For years, Edgar Martinez dealt with a vision problem that caused him to flinch at strikes. Yet he still dominated. And he’s cool with the Hall snub. A most remarkable dude.
My favorite part of the Edgar Martinez narrative has nothing to do with votes of sportswriters, halls of fame or sabers of metrics. It has to do with the guy never quite being able to see consistently well, yet becoming one of the most feared hitters in baseball history. Imagine Usain Bolt with a limp being the the world’s fastest human. More on that in a moment.
Speaking of vision problems, 29.6 percent of the electorate came up with an excuse Wednesday to deny Martinez his rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s true that, in his ninth year of a 10-year eligibility window, 70.4 percent said yes, which is good — a jump of almost 12 percent from a year earlier — but for the others in my tribe of scribes, it’s hard to see what they cannot see.
In baseball history, only 13 players besides Martinez had a career slash line above .310/.410/.510. All in the group who were eligible are already in the hall.
The fact that, as a designated hitter, he played no defense, is irrelevant because the American League made the specialty a position. It’s not as if the Coffee Drinkers of America created an all-whiskey award. The DH is part of the same game. Voters who don’t understand that should be given a restraining order to not venture within 500 feet of a ballpark.
Naturally, Martinez took the disappointing news with his usual equanimity and grace. To expect him to have an outburst would be so out of character, I would more readily expect Nick Saban to go to a Halloween party as Pee Wee Herman.
“I didn’t have high expectations,” he said via teleconference Wednesday afternoon with reporters. “I was fine with it.
“It’s a big improvement. All I’m thinking right now is it looks good for next year.”
Indeed, the steady increase in his votes, up from 25 percent four years ago without having taken a single at-bat, suggests that sportswriters are capable of learning, although I would not yet put any of us in charge of the Strategic Air Command.
“I haven’t gotten nervous,” he said of the annual vote ordeal. “I thought I had a chance, but I didn’t think this year was going to happen.”
But regarding the 2019 vote, it’s never wise to put much faith in the quick-twitch capacity of baseball, particularly the Hall of Fame and its voters. Fergawdsakes, the hall is willing to put its most prestigious award in the hands of another industry. I believe many of my colleagues are capable of rendering fine judgments, but they have no more business voting on baseball awards than baseball players have for voting on journalism awards.
But if Martinez is willing to indulge the system, so shall the rest of us. As a man of patience and diligence, he knows no other way. Which brings us back to . . .
That’s a vision condition in which muscle weakness causes one eye to drift — to the inside, or outside, or down. Sometimes called “lazy eye,” it is a major problem for someone who makes a living deciding in four-tenths of a second about whether a 95 mph baseball is worthy of a swing.
“I’ve been dealing with it for years,” Martinez said. “Kids used to make fun of me in school.”
He told me that 16 years ago when we chatted at spring training. The issue was quietly understood around the clubhouse. He talked about it a little publicly, but disliked the attention because he didn’t want to give fans or pitchers any notion that he was copping to an excuse.
Martinez is left-eye dominant, while the muscles of his right eye intermittently pull the eyeball to the outside. The result is that the brain shuts down the right eye’s information temporarily (called central suppression) in order to avoid altered vision.
But that makes for momentary monocular vision instead of binocular vision, or a loss of depth perception. For a hitter, depth perception is vital to detect ball speed. Without it, the ball appears in two dimensions until it is in the catcher’s mitt.
Or the batter’s ribs.
An optometrist, Doug Nikaitani, was the team’s vision specialist at the time.
“That’s why you sometimes see Edgar bail out on a pitch when it’s a called strike,” he told me then. “Occasionally, he will lose the ball. When that happens, he’s better off to pull back, and protect his hands and head.”
Blessed with 20/20 vision, Martinez used a series of exercises to condition the eye muscles. But because the condition is intermittent, he can never know when it will occur, so rest was just as important. Before games, Martinez avoided watching TV or reading anything lengthy.
“When I’m hitting, I have to concentrate on the pitcher when he begins to throw,” he said. “I can’t look at baserunners or infielders, because I can’t be sure I’ll see the pitch.”
Despite the vision hassle, Martinez did well more than survive at the major league level. From 1987 to 2004 when he retired at 41, Martinez came as close to perfecting batting as was humanly possible. His success was an intensely cultivated and nurtured habit.
Even in his world, Nikaitani noticed how Martinez approached the tedium of regular physical therapy routines.
“If I was a teacher or a coach,” he said, “I would call Edgar the perfect student.”
None of that part of the story has influence on his Hall of Fame worthiness, nor should it. Many players overcome physical liabilities. But it is part of the Martinez saga that explains why people who know it pull so hard for him to make the hall.
Goodness needs to happen to those who create greatness in the face of long odds, because it’s important to know, especially in these times, that it remains possible.