By Erik Lundegaard
The New York Yankees have 16, the Oakland A’s six, the Texas Rangers three, and the Seattle Mariners, your Seattle Mariners, just one.
I’m talking retired numbers.
Only one other team in Major League Baseball has just one retired number, the Colorado Rockies, and theirs, like the M’s, isn’t its own. It belongs to Jackie Robinson, whose No. 42 was retired across all of baseball in 1997.
The Seattle Mariners baseball club, in other words, has retired the number of none of its own players.
Why not? According to the Mariners media guidebook, “To be eligible to have one’s number retired, the former Mariners should have either a) been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and been in a Mariner’s uniform for at least five years, or b) come close to such election and have spent substantially his entire career with the Mariners.”
We have no one in the first category and only a handful in the second. And on the current Hall of Fame ballot? Just one: Edgar Martinez.
Edgar is one of only 22 players in baseball history to retire with a batting average above .300, an on-base percentage above .400, and a slugging percentage above .500. Most of these players are in the Hall of Fame (Babe Ruth, Ted Williams) or soon will be (Frank Thomas, Chipper Jones). Edgar, most likely, won’t.
He has two strikes against him. He was primarily a designated hitter, not a position player, and in the eyes of some voters that makes him half a player. Plus his counting numbers — 2,247 hits, 514 doubles, 1,283 walks — aren’t high enough. Because he didn’t play long enough.
And the reason he didn’t play long enough? The Mariners organization didn’t know what they had. Their entire relationship with Edgar is, in fact, a testament to how myopic first impressions can be.
Edgar signed with the Mariners as a free agent on December 19, 1982, and in his first year of professional ball, at age 20 in 1983, he hit just .183 in Bellingham. A few years later, in 1985 and ’86 at AA Chattanooga, he led Southern League third-basemen in putouts, assists, and fielding percentage. So that’s what the Mariners thought they had: a good-field, no-hit player.
Even after hitting .329 at AAA Calgary in 1987, this is what Bill Haywood, the M’s director of player development, said about him when he and seven other players were brought up in September: “His glove is his strength. Hitting over .300 is a pleasant surprise.”
The next year Edgar won the PCL batting championship (.363) and got another September call-up. In 1989, he actually made the team out of spring training but was still seen as a backup to Jim Presley, who hit 28 home runs in 1985, and was seen as the third baseman of the future. But ’85 was Presley’s high-water mark and the M’s finally traded him in January 1990. But even then, the club didn’t know what it had with Edgar.
“I think Darnell Coles is going to surprise a lot of people,” manager Jim Lefebvre told The Seattle Times in February 1990 about his new starting third baseman. “He knows there is no one in the wings, just Edgar Martinez to back him up. I think it is time for him to realize that he belongs at third, because to play that position you have to be an athlete. And Darnell Coles is an athlete.”
Edgar? Not an athlete. He’s just a backup. He’s no one in the wings.
Other people knew. That same spring, stats guru Bill James wrote the following about Edgar: “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. Martinez has wasted about three years when he could have been helping the team.”
Those were three years when he could have been adding to his counting numbers, too. Instead, he didn’t play regularly until May of that year. He was 27. He hit .302 with an OBP of .397. Two years later he won the batting title. Three years later he won it again. Never has an organization’s persistent obtuseness been so unjustly rewarded.
But Edgar’s chances for the Hall were probably gone for good. Because the M’s didn’t bring him up soon enough.
The M’s can’t undo its past organizational ineptitude but it can honor the greatest Mariner who was always a Mariner — who was quiet and classy, and whose work ethic inspired everyone around him — by retiring No. 11.
Again, why don’t they? I think they’re waiting on Ken Griffey, Jr. to be the first player to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame as a Seattle Mariner; then they’ll bestow the honor on him. Maybe Ichiro, too, when he enters the Hall. Maybe Felix down the road.
Edgar Martinez? Apparently, to the Seattle Mariners baseball club, he’s still no one in the wings.