Among Edgar Martinez’ virtues as a hitting technician with the sweetest of swings, none stood out more than his patience.
He had the discipline to take a first-pitch strike, and two strikes didn’t faze him. Martinez knew that as long as a bat was in his hands, there was a chance – a good chance – he would make solid contact.
Patience, the consistent ability to resist temptation, is not an attribute that puts star athletes on the covers of magazines and cereal boxes. Aggression, even it leads to recklessness, is more intriguing. But Martinez’ patience defined every aspect of a career stalled by his prolonged apprenticeship at Triple-A Calgary.
Martinez was 24 when he finally got promoted to Seattle. By the time he played a full season in the big leagues, he was 27. Had the Mariners been more adept at talent evaluation, Martinez is not hoping for a Wednesday phone call from the Hall of Fame (the announcement is scheduled for 3 p.m.). He’s in already, enshrined with a plaque noting 3,000 career hits and 400 career homers.
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Martinez retired with 2,247 hits and 309 homers, impressive numbers but nothing close to magical. His case is steeped in a more subtle stats: a .418 on-base percentage, a ridiculously efficient walk-to-strikeout ratio, and the five seasons he finished with at least 40 doubles. All those doubles underscored Martinez’ tendency to drive the ball to either side of the field, and masked the fact he ran at the speed of furniture movers carrying a sofa up a spiral staircase.
I submitted a Hall of Fame ballot with 10 names, the maximum allowed. It included Martinez, whose vision problems and lumbering gait didn’t prevent him from becoming the most accomplished right-handed hitter of his generation. Whether enough of my baseball writers’ association colleagues will concur – 75 percent is required for induction – is too close to call based on the public ballots already released.
My guess is that he falls a handful of votes short. It will be a disappointment not to be confused with a tragedy because, for one, Martinez will remain on the ballot one more year and, for two, nothing about any of this is tragic. A former night-school student who once had no realistic ambitions about a big-league baseball career ended up playing 2,055 games in a city where he was so beloved, it named a street after him.
The road to the Hall of Fame is quite more fraught with potholes than Edgar Martinez Drive. While voters are changing their perception of the designated hitter as a specialist – the baseball equivalent of the placekicker in football – resistance persists. In a race destined for a photo finish, two or three votes could be the difference.
It happened with Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox, who in 1985, the final year he was eligible, accrued a 74.7 percentage of the vote. Common sense would suggest 74.7 can be rounded off to 75 percent – the IRS, draconian as it is, works that way – but Fox was denied, and his candidacy ultimately was submitted to the veterans committee. Fox joined the Hall of Fame in 1997.
During the 12 years between his oh-so-near-miss and official induction, White Sox fans formed the “Nellie Fox Society.” Members of the club, 600 or so, gathered once a year for a luncheon extolling the legend of how an unprepossessing grinder, absent power and speed, was named the AL’s Most Valuable Player in 1959.
If Edgar fails to achieve 75 percent of the BBWAA vote Wednesday, I would be all in on the idea of the “Edgar Martinez Society.” Let’s do lunch, watch videos of that perfect swing, tell stories, and, yes, take the skeptics to task for their absurd insistence that numbers produced by a designated hitter are not valid.
A Boston columnist recently explained his decision to keep Martinez in limbo this way: He was merely third-best player on the 1990s teams associated with Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. Furthermore, if the Mariners were in town – in Boston, say – the opportunity to watch Martinez did not spike advance sales at the box office.
True, on both counts. The only people who specifically anticipated a Martinez plate appearance were the pitchers who dreaded the laborious process of turning an 0-1 count against him into an out.
Whatever verdict is reached Wednesday on Edgar Martinez’ remarkable baseball career, it won’t be tragic. He’ll stay on the ballot. He still takes a turn onto Edgar Martinez Drive during his day job as Mariners hitting coach.
Nellie Fox was 47 when cancer killed him in 1975. He never heard the speech for his Hall of Fame induction, never saw the statue the White Sox built in his memory. There’s something sad about that.
Nothing about Martinez is sad. He’ll wait. He’ll hold his place in line with the understated dignity we regard as grace.
Patience. It’s what put him on the cusp of the Hall of Fame, and it’s what will be emphasized when he delivers in his 2019 acceptance address.