Edgar Esta Caliente! -- M's Quiet Martinez One Of Baseball's Hottest 3Rd Basemen

The local chapter of the Edgar Martinez admiration society, a society of often no larger than one, convenes 30 minutes before every Seattle Mariner home game in the first row of the 200 level above the visitors' dugout.

That is when Mary Harder, 38, a shy woman with curly brown hair and two season tickets, flips a blue felt banner reading "Edgar esta caliente" over the Kingdome railing and settles into her seat.

After back surgery and her father's death last year, she went looking for model of stability. She picked Edgar Martinez.

"I was at a time when I really needed a hero," Harder said. "I've come to admire Edgar so much."

In a town that swoons for Griffeys, she often feels she is the third baseman's lone fan. And at times, Martinez seems as if he is playing for no more than one fan. Stoic, he goes through a game with the dispassion of batting practice and admits he blocks out crowd noise.

But Martinez is playing for an audience. These people just happen to be 4,000 miles away, in a five-bedroom house in Puerto Rico, a 73-year-old woman who can find only the occasional game on the satellite dish Martinez gave her, and her 82-year-old husband who is nearly blind and could not watch anyway.

They raised him, a debt Martinez vows he cannot forget. He lives with them each winter, and leaves only because baseball provides a good living for them all.

No, Martinez does not play alone.

"Sometimes I sit down and think, `What is more important to me, the game or my grandparents?' " he said. "And it's pretty close. But it's got to be them. My satisfaction is that they get everything they need.

"Helping them is everything to me."

Martinez was a Clemente child. As respected as the Pittsburgh Pirate outfielder was in baseball circles, it is difficult to overestimate his stature among the youth of Puerto Rico in the 1960s and early 1970s. Roberto Clemente became the standard, as a ballplayer who lived for others.

When the four-time batting champion died in the crash of a plane delivering relief supplies for earthquake victims in Nicaragua on New Year's Eve 1972, Edgar was three days shy of his 10th birthday. He had taken up baseball a year earlier after watching the 1971 World Series, when Clemente was a charismatic and timely most valuable player.

In Clemente's final season, Edgar watched the few Pirate games available on TV. "Every time he would make an out" - Martinez places a hand over his heart - "I feel bad."

The last generation of the Clemente children are in the major leagues now, realizing the dream the great Pirate made seem possible to those kids in the barrios and pueblos of Puerto Rico.

Like his idol, Martinez, 28, has become one of the top hitters in baseball. The American League player of the week for July 8-14, he has hit .341 since the All-Star break, raising his batting average to .306, best on the Mariners. He was among the top five hitters in the American League for more than a month earlier this season, until back and groin ailments in June disrupted his stroke.

(Injuries and Martinez are a nasty mix. Before a right knee problem last year, he led the AL at .355 in late May).

Through the first two months, he also was getting on base - via hit, walk or otherwise - more often than any other AL player, remarkable considering that Manager Jim Lefebvre has placed him anywhere from leadoff to seventh in the lineup. His natural spot in the order is at No. 2.

For Martinez, overlooked for an All-Star spot in favor of Milwaukee designated hitter Paul Molitor, slumps are not common. He rarely swings at bad pitches, and often gets his hits with two strikes against him, usually placing the ball tamely onto the outfield turf. Consistent to the point of tedium, he had not gone more than two games without a hit this season until the back spasms sidelined him for five games.

Shoddy fielding prevented him from All-Star consideration last year, when torn cartilage in the knee limited his mobility. His 27 errors was worst among AL third basemen and tainted a year in which his .302 batting average was best on the Mariners.

His knee repaired by surgery last October, he has only eight errors this season. Before an error on Friday, he had not committed one since June 7, and he is getting to more balls. Said Ron Clark, Mariner infield coach: "He's as good (a defensive third baseman) as there is in the AL now. He has real sure hands and his first-step quickness is better now because he's healthy. He just doesn't make too many mistakes."

Yet most true to the Clemente ethic, Martinez re-invests himself back home.

When he returns each winter to Maguayo, he and cousin Carmelo Martinez of the Kansas City Royals buy uniforms and equipment for the children of the tiny inland pueblo, where there's not much else except a ballpark and the town event is watching the 3-year-old aspirants "run to the wrong base." Carmelo and Edgar sponsor a Thanksgiving fiesta there each year.

Martinez plans to stay in Maguayo the rest of his life, in the same middle-class house where he grew up, the home he bought from his grandparents so they could feel financially secure. He stays with them there every offseason, tending to a retired man with diabetes and a woman with high blood pressure.

Mario Salgado and Manuela Rivera need him, after all - and that's always been the criteria.

Born in New York City, he moved to Puerto Rico after one year when his parents divorced. When they re-married 11 years later and decided to move their family back to New York, Edgar's older sister and younger brother followed. Edgar stayed.

"Everyone told me how great it would be to live in New York," Martinez said. "But I could not leave my grandfather and grandmother. I knew they had a big house and there was a lot of work."

His grandfather, a cab driver, needed his two vans washed daily. He needed help with the lawn. Edgar, age 12, could not abandon the man who once gave him his first baseball uniform, with stripes and his name sewn on the back.

Even today, girlfriends, computers, his red 1985 Porsche, even the game that brought him many of these riches - none of his interests can compete with Mario Salgado and Manuela Rivera, the woman who raised him "the old way," with manners and respect and an attention to responsibility.

His parents are little more than friends he meets up with when the Mariners visit New York.

"I think I made the right decision," Martinez said. "I think about my brother and my sister and my family. But I'd say it was better for me to stay with my grandfather and grandmother."

Martinez said the decision made him mature early. Those who study him on the field can notice the difference, for although last year was only his first full season in the majors, he has the presence of a veteran.

He is disciplined: Whether or not he is to play that night, he goes through a long pre-game routine. Five hours before the first pitch, he begins knee rehabilitation, studies tapes of himself from the previous game, works out problems in his stroke on a tee, and takes extra batting practice.

He is composed: Whether starting the Mariners' only triple play of the season or grounding into a double play to end a rally and the game, his facial expression rarely varies. He said he never shows emotions because "my teammates might not trust me."

He is dependable: Pitch him inside and he will line the ball to left. Up the middle and he hits to center. Throw outside and he sends it to right. There are few frivolous swings; he made contact on more than 91 percent of the balls he swung at last season, best in the league.

He is self-sufficient: Martinez solicited advice on fielding mechanics from Clark in spring training, but he rarely requires guidance from any of the coaches.

"There are a lot of things I've kind of figured out by myself," he said.

Alone in a big house with his thoughts and Archie comic books, though, Martinez also became very guarded and private.

Martinez rarely opens up to the media or his teammates even now, giving him less of a public profile than players hitting 100 points behind him. Most of his fan mail comes not necessarily from admirers, but autograph hounds, who who want his trading card penned for its rising value.

Willie Sanchez, the South Dakota-based agent who signed Martinez in Class AA ball at Chattanooga, Tenn., says that Martinez is reluctant to reveal himself because he fears anything that could possibly jeopardize his ability to support his grandparents. Reporters theorize that his limited English is an obstacle, but interviews in Spanish reveal him to be no more expansive.

Closer to the point, Martinez said he wants to avoid the threats to his concentration that come with a high profile.

Forever the second-brightest nova in his galaxy - to cousin Carmelo as teenagers and now to Ken Griffey Jr. - Martinez has always been able to simplify the game. Just him and the ball. Distractions are kept to a minimum.

For that reason, he lists Toronto's SkyDome as his favorite park (because the crowd sits far away) and wonders whether he could ever play for a storied franchise like Boston or New York (because of the media intensity).

"I've never been in that spot, as headliner," Martinez said. "What if I get all the headlines and become No. 1? I don't know how I would react."

In Seattle, Martinez is comfortably overlooked. Fans here so badly salivate for a pennant race, and a flashy player to draw them into a concrete dome on summer days, that appreciating the fine art that is Martinez's game is of secondary interest.

Yet, there are tiny pockets of Martinez admirers at the Kingdome, mostly baseball connoisseurs and romantics who get misty when he hits to the opposite field with a swing so smooth it should belong to a left-hander; or when he gathers a grounder and in one flowing motion throws the ball to first. These are not people who come to games to scream at the noise needle.

"Edgar is for the serious people," said Mary Harder, who might also be accused as being seriously in need of financial advice (she bet $40 in Las Vegas, on 15-1 odds, that the M's will win the pennant).

Since first hanging the banner at the start of the season, some among the closet society have sought out Harder for camaraderie. She and a retired Boeing engineer in another section wave to each other after good Martinez moments.

But usually, Harder gets left alone to contemplate the value of Martinez to the franchise.

An argument could be made, for instance, that Martinez is the ideal Mariner in these awkward times. Content in a small market, unaffected by the club's losing tradition, willing to let Griffey be the show, Martinez has been among the few consistent players in a wild season.

Healthy, he is a threat to break the team-record .326 batting average set 10 years ago by Tom Paciorek. And the price is right - his $350,000 salary falls well below the league average and neatly into Jeff Smulyan's budget.

The Mariners certainly have their third baseman in place, after failing with Jim Presley and Darnell Coles while keeping Martinez in the minors for six years. Hitting coach Gene Clines said Martinez has the bat control to challenge for the AL batting title for years to come, with the same perseverance he utilizes in building his gas-powered toy cars.

Edgar esta caliente.

Edgar is hot. Yet if few people recognize that, Martinez has no qualm. His mug may be on fewer T-shirts at Kingdome souvenir counters than that of the Mariner Moose - a fact - but Martinez knows his audience. Since breaking into the majors, his grandparents' health has improved.

For five years, once every other month or so, either Mario or Manuela had to be rushed to the hospital for a stroke or some other emergency, often by Martinez. Now, mystically, they go in just for checkups, leaving them plenty of time to spend in the leisure of the Puerto Rico warmth and their grandson's daily achievement.


Not by the Clemente bible.

"Clemente gave us a good thing, how he was as a person," Carmelo said. "He was always taking care of people, worrying about other people. Edgar is the same way." ------------------------------

EDGAR: NEAR THE TOP -- How Seattle's Edgar Martinez compares to top American League third basemen, through yesterday's games:

BA OBP HR 2B 3B RBI E. ----------------------------------------------------------. WADE BOGGS .

BOSTON .323 .423 6 28 1 35 9. ----------------------------------------------------------. EDGAR MARTINEZ .

SEATTLE .306 .398 8 14 1 32 8. ----------------------------------------------------------. ROBIN VENTURA .

CHICAGO .294 .369 11 15 0 51 11. ----------------------------------------------------------. CARLOS BAERGA .

CLEVELAND .287 .358 9 13 1 36 13. ----------------------------------------------------------. STEVE BUECHELE .

TEXAS .267 .344 14 12 2 44 2. ----------------------------------------------------------. -- Key: BA, batting average; OBP, on-base percentage; HR, home runs; 2B, doubles; 3B, triples; RBI, runs batted in; E, errors. ----------------------------

CAREER STATS -- Career statistics of Seattle's Edgar Martinez through Friday:

YR. AB HR RBI AVG. -------------------------------------. 1991 298 8 32 .305. 1990 487 11 49 .302. 1989 171 2 20 .240. 1988 32 0 5 .281. 1987 43 0 5 .372.