual
one-legged hitter in the 42 games he played. For the season, he
batted just .237, a 106-point drop that constituted one of the
worst batting-title defenses in history. "It was very
frustrating," says Martinez. "I'd watch games with a bat in my
hand, but I couldn't do anything to help my team."

With meticulous conditioning, Martinez was healthy by the start
of the '94 season. But on Opening Day he was hit on the wrist by
a pitch from Cleveland's Dennis Martinez (also no relation). He
was on the DL for a month and had an erratic year, finishing the
strike-shortened season at .285.

When he showed up at spring training strong and finely tuned
after a full season of Puerto Rican winter ball last year,
Martinez found himself on the trading block. "That hurt," he
says. "It was like they were telling you, We don't need you."
Fortunately for Seattle, no one else needed an injury-plagued
former batting champion who was pulling down $3.5 million a
year. Still a Mariner on Opening Day, Martinez started the
season aflame, hitting .373 in his first 15 games, a pace he
wouldn't drift far from all year. "I've been in baseball 38
years," says Mariners batting coach Lee Elia, "and it is still
hard to imagine someone basically sitting out for two years and
then coming back to win the batting title." Says Buhner, "No one
is mentally stronger than Edgar."

Given that, can Martinez win another title at 33 if he stays
healthy? "In '92, I thought that would be my best year," he
says. "I thought it would be hard to beat that. But last year I
did."

If Martinez wins the title again, he will be the first AL
righthander in nearly 70 years to win it three times. If he
doesn't, it won't be for lack of work or thought.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK The specter of batting champ Martinez sometimes leaves opponents just one safe option: Walk him. [Overhead view of Edgar Martinez being intentionally walked]COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACEMartinez's sweet swing produces power--and playoff heroics--with a bat that rarely leaves his hands. [Edgar Martinez batting]COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above--Edgar Martinez running between bases with arms raised]COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN [See caption above--Edgar Martinez sitting in dugout holding baseball bat]