Now the Seattle Mariners have gone and done the most Mariners thing ever.
They’ve retired Mario Mendoza’s uniform number.
Sure, they’re saying that it’s Edgar Martinez’s uni, and they’re planning a whole weekend of festivities in August in tribute to the man who sold enough spud wrenches for Eagle Hardware to drive up the price of the company to $1 billion when it got swallowed by Lowe’s.
In fact, Eagle should have retired his jersey. Or at least sent his light bat off to Cooperstown.
But, c’mon, who really made No. 11 for the Mariners famous?
Yes, Martinez struck the biggest hit in Mariners history –which given the franchise’s achievements is, alas, like planting a flag on a frost heave.
Martinez has the American League award that goes to designated hitters named in his honor. He lent his name to a cantina up above left field at Safeco Field where you can score a tasty margarita – though beer is, and forever will be, the only ballpark refresher worth discussing. He has his own street – Edgar Martinez Drive, on the south boundary of Safeco – even if it’s only 800 feet long.
But Mario Mendoza is the eponym of the Mendoza Line.
And the Mendoza Line is a baseball universal – the .200 batting average, below which lies ridicule and infamy. In fact, it’s a metaphor for inefficacy applied easily and often to all contexts and crossing all cultural boundaries.
Because George Brett told it to Chris Berman who made it famous on ESPN and thus across America, and before that Tom Paciorek and Bruce Bochte used it to tease Brett about a slow start one season, as they’d earlier teased Mendoza, their teammate, the year he hit a lusty .198.
For the Seattle Mariners.
For whom Mario wore No. 11.
The number the club will retire this summer.
Of course, when they unveil the display out in left-center field next to the ones for Ken Griffey Jr. and Jackie Robinson, the name “Martinez” will be above the number, to avoid any confusion. Not that there can really be any confusion. With the street outside and the bistro inside, and with him around the batting cage and in the dugout as the Mariners batting-coach-for-life (or so said former M’s coach Andy Van Slyke in a famously bitter and lubricated radio interview a couple of years back), Martinez is so prominent at the stadium that it’s a wonder the entire place doesn’t bear his name. Rare is the season since his retirement that the club hasn’t invited him back for another public bow.
And why not? Martinez is the best of M’s – humble and gracious, hitting craftsman, steely competitor, generous teammate and now respected teacher. And maybe – maybe – future Hall of Famer.
But some of us take in the whole of Mariners history, more warts than wonder. The franchise has given us no choice.
So we’ll not forget that before Edgar, No. 11 was worn by the likes of Tommy Smith, Charlie Beamon, Darnell Coles and Jim Maler, who’s made a killing in bug extermination since his days as a Mariner.
We’ll not forget Bud Bulling, who caught Gaylord Perry’s 300th win and settled for a time up north of Spokane in Newport and coached softball there.
Or another catcher, Bob Kearney, whose deficiencies as a pitch caller prompted one M’s reliever to call him “rockhead” and who once refused to catch pitchers throwing between starts. This led pitching coach Frank Funk to deposit Kearney’s mitt in the bullpen toilet, and Kearney to deposit his fist on Funk’s face.
And especially not Mario Mendoza, a symbol for fecklessness unrivaled in sport. Even ABC’s old “agony of defeat” skier doesn’t have his name attached to his calamity, possibly because no one wants to look up how to spell Vinko Bogataj.
All of them made the M’s the M’s, if not as grandly at Edgar Martinez.
There was a time Martinez wondered if he might be one of those guys. He hit .173 as a first-year pro in Bellingham and bounced between Triple-A Calgary and Seattle for three years. One spring, manager Jim Lefebvre handed the third-base job to Coles and Martinez “began to think there was nothing here for me.”
His first spring training number, he recalled, was 84. Eighty-fours don’t get retired in baseball.
Mariners ownership likes to congratulate itself for the high bar it sets for jersey retirement – as if the Braves or Reds, say, have cheapened it. The club also set up an impossible call down the road when it gave No. 51 to Ichiro Suzuki after parting with Randy Johnson. Maybe they’ll put their pride aside to share a ceremony.
After all, Mario Mendoza didn’t seem to mind Edgar Martinez wearing his number.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.