Mariano Rivera could not get him out. I don’t think an amazing career like Edgar Martinez’s could be summed up by just seven words, but those seven words tell a pretty good story.
Martinez has been on the Hall of Fame ballot for eight years, and only in the last few has he finally started to gain some real momentum in the voting. He is making some gains in early voting this year, too, and so it looks pretty good for him making it either this year or next. It’s no sure thing. But it looks pretty good.
I think the momentum has been created in large part because people are finally seeing Martinez; that is to say, they are finally appreciating him not as a good hitter, or even a great hitter, but as a hitting genius, as the Prince of hitting, as the Meryl Streep of hitting, as the Jack Nicklaus of hitting.
The legendary golfer Bobby Jones watched Nicklaus at the 1965 Masters and famously said, “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.” That’s how Martinez made other big league hitters feel. Great Major Leaguers like Derek Jeter would watch Martinez in batting practice and just shake their heads; even in BP, it was like watch a master.
There are numbers that show this. During baseball’s dead-ball era and in the years leading up to World War II, it wasn’t entirely uncommon for a hitter to post Martinez’s lifetime .312 batting average and .418 on-base percentage. Ruth did it, Cobb did it, Hornsby did it, Gehrig did it and so on. After the war, though, as pitchers and fielders got better, as bullpens began to get more involved, those sorts of numbers began to fade from the record books. In the five decades before Martinez made it to the big leagues, only Ted Williams put up the average and on-base percentage that Martinez would put up.
And in the years since Martinez retired, only Joey Votto has put up those numbers for a career.
Martinez spent a lifetime seeking hitting perfection. My favorite Edgar story is one that his cousin, and former Major Leaguer, Carmelo Martinez tells. Carmelo says that one day, he saw Edgar standing by his grandmother’s house. Edgar had a bat on his shoulder, and he was looking up at the roof. Carmelo had seen his cousin hit everything — stray pebbles, bottle caps, cans, chunks of gravel, whatever the two of them could find lying around. But this was different.
Edgar kept looking at the roof and looking, and finally he set himself to hit. Then, Carmelo saw the most remarkable thing. He saw a drop of water fall. And he watched Edgar study it, and then unleash his swing in time to hit the droplet, splashing water all around.
This was not a normal boy trying to become a Major League player; he was Siddhartha trying to find enlightenment. Martinez was signed by the Mariners after showing off his hitting prowess at a tryout. They gave him $4,000 and told him to report to Bellingham, Wash. It was freezing. He hit .173, and his career seemed over before it even began.
Martinez never got used to the cold weather. For his career, the only month that he did not hit .300 was April, when he hit .297.
It took a long time for Martinez to establish himself as a big leaguer; he didn’t play his first full season until he was 27. This is because the Mariners didn’t know exactly what to do with him. He was slow. His arm was erratic. He made a lot of errors. He didn’t hit with a lot of home run power in his younger days (“I was a skinny kid who could hit line drives,” he said, “but they didn’t carry very far.”). He also had the sort of body that broke down.
With all that working against him, Martinez had to hit — and hit big — in order to be an everyday big leaguer, and it took him a while to prove that he could do that. But no one worked harder to prove it.
Martinez’s workouts were legendary. He believed that hitting begins with power in the legs, so he ran constantly. His batting-cage sessions were … well, there’s a famous black-and-white film of the young chess genius (and generally crazy person) Bobby Fischer playing chess against himself. That’s what Martinez’s hitting session were like; he was thinking on a plane few others could achieve or even understand.
But once Martinez got himself established, everybody understood. In 1992, he led the league in hitting (.343) and doubles (46). In ’95, he hit .356 and became the first right-handed hitter to win multiple American League batting titles since Joe DiMaggio.
Over six seasons from 1995-2000, the worst he hit was .322, his worst on-base percentage was .423 and his worst slugging percentage was .554.
Martinez faced Rivera 14 times during those six years. Yes, it’s true that half of those plate appearances were in 1995, when Rivera was a struggling starter still trying to find himself. Still, Martinez faced the great Rivera 14 times over a six-year period — and he reached base 13 times, hitting .769.
After 2000, when Rivera was ascendant and Martinez began to decline, Rivera got Martinez out a few times, but he knew this was only because Martinez was no longer himself. Still, Rivera never forgot. In ’04, when Martinez was 41 and at the end, Rivera faced him in a tied game with the winning run on second base. Rivera walked him without hesitation. “I still don’t know how to get him out,” Rivera admitted.
The last time the two men faced each other, Martinez rapped a single.
Thing is, just about every pitcher Martinez faced in his prime will list him as their toughest out. Pedro Martinez said he was the toughest hitter he ever faced, and Pedro was one of the few pitchers who actually had success against him. Randy Johnson said Martinez was the best hitter he ever saw. David Cone, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, all of them say the same thing; it seems like every good pitcher of the 1990s put Martinez in a different class. Other hitters did, too. Alex Rodriguez called him the best hitter he ever played with. Jeter said he was the one guy he would watch in the cage.
That realization — that Martinez was in a different class — seems like it will push him over the top in Hall of Fame voting. For a long time, Martinez stalled in the voting, in large part because he spent most of his career as a designated hitter. The thinking was that he was too one-dimensional of a player, but it is thinking that does not really stand up to scrutiny for a couple of reasons:
1. Martinez was put at DH, in large part, to keep him healthy. He made a lot of errors, yes, but he really was not a bad third baseman. The Mariners moved him to DH so he could play full seasons, a wise move that essentially allowed him to become an all-time great hitter.
2. Lots of players — from Williams to Harmon Killebrew to Ralph Kiner to Willie Stargell — were substantially subpar fielders. That did not prevent them from going to the Hall of Fame; far from it.
And that’s as it should be. If the Hall of Fame was only filled with players who did everything at a Hall of Fame level, Willie Mays wouldn’t have much company. The hardest part of the game is hitting. That’s why the best hitters — no matter what kind of fielders they might have been — are in the Hall of Fame.
But neither of these arguments are especially helpful to Martinez’s case. They put too much focus on what he could not do. That’s been the problem: Too much talk about what Martinez could not do. Instead, voters now focus on what he could do as well as anyone of the last 75 years: hit a baseball.
Joe Posnanski is a national columnist for MLB.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.