Edgar Who? hits big time

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SEATTLE -- They used to pass by his locker every day. The reporters and cameramen might stop for a quick question or offer a casual greeting, but most just passed by on their way to see Ken Griffey or Randy Johnson. And Edgar Martinez, one of the best hitters of his generation, didn't mind.

The world can have the Big Unit. Martinez will take the big hit . . . or the small one. He never has sought out the spotlight, and only now -- in the aftermath of one of the greatest playoff performances in history -- is it seeking him.

"I like to get my satisfaction out of the job I do on the field," Martinez said the other night. "I guess it's nice for people to notice you, but I like to just do my job on the field."

He has been doing that quietly for years. Martinez owns two American League batting titles, and he could go into any restaurant in any city other than Seattle and enjoy his dinner without a single interruption. He probably could have done it in Seattle until this past weekend, when he drove in nine runs in the final two games of the divisional playoff to send the amazin' Mariners into the American League Championship Series.

Just a quiet guy from Puerto Rico who does his job and likes to stay in the background, though that might not be possible anymore if he continues to swing the bat the way he did against the New York Yankees.

Designated hitter Martinez batted .571 and tied a postseason record with 10 RBIs in the heart-stopping divisional series, but he even did that in relative obscurity, thanks to Major League Baseball's decision to run all four divisional series concurrently and televise the games regionally. He'll get a little more national air time starting tonight, when the Mariners play host to the powerful Cleveland Indians as the ALCS opens at the Kingdome.

The Mariners figure to be the "other" team in the best-of-seven series. The Indians won 100 games during the strike-shortened regular season and had little trouble dispatching the league's second-winningest club, the Boston Red Sox, in the divisional playoffs. No one gives Seattle much chance of upending 1995's super team, but no one gave the Mariners much chance of overcoming a two-game deficit to defeat the Yankees.

"I remember a young Cincinnati team that played Oakland in the World Series, and not too many people gave them a chance either," said Mariners manager Lou Piniella, who managed the Reds to that improbable World Series championship in 1990.

No one can deny that there is something to this Mariners magic, not after Martinez hit a grand slam Saturday night to even the series, and certainly not after Martinez, Griffey and Johnson teamed for Sunday night's dramatic, extra-inning victory.

The Seattle slogan is "Refuse to Lose," and that's just what the Mariners have done since they took the field for last Monday's one-game AL West playoff against the California Angels.

They have played four must-win games in the past eight days, and Martinez has been an impact player in three of them. He had three hits in the playoff against the Angels, and he nearly single-handedly carried the Mariners from a five-run deficit to a Game 4 victory. So it was almost shocking when he struck out against Jack McDowell with a chance to win Game 5 in the ninth inning.

He got another chance, of course, and it would be in an even

more suspenseful situation. The Mariners were down by a run in the 11th when he lined a double into the left-field corner, scoring Joey Cora and Griffey.

"It was in my mind that the way the game was going, I was going to be in that situation again," Martinez said. "I was positive all the way."

Who could be surprised at that point, and yet who could fail to be amazed?

"He's so professional," said Piniella. "Nothing fazes him. He's cool as a cucumber at home plate. He has an idea of what he wants to do, and he's just a professional. That's the only way I can describe him. He's done it all year for us."

If only good fortune would have allowed him to do it year-in and year-out, Martinez might be working his way toward Cooperstown. He has been recognized -- by opposing pitchers, at least -- as one of the game's toughest outs ever since he arrived in the majors to stay in 1990, but injuries have dogged him every step of the way.

He has had knee surgery twice and shoulder surgery once since 1988. He missed most of the 1993 season with a chronic hamstring injury and had to go on the disabled list at the start of the 1994 season after Indians pitcher Dennis Martinez hit him on the wrist.

Everyone knew what he could do when he was healthy. He won his first batting title in 1992, batting .343 in spite of a shoulder so sore that he had to undergo surgery in September. He entered the 1995 season with a .303 career batting average, but, at 32, he had only 686 career hits in parts of eight seasons with the Mariners.

This year changed everything. This year, Martinez did not miss a game. He won his second batting title with a .356 average and -- despite the shortened season -- set career highs in almost every offensive category, including home runs (29), RBIs (113), hits (182), doubles (52) and runs (121). Piniella said he was not surprised. He could see this coming when he arrived in Seattle for the 1993 season.

"The only comparison I could think of was the guy I thought was the best hitter when I came into the league as a player," Piniella said. "That's Tony Oliva. That was when Rod Carew was winning all the hitting titles, but as far as an all-around hitter who hits for average and can hit for power, I thought Oliva was the best. That's the best comparison I can give you."

If you ask Martinez, he'll tell you that he isn't even the best hitter on his team. Consider this exchange during the post-game news conference after Martinez drove in seven runs and won Game 4 with a dramatic grand slam.

Question: "Edgar, if you could trade your swing with anyone else in baseball, would you trade or would you keep your own?"

Answer: "I'd trade with Junior [Griffey]. I just enjoy watching him hit. His swing is just, in my eyes, perfect. He comes through for us all the time. Yes, I'd like to have his swing."

In the meantime, Martinez will be happy to give you directions to Griffey's locker.

Baseball playoffs

AL Championship Series

Mariners vs. Indians

Game 1: Tonight, 8:07, Seattle, chs. 2, 7

Starters: Indians' Dennis Martinez (12-5, 3.08) vs. Mariners' Bob Wolcott (3-2, 4.42)

NL Championship Series

Braves vs. Reds

Game 1: Tonight, 8:07, Cincinnati

Starters: Reds' Pete Schourek (19-7, 3.19) vs. Braves' Tom Glavine (16-7, 3.06)

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