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August 9, 2004

Breaking Balls

So Long, Edgar

by Derek Zumsteg

The Mariners today announced the retirement of Edgar Martinez, one of the best hitters of his generation and arguably one of the best right-handed hitters of all-time. To celebrate Martinez's career, we're re-running this special edition of Derek Zumsteg's Breaking Balls from last October, when it first looked like Edgar would hang 'em up.

I saw fans cry for the first time on Sunday, the last day of the Mariners season. Edgar Martinez was at bat in the eighth for what may be the last plate appearance of his career, and the standing ovation rolled on and on.

In Friday's game, during his last-at bat of the first game of the home stand against the A's, it started. Edgar always stares at the pitcher, intent on his job. But between pitches, he stepped back and his eyes glanced around, as if not sure the fans were cheering for him. That's Edgar, though: 17 years as a Mariner, one of the best hitters to ever pick up a bat, in his last home stand, he wasn't sure the M's hadn't just announced free hundred-dollar bills for every fan or something. We couldn't have cheered that hard for free money.

Edgar's hit on the worst Mariners team (1992) and the best (2001), he's hit with a goofy mustache and without one. Healthy or banged up, he hit, racking up 2,118 hits, 492 doubles, 297 home runs, 1,225 walks. Edgar belongs in the Hall of Fame as one of the best hitters baseball's ever seen. I wrote about this repeatedly, and I've kept at it until every skeptic was reached.

Sunday's game day felt subdued. Fewer people on the bus wore Mariners jerseys. There was no talk of taking over the division race, or the intersection of luck and divine intervention that would allow the Mariners to slip into the post-season: "Who should we root for in the World Series?" "Well, it's too bad about the playoffs." "It was the bats." "The new manager doesn't know about stealing bases, and this is what the M's are good at."

It was graceful resignation. People were headed out to see a game on a beautiful September day, and not the meaningful game they'd bought tickets for a month, two months before. It felt like the last games of last year, when I watched from a bar down the street from the ballpark as Texas couldn't manage to beat Oakland, eliminating the M's from contention. And then everyone paid their tabs, got up, and walked to the game anyway.

Edgar had to feel like that in the bad years. On weeknights if the M's weren't giving away something, there might be a couple thousand people in the Kingdome, cheering Edgar's doubles. Like everyone else in Seattle, he saw the rise of Ken Griffey Jr., and Junior's departure. Randy Johnson was a nobody picked up when the team traded Mark Langston, and became one of the greatest aces I'll ever get to see, and he was traded after a long fight with team management. Alex Rodriguez was drafted, bounced around a little, became the best shortstop in the league, and left for free agency. Edgar came to the park every year and hit the stitches off the ball when he was healthy enough to be propped up, Roosevelt-like, in the batter's box.

Edgar this year played for a month with a broken left big toe after fouling a ball off it. He tried a steel insert, the team ordered him a special protective shoe (and managed to order the wrong one, causing additional delays) that was too snug. Playing on it, he had to adjust his stance a little, unable to put weight forward, he fouled other balls off his toe (I wince just writing that) and he was only slowed a little. In the last month of the season he still hit .253/.388/.380 while hobbling around the bases in pain that would cause most of us to pass out.

Edgar also had leg cramps, a sore calf, and the hamstring problems that have dogged him made a brief appearance too. He could get hit by a bus on his way to the park and he'd go 1-3 with a walk. It's part of the love fans have for him, to know that if he can play, he'll be there, trying to contribute. I don't remember Edgar ever going down with 'flu-like symptoms' or 'aggravated hangnail'.

I didn't understand the hype around Cal Ripken. I didn't get to see him that often, and I looked at the Streak and I wasn't impressed. When I was at the All-Star Game and saw how much people enjoyed seeing him, had come out to the game to see his last appearance at the Mid-Summer Classic, I understood that my not understanding didn't make their love for him any less real, and the fans from Baltimore found something in watching him play for their team for so long that maybe I wasn't ever going to understand it.

Edgar has not been as durable, even as a designated hitter, but for Mariner fans, long-time or newly recruited, it's almost impossible to remember baseball in Seattle without him.

Edgar later said he had trouble concentrating because he was so emotional in his last at-bat, and I think in no small part it's because the love he got from the stands was so overwhelming, constant and insistent. It wasn't part of the game noise, or a response to something on the scoreboard. The only thing it could be was an outpouring of appreciation for his accomplishments as a player. Edgar said the only thing on his mind was putting the bat to ball, because he didn't want to go down swinging, but no one would have cared. He grounded into a fielder's choice and was replaced by a pinch-runner. As he walked off the field the ovation returned after having paused for the play, and the other players who've been asking him publicly and privately to come back hugged him, and he came out to tip his helmet to the crowd. People cried. I kept having to wipe my eyes.

Edgar disappeared into the tunnel. When the game ended he didn't come out on field to slap hands in the congratulation line. I worried his body had finally given up, that Edgar had struck a bargain: "Get me through this season and you can do whatever you want," and he'd barely gotten to the clubhouse before his legs failed him like a bundle of brittle twigs snapping. But he was alive and well when the reporters finally caught up to him, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

There are hints that Edgar might not retire: he wanted to hit .300, and he missed it by three hits. He wanted to retire to spend more time with his family, but his son told him he'd rather see his dad play. Edgar's said he'll talk to his wife, and it'll be a while before he makes any decisions. He probably won't even hold a press conference.

Some time this winter, one of the thousands of people who stood and applauded and would not sit down Sunday will walk by Safeco Field some cold, drizzly afternoon and hear a crack every couple of seconds, and curious, they'll walk around the stadium for a glimpse inside to see Edgar, bundled up, pitching machine set on the mound with a huge bucket of baseballs, practicing his swing, roping balls down the left field line, double, double, double. And the fan's going to watch for a minute, take out his cell phone, and start calling everyone in the city. And if it doesn't happen, we're still going to walk by and listen for it, and if there's nothing, well, maybe he'll be there the next day.

And if he doesn't come back, at least we told him we loved him.

Related Content:  Edgar Martinez,  The Who

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