Sports

Martinez A Big Hit

One day last week, Ken Griffey Jr. brought his new Rottweiler puppy to the ballpark. Millionaire teammates made goo-goo eyes and fussed over it. It was the talk of the clubhouse, just as Junior had planned.

The same morning, Edgar Martinez brought a new juicer to the ballpark and carted it unnoticed into the players’ lounge.

Now, this isn’t to imply that Martinez takes his craft, his vocation more seriously than Junior, but … well, OK, that’s exactly what it implies. It’s not even an implication; it’s an obvious distinction.

Not that a juicer will necessarily generate one more base hit than Dash the puppy.

But whatever needs Griffey fulfills in the way of keeping the team loose and the media preoccupied, the Mariners’ adult daily minimum requirements of dedication, dignity, humility and Vitamin C are provided by Martinez - a man described by teammate Alex Rodriguez as “a role model for players.”

And now the stability and single-mindedness so treasured by the designated hitter of the Mariners - a description and not just a position - seem to have finally rubbed off on the franchise.

The team is rooted in Seattle - eager to occupy a new stadium still 15 months from completion. The 1998 roster, even two weeks from the end of spring training, is virtually set no matter what manager Lou Piniella might say for public consumption. The focus, after two trips to the playoffs in the past three years, is solely on the World Series.

Yes, the club managed to manufacture some rumpus by not extending pitcher Randy Johnson’s contract, putting both the press and the players on a daily Big Unit watch (today’s mood: unhappy).

But the Mariners are relieved to have dodged the bullet - even temporarily - of another rumpus manufactured for them last fall, when baseball toyed with radical realignment and they were left to imagine life without Edgar Martinez.

“I can’t,” said second baseman Joey Cora.

The plan put forth by Bud Selig, the acting exterminator of baseball, had the Mariners moving to the National League, where Martinez could not ply his special skill without exposing his not so special ones.

Would the M’s trade him? Would he retire rather than play for a new team?

“I did think about it,” Martinez admitted, “but after a while, I realized I had no control over it, so why worry about it?”

But the realignment threat has only been postponed, not eradicated. There are options Martinez must consider.

“What I have to think about is whether I would enjoy myself in another situation,” Martinez said. “If I have to go to another team, would I enjoy that? If I have to play in the other league, would I enjoy that? There are questions. I have to think about what’s best for me and my family.”

Retirement?

“It was just an option,” said the 35-year-old Martinez. “I’ve always liked being here. I like my teammates and I like the management. My wife is from Seattle and I have a business (there).

“The main thing is this team has a chance to win and if I have to go to a team that doesn’t have a chance, it would be tough. I don’t know if I could do that.”

For a man so entrenched in routine, radical changes are traumatic - and hence the historical dropoffs in his production after injuries and layoffs. Yet Martinez never stops making minor changes.

He tinkers with his stance, his weight work, his diet. Stacked in his locker amid the bats and gloves are cans of powdered supplements and bottles of multi-vitamins (“Some things I just try,” he said, “and some I stick with”). Scotch-taped to the side are the latest still pictures of his swing, to be studied for flaws.

The perfect ones are a matter of feel.

Always a good hitter, he has willed himself into being a great one. He was a singles hitter with little power when he came to the big leagues; now, twice in the last three years he’s hit more than 50 doubles and 25 home runs.

To see him with his shirt off is to know why.

“Before, there was a belief that it would be bad for a ballplayer to lift weights,” said Martinez, whose devotion to conditioning is a singular passion. “It would make you stiff, you would lose flexibility. Yeah, if you lift like a body builder, there will be problems. But if you train for this game, you can stay flexible.

“And you can hit the ball a whole lot farther.”

And last longer. Last year, he hit .376 after the sixth inning - tops in the American League.

A thousand arcane statistics define Martinez’s remarkable ability to hit. He only went hitless in three straight games in 1997, and in consecutive games just three other times. He hit .475 in interleague play, a tribute to the craft of pure hitting when little is known about an opposing pitcher.

He swings at more first pitches than any other hitter in the league, yet goes deeper into the count.

And the best stat of all: only four major leaguers - Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, Chuck Finley and Barry Larkin - have longer terms of service with their teams.

The natural hitter is Griffey. That was evident in a batting-practice game Junior and Edgar played last week with batting coach Jesse Barfield after the rest of the squad had left for a road game in Mesa. Junior brilliantly imitated the stances and swings of several rivals - Barry Bonds, Mo Vaughn, even Martinez - and still rocketed balls out of the park.

Martinez watched and chuckled, shaking his head.

“He hits like me better than I do,” he said.

When it was his turn in the cage, Martinez got into ruts - he even lost the first game of “knock” to Barfield, who was pitching - and then worked his way out.

“You struggle a lot to make things look easy,” Martinez said.

That could mean adjusting his stance, working on a batting tee to keep his hands high, watching video of a week’s worth of at-bats or simply studying an opposing pitcher for a tendency to exploit.

No matter what the purists say, being a designated hitter can be a full-time job if you care enough to be a great one.

And there doesn’t seem to be any question that Martinez cares.

Griffey, who had won a lunch bet from Barfield and was in a particularly good mood, scooped up an armful of balls and lobbed them underhand over the fence to the few fans who’d gathered to watch.

Martinez stayed for 10 minutes to sign those same balls.

He is similarly revered in the clubhouse, as much as anyone can be revered in a millionaires’ club. Johnson, despite his courageous pitching of the last three years, is an island unto himself and these days a grumpy one. Griffey, and to a lesser extent Rodriguez, cannot be emulated because of their special gifts.

That leaves Martinez, the self-made man. He is not a cut-up nor a natural. He can barely run.

But he can hit, and he can win.

A few things have made us forget that Edgar Martinez is about winning: his efficiency at the plate, his unrelenting decency, the gentle humor that comes through when he’s making light bats or sprinkler bats or ordering pizza with a coupon on TV.

OK, on rare occasions the humor is not so gentle. The legendary Martinez story stems from an incident here several springs back, when a group of younger players were acting up near Martinez’s locker and one set down a boombox, cranking the volume just a little too high.

Martinez - in quiet, thoughtful concentration - stared at the stereo for a minute, then brought up his bat like an ax and smashed the machine with a few crushing blows, like John Belushi doing a number on the folk singer’s guitar in “Animal House.”

Teammates howled with laughter, having finally seen the stoic snap. And the next day, Martinez brought in a new boombox to replace the one he’d totaled.

Say this, then, about Edgar Martinez: When he comes to the park, he always brings the goods.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 color photos

MEMO: You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5509.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5509.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review



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