A-Rod on new Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez: ‘He would have a Ph.D. in hitting’

Editor’s note: Alex Rodriguez has a unique relationship with the four players voted into the 2019 Hall of Fame class. He was teammates with three of them (Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina) and played against Roy Halladay throughout their careers. In the days leading up to their enshrinement in Cooperstown, A-Rod shares the stories of those stars — as teammates, competitors and friends — in his own words.

When I was 18 years old and in my first days with the Mariners, Edgar Martinez complimented me to one of the beat writers who covered the team. When I saw it in print the next day, I went to a corner store, bought a pair of scissors and marker, and carefully highlighted and cut out the quote. I taped that shard of newspaper to the lower right-hand corner of the bathroom mirror in my apartment, and when friends would visit, I would point out the clipping and show them what he said.

His words carried so much weight because of who he is — a great hitter, sure, a Hall of Famer, but a gentle person of substance and soul.

The funny thing was that when I first joined the Mariners, a team saturated with stars, he was an afterthought for me. I couldn’t wait to be around Ken Griffey Jr., the greatest player on the planet. Playing in the Kingdome at that time was like playing in a basketball arena, and he would blast baseballs into the rafters with that beautiful swing.

I got to meet Randy Johnson, one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball history. As a double-play partner, I had Joey Cora, the sledgehammer-blunt second baseman who kicked me in the proverbial testicles whenever I needed it. I got to play for Lou Piniella, the fiery manager who channeled Billy Martin and became my baseball mentor.

But it turned out that Edgar was the teammate that I would stalk, in trying to learn about the craft. I was the same age as college freshmen when I first stepped into the Mariners clubhouse, and Edgar — who would have a Ph.D. in hitting, if there was such a thing — was like the professor I desperately wanted to impress. My father left our family when I was 10 years old, and I’ve always felt you could draw a straight line from that point to when I was with the Mariners, searching for answers, quietly and curiously following Edgar to the batting cage at the Kingdome.

I’d find a chair outside of the netting, or turn a baseball bucket upside down, and just sit there and watch him, absorbing how he meticulously went about his work, his routine, the drills. He never called attention to my presence; he just accepted and embraced the fact that I was there. Eventually, I worked alongside him, and he responded to any question that I asked in the same even-handed manner and tone.

Before David Ortiz became Big Papi, there was a Papi. That’s what the Mariners players called Edgar. That’s what I still call him.

He turned out to be the person and player I wanted to be — the most clutch guy, the nicest, the person you could count on. He is reserved, very humble, a man of few words. From my rookie year to my ups and downs later in my career, to the dinner we had earlier this year, Edgar has always treated me exactly the same way.

He patiently explained his thinking when he was ahead in the count, when he was behind, when he faced a pitcher with a tight breaking ball or someone who threw hard. He talked about how different the challenge of hitting in the postseason was, relative to the lower stakes of the regular season. He talked about how he handled a hitless game.

He explained to me why he swung a heavier bat in batting practice, why he used pine tar in the way he did, why there was always a doughnut on his bat in the on-deck circle. Scottie Pippen had Michael Jordan, and I had Edgar. Years later, when I was with the Yankees and in the latter half of my career, I’d explain to Robinson Cano and others different parts of my routine — and just about all of it came from Edgar.

I always looked forward to the Mariners’ cross-country flights, because the mentor that I stalked was captive. Edgar would always take the very back row, in the window seat, and I would sit on the aisle and get him anything he needed. Potato chips, pretzels, a sandwich, a beer — or later in his career, the red wine that became his drink of choice. Meanwhile, he answered all my questions, about baseball, about the business, about his life. OK, when you got that 3-2 slider, Papi, what were you thinking? At about the time the charter passed over Chicago, Edgar would tell me, through a smile, to find another seat and leave him alone.

Edgar loves his family and loves boating. He’d arrive in spring training with the perfect tan, the great hair and blue eyes, ready to go. He was born in New York, and he said to me that he always loved to play against the Yankees, and I asked him why. “Because when you play great against the Yankees,” he said, “it lives forever.”

The Seattle Mariners will live forever, I think, because of what he did against the Yankees in the 1995 playoffs. At that time, the franchise’s future in Seattle was tenuous, but we made up a 13-game deficit in the standings and beat the Angels in a tiebreaker to take the West — only to lose the first two games to the Yankees in the best-of-five division series. But Edgar beat them in Game 4 of the division series, a grand slam off John Wetteland in the eighth inning that looked like a 2-iron in the way that it rippled the tarp beyond the center-field fence in the Kingdome, inspiring our Hall of Fame play-by-play man Dave Niehaus to give one of his signature calls. The Rye Bread, the Mustard, the Grand Salami.

Of course it was Edgar who came to the plate with our season on the line the next day, in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 5, when we trailed by a run. I didn’t start that game, but Lou used me as a pinch runner in the bottom of the eighth inning, and so when Edgar came to bat in the bottom of the 11th, I was on deck, scared to death that I might have to bat with the season on the line. I felt my knees shaking. We had Joey Cora at second and Griffey at first and while there was nobody out, I thought for sure that Buck Showalter, the manager of the Yankees at the time, would walk Edgar to get to me. I didn’t think there was any way they would pitch to the hottest hitter on the planet.

But Jack McDowell did, and when Edgar smoked that double into the left-field corner, he hit it so hard that I didn’t think there was any way Griffey would score. But I didn’t realize how fast he was running — fly, fly away, Junior — and when he slid across home plate, I jumped on him and put him in a headlock. I was so happy, and also so relieved I didn’t have to hit. When we lingered in the clubhouse afterward and the soaked clubhouse had that stale smell of champagne, we were all like: Papi did it again.

Later that month, King County approved financing for a new Mariners ballpark, and I immediately began to lobby our equipment manager, Scott Gilbert, to place my locker right next to Edgar’s — an honor that was realized.

When I left the Mariners after the 2000 season to sign with the Rangers, phoning Edgar to tell him the news was one of the hardest calls I’ve ever had to make, and playing against him was really weird. But even after I left the Mariners, I understood that Edgar would always remain with me, as I continue to borrow from the best example anyone could hope for.

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