Ask former teammates what an Edgar Martinez struggle at the plate looked like and they return your question with a blank stare. After time to think about it, some would refer to his eye condition and say that there were times that he couldn’t pick up the ball, but to be off or in-between at the plate?
It didn’t happen.
The numbers reflect this, as well. In his 18-year career, Edgar had just five hitless streaks of 14 at-bats or more. While the numbers would seem to signify what his teammates insisted – that Edgar Martinez did not struggle – there are reasons that go beyond talent for why he was able to limit his struggles to the absolute minimum.
His first struggle was perhaps his largest, and perhaps his most surprising as it wasn’t anything a tweak of his mechanics or an adjustment to his approach could fix. The process in overcoming this hurdle would turn into something he would utilize every day after in his career, and likely was responsible for a large part of his career.
“As a kid and since I started playing the game, I could hit,” Martinez explained. “I was a very good player growing up in Puerto Rico, almost like I was the best player on every team I played. A really good hitter in every league I played. I knew I could hit and I was always felt very confident.
“I had great years in Triple-A then I came to the big leagues and there was a period where I started doubting myself. I started thinking in a different way and I realized that it was not that I lost my skill, it’s that I’m actually not expecting to play at the level that I had played. I started searching the bookstores and I came across this pamphlet that talked about the mental side. I connected with the information. I said, ‘This is it, this is what I had been going through.’ It had all these exercises, mental exercises and a lot of information that was very helpful right away. Right away I felt very different and kept improving. I kept working on it pretty much through my whole career. I realized that this was part of my game.”
Today all clubs employ mental skills coaches. The Mariners currently have one at every level of the organization with mental training playing a big part in player development. In 1987 and 1988, when Martinez had his first exposure to the big leagues, the information was limited.
Harvey Dorfman, perhaps the earliest notable baseball psychologist, was just finishing up “The Mental Game of Baseball” that would be published in 1989. Finding answers on the mental side of the game was not easy in the late 80s, but on his own Martinez discovered his mental training in baseball could be as instrumental to his results as the physical training he was devoted to.
“The booklet gave me some exercises and that made me realize these are all the parts – the mental side is another training I have to do,” he said. “It could be just 10 minutes, do some visualization, some affirmations. It became a lot easier for me. As soon as I was aware I wasn’t thinking the right way it was pretty easy for me to do it. Those few concepts I had to work on throughout my career, they were part of my training.”
Mental training was not the only aspect of peak performance that Martinez was well ahead of the curve.
“He was one of the first guys to do all of the things you’re supposed to do,” said Rick Griffin, who was Mariners head trainer from the day Edgar arrived in the big leagues through the day he retired. “He managed his nutrition. I use him as an example with the minor leaguers on the importance of eating a breakfast. You have got to get nutrition into your system. Edgar had breakfast delivered to his room every day at 8:30 and then he went back to bed if he needed to to for a couple hours. He managed his sleep. He was one of the first players to use video.”
Martinez utilized video before the Mariners had a video coordinator or video room. While today players have access to just about everything in the game that has been recorded, all of which can be downloaded on their personal notebooks, back then video was limited to VHS tapes. And the angles? There was just one.
“Our strength and conditioning coach would take the video behind home plate and that’s the only video we would have,” said Griffin. “He would take that and transfer it to VHS and they would go in and watch it. Edgar took a liking to it. Then when they started putting things on disks he would take the disks on the airplanes. While the other guys were having a cocktail he would be at the back of the plane watching videos of the pitchers he was going to be facing.”
Martinez took his quest for betterment so far as to inventing drills that he believed would make him a better hitter.
“I would do things like putting weights on my ankles and going to the batting cage,” he remembered. “I would use the doughnut on the bat and try to hit in batting practice with the doughnut on. I always thought that making my hands stronger would help my bat speed and if I made it very difficult, without the doughnut it would be quicker. It was the way I thought. A lot of my teammates would think this guy was out there, but it made sense to me.”
Teammates would tell the stories years later and chuckle at the memory of Edgar hitting a baseball with the weighted doughnut on his bat, but at the time it was happening, they were all eyes, according to former Mariners third baseman Mike Blowers.
“He did everything himself,” Blowers said. “A lot of the drills he would do, things I would never think about doing. Hitting off a tee with a doughnut, the weight on the bat. ‘Why are you doing that?’ ‘Because I have to be able to control it and I want to know where the barrel is.’ So he’s not swinging full-speed trying to kill the ball, he’s just taking nice easy swings just so he could feel it. You know what I did the next day? I put a doughnut on my bat and went and hit off a tee.
“Where he would come up with some of this stuff and what he was thinking about I have no idea. I know this: It was all-consuming to him. That’s another part that makes him great. I don’t think he left anything to chance, ever. That’s a discipline that is rare.”
That discipline got him through 45 minutes of eye exercises, twice a day – once before leaving his house, the other right before the game. This was something he had to do because of the eye condition he suffered from; otherwise he would have no business stepping into a batter’s box, let alone expecting to be productive.
The other things Edgar didn’t have to do. He didn’t have to wake up at 8:30 every morning to fuel his body, regardless of where he was or what time the team had arrived in from another city. He didn’t have to study videotape as nobody else was at the time. He didn’t have to devise drills to better prepare himself for what he would face from live pitching. He didn’t have to seek out answers on the mental side of the game.
He very well could have skipped all of the above, shown up at the park on time, hit the weights, had a normal diet, slept when it felt right and probably still been an All-Star. But he most likely would not be where he is going to be on Sunday, taking his place among the rest of the game’s greats in Cooperstown.
It wasn’t talent alone that got Edgar into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many of the things we see organizations focusing on today he was doing 20 years ago. His approach to baseball was ahead of the game, and when the game caught up he was still at the head of his class.
Edgar Martinez had a total commitment to his craft, a commitment that those around him marveled at. For the man himself, the work was simply part of his job. He knew he was good, but good was nothing to settle for.
“It was all pretty much what I felt I needed to do to play at the level I wanted to play,” Edgar said.