For Mariners legend Edgar Martinez, a golf club is really just a light bat
After more than 20 years in the sports business, I don’t often have butterflies when talking to professional athletes. I’ve played golf with Kasey Keller, shot pool with Emmitt Smith, and sat down to dinner with Steve Young. I don’t take these experiences for granted, but, as just about anyone working in sports media will tell you, chatting up athletes that would have left the 12-year-old version of yourself speechless eventually becomes a somewhat routine part of your job.
When the Mariners PR director says to me, though, “OK, I’m going to hand the phone to Edgar,” I’m a pimply-faced 12-year-old all over again.
For the first few minutes of the interview, I’m on my heels — I mean, this is Edgar! I’m talking to Edgar! Questions I had carefully pre-planned suddenly seem dull and uninteresting — I don’t care who his mentors are, I want to hear about that double against the Yankees, I want to know if he ever really dated my friend’s mom (a hot rumor at my high school circa 1994) … I want to hear him say, “It’s a light bat!”
The fact that you won’t see any of those questions in this interview transcript is a testament to the small scrap of my adult sanity and professionalism that was able to hang on throughout the 16 minutes and 49 seconds we spent on the phone. I don’t know if I’d have made it one minute more.
The fact is, Edgar Martinez just has that effect on people. It’s why, more than a decade after he retired, his name is still among the first out of the mouth of any Mariners fan asked to name their favorite player of all-time. It’s why his number 11 will never be worn again by a Seattle Mariner, why Major League Baseball’s designated hitter award bears his name, and why he drives to work every morning on Edgar Martinez Dr.
And, ultimately, it’s why — despite spending most of his career as a designated hitter, a position half the league thinks shouldn’t even exist — he has seen his Hall of Fame voting percentage tick up year after year, from 27 percent in 2015, to 58 percent in 2017 and 70.4 percent in 2018. His career statistics haven’t changed over the last three years — people just love Edgar, and the sheer intensity of their passion is winning over others. If all goes well, that percentage will tick over 75 percent next year, and Edgar will join Ken Griffey, Jr., and Dave Niehaus in Cooperstown — where he belongs.
In addition to coaching Mariners hitters, Edgar continues to lend his name and time to the Edgar Martinez Golf Classic, an event held each summer in the Seattle area to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Western Washington. Last year’s event, at The Golf Club at Snoqualmie Ridge, sold out, adding to the more than $1 million that Martinez has helped raise for the foundation in the 10 years since the event began. Details of this year’s tournament will be posted to the MDA Western Washington’s Facebook page once they become available.
Ultimately, I made it through the interview, though I will confess to wondering briefly afterward whether I could cut up the audio into a voice mail greeting for my phone. (I can’t.) You see, even when you’ve had 1-on-1 interactions with dozens of famous athletes, there’s just nobody quite like Edgar.
When did you start playing golf?
“I was probably 16, 17, and still living in Puerto Rico. There was one course in our town, probably about four or five miles from where I grew up, and I would play there from time to time. I kept playing on and off throughout my career, and it’s always been something I’ve enjoyed.”
Is golf popular in Puerto Rico? I don’t feel like you hear of many Puerto Rican golfers.
“Well, there’s Chi Chi Rodriguez, he’s probably the biggest name. He helped take the game around the island and make it popular. But yeah, it is [popular] — baseball is the number one, but then golf is right up there. It has a good following, and there are a ton of good golf courses around the island.”
How would you describe your game now? What are you good at and what do you struggle with?
“Oh, I still struggle with all parts of the game. I’m comfortable with the driver, it’s a good club for me. But when I am having trouble, I’ll go to a three-iron, and that helps. The short game comes and goes. I can have one day where I score 84, and the next day be in the high 90s.”
What’s your favorite thing about golf?
“I love getting out on good golf courses. I enjoy the scenery. On a beautiful day, it’s just nice to go out to a beautiful golf course and play.”
Do you have favorite places to play around the Seattle area?
“Newcastle is where I have gone the most. Also, Snoqualmie Ridge, where we have had the tournament before. It’s a beautiful course also.”
How did your tournament come about?
“I have a nephew who has muscular dystrophy, so I have always been close to events that benefit muscular dystrophy. I talked to someone years ago about how to raise funds, and they [suggested], ’How about a golf tournament?’ So, they helped me out that first year, and after that, I have just kept doing it. The Muscular Dystrophy Association has been a great help through the years.”
Of your past teammates, were there any that were particularly good golfers?
“Bret Boone can play, he’s pretty good. [Mike] Blowers is a good golfer. Also, Jay Buhner can play. Dave Valle, too — those guys are the ones I played with in the past, and they’re all pretty good. Junior can play, too, of course.”
Are there any parallels between the baseball and golf swings?
“Yeah, sure. The best hitters in the game use their legs in a similar way to how golfers use their legs. When I see a hitter that doesn’t transfer their weight from the backside to the frontside when they swing, I usually ask them if they play golf, and try to have them make that connection, because the way you transfer the weight is the same.”
How has coaching changed your perspective on the game?
“When you play, you learn to take care of yourself. But when you coach, you have to learn to help 10-12 different guys, and sometimes you wish they’d have a little bit more experience, especially with the younger guys. But, that comes with time, so you have to have patience.”
What’s the most important lesson you try to communicate to young players?
“The biggest thing is trying to stay positive with them. The game is about confidence. If they’ve never been around a major-league environment, then sometimes the mental aspect can block the skill. That’s one thing I always liked about [former Mariners hitting coach] Lee Elia — he was always positive, positive, positive. Not all coaches will be like that; they focus on what the player is doing wrong and try to fix it. He was more of a mentor, and I try to be that way.”
How has the game changed over your 30-plus years in baseball?
“Now, it’s all about information. There’s a gadget for everything, there’s software for everything. It’s a lot of numbers. There’s also much more video. At the beginning, when I started, there was some video, but not many people relied on them. I would go by feel, what I felt in my body. But now, there’s a lot more information. And it’s valuable.”
I know you don’t like to brag about yourself, but when you look back at your career, what are you the most proud of?
“Consistency over a long period of time. You know, if you fail seven out of 10 times, you’re still good, but you’re facing a lot of failure. A long career has a lot of ups and downs, so staying consistent can be difficult.”
What would it mean to you to get that Hall of Fame call next year?
“It would mean a lot. I mean, it’s a great honor just to be mentioned, but it’s the ultimate honor as a ballplayer. Last year, I paid more attention to it, so I am sure that as that day gets closer, I’ll probably be paying even more attention this year. But, we’ll see — I try to keep it realistic; there’s always a chance that it goes in the wrong direction. It will be a special day, though, if that happens.”
What’s a more nerve-wracking situation for you — coming to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, two outs, World Series on the line, or the few seconds between the time that phone rings on Hall of Fame day next year, and when you reach to answer it?
“I think the call. [laughs] When you come to the plate in the last inning … you do it for so long, that you’re not really nervous anymore. You learn how to do it. So, definitely the call will be more nerve-wracking.”