In the days leading up to Tuesday's Hall of Fame announcement, the local media in Seattle covered every published ballot that marked Edgar Martinez's name with the frenzied dispatches of a presidential election.
Larry Stone of The Seattle Times wrote a long feature profiling some of Martinez's biggest fans -- dubbed "Edgar's Army" -- including Mary Harder, who one day in the early 1990s made a banner in support of her favorite player and hung it behind home plate. The "Edgar esta caliente" sign became a fixture at the Kingdome. When Martinez got married, his fiancée, Holli Beeler, showed up at Harder's seat before one game and invited her to the wedding. Harder gave Martinez a peck on the cheek as he went through the receiving line.
My friend Ted started a countdown on Facebook. One of his posts was about the time his grandmother turned 102 in 2010. Edgar was her favorite player. Martinez not only sent her an autographed picture but also called her on the phone to wish her a happy birthday.
A few days ago, my mom sent me a text: "Local guys think Edgar will make it this time."
He did indeed. On Martinez's 10th and final time on the ballot, the baseball writers finally elected him to the Hall of Fame. Former teammate Dan Wilson went to the top of the Space Needle and raised an "11" flag to honor Martinez. Ken Griffey Jr. called in to MLB Network as Martinez was being interviewed and called it a "great day for the Mariner family." Martinez, to nobody's surprise, was gracious about the news, showing no bitterness about the long process to get elected.
"This 10-year wait has allowed me to enjoy the moment more," he said in Spanish during a media conference call. "My children are older, and our family is at the perfect stage in our lives to enjoy this moment. I am so grateful it happened like this." He sent out a tweet thanking the Mariners and their fans for their support.
It's 2,866 miles from the recently renamed T-Mobile Park to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Main Street in Cooperstown, but an entire army of Mariners fans will make the trek to be there on induction day in July.
To understand the love and affection longtime Mariners fans have for Martinez, you must first understand the state of not just the Mariners organization in the 1990s but also the city itself. You must understand 1995 and what happened after.
This was just before the technology boom, before Amazon owned the city and tech bros in untucked shirts wandered the streets in small packs, before real estate prices went completely insane and traffic was merely a problem instead of an existential crisis.
Seattle regarded itself as this hidden gem in the Pacific Northwest. It was the birthplace of grunge and the home of Boeing and Microsoft. It had Pike Place Market and Alki Beach and, on sunny days, off in the distance, snowcapped Mount Rainier majestically towering over the city like a proud mother. Seattle, it felt, yearned for this national recognition as a great American city. Growing up there, I remember it being a big deal when one of the professional athletes decided to live year-round in Seattle: See, he likes living here. The rain must not bother him.
The baseball team, however, hadn't done much to bring attention, other than Ken Griffey Jr. arriving on the scene and becoming the franchise's first big star. An expansion team in 1977, the Mariners didn't have their first winning season until 1991. Manager Jim Lefebvre was promptly fired. Owners George Argyros and then Jeff Smulyan both desired to move the team.
Rock bottom came in 1994. On July 19, a few hours before a game against the Orioles, several 26-pound ceiling tiles came crashing down from the Kingdome roof. One reportedly came within 50 feet of hitting Cal Ripken Jr. The Mariners had to play their next 20 games on the road -- and would have played the rest of their games on the road if the players' strike hadn't ended the season on Aug. 12. Team president Chuck Armstrong said the whole situation made the Mariners the "laughingstock" of baseball. Two workers fixing the roof later died in a crane accident. Oh, and the team's lease with the Kingdome was set to expire after the 1996 season.
The future of baseball in Seattle was in doubt: a bad team, a bad stadium and an out clause to move the franchise.
Before the 1995 season finally began in late April, the Mariners considered trading Martinez and pitchers Randy Johnson and Chris Bosio to trim payroll. They decided instead to hold their cards. To say Edgar Martinez saved baseball in Seattle is discounting the contributions of many others, but it feels like only a negligible stretch of the truth.
This was the season Griffey broke his wrist crashing into the wall after making a spectacular catch. He played just 72 games and hit .258 with 17 home runs. With Griffey out, Edgar had the season of his life. He played all 145 games and hit .356/.479/.628 with 29 home runs, 113 RBIs and 121 runs scored. He won the batting title and led the league in runs, doubles, on-base percentage and OPS. He hit .402 in June. In 29 games in August, he hit .398/.560/.786 with nine home runs, 33 RBIs and 31 runs.
The Mariners, 12.5 games out on Aug. 20, began rallying while the Angels collapsed. There were dramatic wins: the Griffey walk-off home run, the first of his career, to beat the Yankees; the Doug Strange Game on Sept. 19; the Tino Martinez walk-off home run to beat Dennis Eckersley and the A's five days later. All along, Edgar kept hitting and hitting and hitting.
All this played out against the backdrop of a public vote for a new stadium set for Sept. 19. As Strange tied the game with a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth and scored the winning run in the 11th, the local news broke in with ballot updates. I remember flipping back and forth between the game and the updates. The initiative barely failed. Ten days later, when the vote became official, Mariners chief executive John Ellis told King County that if it didn't come up with a plan for a new stadium in 30 days, the team (then owned by Nintendo) would be put up for sale.
Three days after that announcement, the Mariners beat the Angels in a one-game playoff to win the AL West and reach the playoffs for the first time. Five days after that, the Mariners rallied from a five-run deficit to beat the Yankees 10-6 in Game 4 of the division series. Edgar's grand slam off John Wetteland in the eighth broke a 6-6 tie:
The next night, in the decisive Game 5, Edgar delivered the most famous hit in Mariners history. The game went extra innings. The Yankees scored a run off Johnson in the top of the 11th. Martinez came up with two runners on against Jack McDowell:
In Seattle, fans simply call it The Double. For the first time, the city had fallen in love with the Mariners. Six days later, a special session of the state legislature voted in favor of a financing package for a new ballpark. On Oct. 23, the King County Council voted to implement the package. The Mariners were staying.
Does it happen without Martinez's grand slam? Without The Double? Without him carrying the offense during the time with Griffey on the disabled list?
That only partially explains the devotion to Martinez, however. In 1996, despite the breakout season of Alex Rodriguez, the Mariners missed the playoffs (Johnson missed most of the season). They won the West again in 1997, only to lose in the playoffs to the Orioles when a utility infielder named Jeff Reboulet hit a big home run off Johnson.
In 1998, a disgruntled Johnson pitched poorly and was traded to the Astros. After the 1999 season, Griffey asked for a trade, and the team acquiesced to his wishes, sending him to the Reds. Rodriguez left as a free agent after 2000.
Griffey and Johnson and Rodriguez got the magazine covers. Edgar stayed. He spent his entire 18-season career in the majors in a Mariners uniform. In 2001, without Griffey, without Johnson, without A-Rod, the Mariners won a record-tying 116 games. The team that almost moved to Tampa led the league in attendance. Martinez hit .306 and drove in 113 runs.
That Edgar Martinez is now a Hall of Famer is pretty much a damn miracle. The Mariners signed him in December 1982, a couple of weeks shy of his 20th birthday. Martinez was attending American College in Puerto Rico and working the night shift at a pharmaceutical company while playing semipro baseball on the side. A Mariners scout named Manny Martinez (no relation) held a tryout camp in Dorado and signed Edgar for $4,000.
He went to Bellingham of the Pacific Northwest League in 1983, speaking only a few words of English, and hit .173 with no home runs in 32 games. His professional career could have ended right there, but the Mariners brought him back, and in 1984 he hit .303 with 15 home runs in the Midwest League. He also drew 84 walks; he was gifted with that great eye at the plate from the beginning.
Still, it was an agonizingly slow trek to the majors. He spent most of the next two seasons at Double-A. He hit .329 at Triple-A in 1987 and .363 in 1988. He shuttled back and forth between Seattle and Calgary in 1989, blocked by the immortal Jim Presley. In "The Baseball Book 1990," Bill James wrote, "What a sad story this one is. This guy is a good hitter, quite capable of hitting .300 in a park like Seattle, with more walks than strikeouts."
The Mariners didn't know what they had. Presley was gone, but the team intended to make Darnell Coles its third baseman in 1990. "I think Darnell Coles is going to surprise a lot of people," Lefebrve told The Seattle Times in spring training. "He knows there is no one in the wings, just Edgar Martinez to back him up."
Coles made five errors in his first six starts at third base. Martinez took over. Just as James predicted, Martinez hit .300 with more walks than strikeouts. He was 27 years old when he completed his first full season in the majors. He had 5.6 career WAR. The only Hall of Fame position players with less WAR through age 27 were Bill Terry, Earl Averill and Sam Rice.
Martinez hit .300 again in 1991 and won his first batting title in 1992, hitting .343. He battled injuries the next two seasons, moved to DH and won that second batting title in 1995, kicking off a run of seven consecutive .300 seasons in his 30s. In that stretch, he hit .329/.446/.574 while averaging 28 home runs and 110 RBIs per season. He led the AL three times in OBP, topped a 1.000 OPS five times, drew 100-plus walks four times and became one of the most respected hitters in the game.
My old colleague Jim Caple was covering the Twins in 1995. He asked Twins manager Tom Kelly which batter he would most want up there in a key situation. "Who do you think?" Kelly responded. "Of course, Edgar Martinez."
Martinez's new fellow Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera would call him the toughest batter he ever faced -- with good reason. Martinez went 11-for-19 off Rivera with two home runs. "The toughest -- and thank god he retired -- Edgar Martinez," Rivera told the New York Daily News in 2013. "I think every pitcher will say that because this man was tough. Respected the game, did what he had to do for his team."
No player was better at going foul line to foul line than Martinez. I wish we had a spray chart for his entire career, but we have this one from his final four seasons:
Martinez was a doubles machine. He hit 46 in 135 games in 1992. He hit 52 in 145 games in 1995. In 1996, he was on pace to break Earl Webb's record of 67 with 42 in 85 games in the first half (he hit .346/.471/.702 before the break). He might have broken the record, but in his only game at third base that season, he cracked four ribs in a collision with catcher John Marzano. He missed 21 games and finished with just 10 more doubles in the second half.
He was known for his tireless preparation, his work hitting off the tee and in the cages, his eye exercises. Martinez was diagnosed with an eye condition called strabismus in the minor leagues, which caused his right eye to wander. It became worse with age and in 1999 became bad enough that he considered retiring. Martinez, who already incorporated 30 minutes of eye exercises into his pregame routine, worked with the team optician on new exercises, which helped. In 2000, he led the AL with 145 RBIs.
Martinez finished his career with a .312 batting average, .418 OBP and .515 slugging percentage. Only 20 players in MLB history have batted at least 5,000 times and retired with a .300/.400/.500 line. Only six of them began their careers after World War II: Martinez, Larry Walker, Frank Thomas, Chipper Jones, Manny Ramirez and Todd Helton. (Joey Votto is over the .300/.400/.500 line and could become the 21st player to reach all three marks.)
Mariners fans, at least those of a certain age, haven't really gotten past 2001. The team lost in the ALCS and hasn't made the playoffs since -- the longest playoff drought in any of the four major pro sports leagues. The Mariners organization itself keeps bringing back reminders of those better days. Griffey, a shell of his halcyon days, closed out his career in Seattle. The Mariners brought back Ichiro Suzuki. Both of those returns ended in heartbreak, with Griffey walking away in the middle of the season and Ichiro removed from the roster last year after hitting .205 with no extra-base hits in 44 at-bats.
Even now, the team says Ichiro will be on the 28-man expanded roster when the team opens the 2019 season in Japan. It's a nice gesture but another sentiment stuck in the past. Even Martinez spent the past three seasons as hitting coach (he resigned after last season).
For a few years there, Seattle was a baseball town. The Gary Payton-Shawn Kemp Sonics had broken up. The Seahawks were in a dark period. Edgar Martinez had become the loyal and humble face of the team -- and, in some ways, the city itself, or at least how the people of Seattle liked to view themselves.
It's also time to acknowledge that Seattle no longer exists. It's San Francisco North now. And just as the city started tearing down the eyesore Alaskan Way viaduct that ran for 2.2 miles along the waterfront, Mariners fans must tear away from 2001. Maybe Edgar finally getting elected to the Hall of Fame will provide closure and allow that to happen. The fans and the organization can finally move on and hope for a new, successful era of Mariners baseball.