DORADO, Puerto Rico — To know Edgar Martinez, advised Kevin Robles, you must know Maguayo.
To know Maguayo, a humble neighborhood in Martinez’s hometown of Dorado, it soon becomes clear that you must know Felipe’s Place.
Oh, the official name of the sprawling, open-air establishment is The Naranja’s Bar, named after the orange tree that grows in front. Most people in town, however, call it Felipe’s, in honor of the owner who lives in the modest house that sits behind. It seems to serve the role of tavern, restaurant, community center, meeting place, mom-and-pop grocery and gossip clearing house.
Robles, a Mariner minor-leaguer who grew up in Dorado, knows the place simply as “the little store.” Whenever Edgar returns home to Puerto Rico, as he does faithfully every winter, he makes a beeline for Felipe’s — to shoot pool, knock down a cold Medalla beer, hang out in the cramped bar that somewhat resembles an old wooden dugout and just reconnect with his people.
“This is Edgar’s clubhouse,” says Papo Concepcion, a close friend. “It’s the first place he goes.”
Across the street from Felipe’s, in a makeshift wood-frame barbecue pit, Juan Santana Vazquez cooks up pinchos, a sort of chicken or beef shishkebob that fills the air with a redolent scent, wafting across to Felipe’s. Salsa music blares from a boom box.
Edgar always buys four pinchos, the locals say. Vazquez, the pincho man, has several pictures of Edgar mounted above the barbecue, along with a yellowed newspaper article headlined, “Edgar: Artista del bateo.” Artist of the bat.
A block away is the baseball field where Edgar first honed his artistry, swinging at bottle caps or tape-wrapped foam balls with a broomstick. The park in which it sits has been renamed Centro Comunal Carmelo Martinez after the former major-leaguer, Edgar’s cousin and soul mate.
A pickup truck drives by with bullhorn blaring — selling bananas, potatoes and onions out of the flatbed. Business is slow on a typically sun-drenched day, but it will pick up as work lets out for the day.
As Robles had predicted, the people of Maguayo brighten perceptibly when Edgar’s name is brought up. They can’t wait to tell how proud they are of “our” Edgar — for his baseball exploits, which are monitored here with almost religious fervor, but most of all for his character. The word that comes up most often is “humilde” — humble.
“Every time he comes home he shares with all his friends and just becomes one of us,” said Wilson Torres. “He is the same simple guy.”
The back wall in the bar is a collage of photos that are a shrine to Puerto Rican athletes in general, and Edgar in particular. There is Edgar posing in his Chattanooga minor-league uniform, circa 1986. There is Edgar even younger, sporting an afro and a mustache. There, mounted and framed, is The Seattle Times article from 1993 on Edgar and Carmelo. There is Edgar with the Mariners, Edgar in the All-Star Game, Edgar in all his incarnations and stages of tonsorial evolution.
A man runs into his home and comes back with a grainy photo of a Maguayo youth team, pointing to a youthful Edgar. A woman brings out a large photo of the 1995 Puerto Rican dream team that won the Caribbean World Series and proudly rattles off the hallowed names. Rodriguez. Gonzalez. Delgado. Alomar. Sierra. Baerga.
At the right end of the middle row is Edgar, who has become a sort of grand old man of Puerto Rican baseball at the moment of its greatest pride, with superstars sprinkled throughout the major leagues and the baseball world’s spotlight as host of tonight’s major-league opener in San Juan between Carlos Delgado’s Toronto Blue Jays and Ivan Rodriguez’s Texas Rangers.
“We are so proud that Edgar stayed in Seattle this year, after Griffey and Rodriguez left,” said his cousin, Carlos Rivera. “The Red Sox had Ted Williams, the Yankees had Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, and the Seattle Mariners have Edgar.”
But as much as Edgar has invested emotionally in Seattle — settling down with his American wife, Holli, and son, Alex, and starting an embroidery business — a large part of his heart will always be in Dorado, or more specifically, in Maguayo.
Seventeen miles to the west of San Juan, hard down Highway 22, Maguayo is one of five neighborhoods that comprise Dorado, which has a cumulative 30,000 people and an odd mix of old-world charm and tacky American influences.
“It is a calm town, like Edgar,” Carlos Baerga said in spring training, before the Mariners cut him. “It is a town for him.”
Maguayo, surrounded by rolling bluish hills and dense green pastureland, is another world from the nearby Dorado Beach Hyatt and Country Club — one of the toniest resorts in Puerto Rico, a former plantation once owned by Lawrence Rockefeller.
It is home of the famous Dorado Beach East Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones and boasting a hole Jack Nicklaus has rated one of the 10 best in the world.
Chi Chi Rodriguez’s lavish mansion overlooks the course and the beach behind, but there are no mansions in the inland barrio of Maguayo, especially not on Calle 13, a narrow street of ramshackle houses where Edgar and Carmelo grew up.
Edgar’s childhood home — where he was raised by his beloved grandparents, the late Mario Salgado and Manuela Rivera — is his now. Edgar bought it nearly a decade ago to relieve his grandparents of debt in their twilight years. He remodeled it and expanded it for them and lives there during his visits home, but it is hardly the shrine to opulence that so many athletes construct when they hit their first big payday. The home is handsomely tiled, tidy and elegantly appointed — but modest, hardly out of place in a neighborhood of limited means.
One of Edgar’s few indulgences is the new jeep that sits in the garage and the well-equipped weight room where he hones his body after each season, an increasingly important endeavor as he pushes toward 40.
During the baseball season, the home sits vacant but not idle. In the backyard, where Edgar and Carmelo romped as children, is a batting cage. Even when he’s not around, Edgar lets Robles or Ramon Martinez, an infielder for the San Francisco Giants, or Javier Cardona, a catcher in the Detroit system, or any other aspiring ballplayer use the cage and the pitching machine. Rivera often pitches to his 17-year-old twin sons, Jean Carlos and Carlos Jose, who many feel bear a striking resemblance to Alex Rodriguez and who dream of a pro career.
The youngsters look up to Edgar with the same hero-like worship with which Edgar looked up to Roberto Clemente, who along with Orlando Cepeda is the patron saint of Puerto Rican baseball.
“(Edgar) is our inspiration to keep going in life,” said Jean Carlos Rivera. “All my friends follow his career and collect his baseball cards. Even if we don’t make it (in baseball), we would like to follow his example.”
Edgar still remembers the grief that pervaded his family when Clemente died on New Year’s Eve in 1972, in a plane crash while delivering relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Edgar was three days short of his 10th birthday.
The previous year, Edgar had become enamored of baseball, watching Clemente’s brilliant showing for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1971 World Series. It was the transcendent moment that cemented Clemente’s icon status throughout Latin America, but especially in his homeland.
“Watching those games with my aunt, she was so into it, and I got into it,” Edgar recalled. “After that, I was hooked on baseball. There were other players I really liked — Tony Perez, Jose Cruz — but Clemente was always The Man.”
That year, Edgar’s grandfather bought him his first uniform, striped, with his name sewn on the back. Like all his friends, Edgar wanted to wear 21 in honor of the great Clemente. Now every boy in Dorado who plays youth ball fights for No. 11.
• • • To know Edgar, you must also know his grandparents, who took him in when he was an infant and remained his central influence until their death — Mario in 1993, Manuela a few years later. Their soul lives with him now in the qualities that Mariner fans have come to cherish; Edgar’s quiet strength and seemingly ego-free personality allow him to thrive while always being the second-brightest star on the team — behind Randy Johnson, behind Ken Griffey Jr., behind Alex Rodriguez.
“They were the ones that taught him the values of life and how to deal with people,” Carmelo Martinez, now a minor-league instructor for the Chicago Cubs, said earlier this spring in Mesa, Ariz. “We were all poor, and it was hard, but it was easy because of the love we got.”
Mario operated a local transport business, shuttling people around the neighborhood. He was known for his handiwork, always fixing or building in the backyard. When Mario would have the ground dug up for some project or another, Edgar would sneak into the yard and clear the rocks by hitting them with a broomstick, much to the chagrin of the neighbors.
Born in New York City, where his parents had moved to forge a new life, Edgar moved in with his grandparents in Dorado as an infant, along with his two siblings, when his parents split up.
When Edgar was 11, his parents reconciled and summoned the children back to New York to live with them. His younger brother, Elliott, and his older sister, Sonia, went. Faced with a wrenching dilemma, Edgar stayed in Maguayo.
“I was in a really hard situation,” Edgar recalled. “Boy, making that decision at that age. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, really, but I went with my feelings. I felt my grandparents needed me. I remember all the work they needed to do. I just felt great staying with them. I felt it was the right decision.”
And a tumultuous one. “He locked himself in his room and wouldn’t come out, didn’t want to leave,” recalled Edgar’s uncle, Jose Juan Rivera. “The luggage was already made. The luggage left. He stayed.”
Edgar’s relationship with his parents remains friendly yet superficial — yearly visits with his father when the Mariners pass through New York and winter get-togethers with his mother, who lives 40 miles west of Dorado in Arecibo.
“It worked out to be a very good choice, but there’s the other side,” Edgar said quietly. “Living without your family has a bad side. It does affect you for years to come. I did miss being with my sister and brother. That was tough.”
Edgar reconnected with his brother when Elliott moved to Puerto Rico a few years later, after the parents split again, to help care for their grandparents after Edgar signed professionally. Elliott now lives in the Seattle area, while Sonia is on the East Coast.
At the park and in their grandparents’ backyard, Edgar and Carmelo played ball, incessantly. Rocks, tennis balls, bottle caps — it didn’t matter.
“When it would rain, Edgar would go outside and swing at the rain drops,” said Carlos Rivera. “He would do it for hours.”
“He has always been intense about hitting, even when he was a little kid,” Carmelo recalled.
Carmelo, whom Edgar still calls his hero and role model, signed with the Chicago Cubs. But Edgar, three years younger, had trouble attracting the interest of scouts, who liked his glove but felt he was too weak a hitter for a third baseman.
After a few failed tryouts, Edgar enrolled at American University in San Juan to study business administration. He got a day job supervising a furniture store and a night job in a General Electric factory and resigned himself to a life without baseball. He was 20, well beyond the age most Latin players sign professional contracts.
“I was thinking, well, I have to go and prepare myself for a good job,” he said. “At that point, I sort of lost hope of signing.”
But then he heard about a Mariner tryout in nearby Bayemon and decided to give it one more shot. He nearly missed the tryout when a friend who was supposed to tell him the time forgot to call, but he got tipped off in the nick of time and showed up at the field at 8 a.m., dead tired after working through the night in the factory.
Though Edgar recalls being “so tired I couldn’t swing the bat,” Mariner scout Marty Martinez saw the potential in Edgar that others missed and offered him a $4,000 bonus. Another prospect from that tryout, Luis Vega, received $5,000, and Edgar thought he should get the same amount.
“I didn’t want to sign,” he said. “It wasn’t motivating, the money, to me. I already had a job. I was thinking, ‘I can make that much.’ I was playing semipro ball two, three times a week, and I got paid for that, plus I was going to school. I was thinking, `I’ll spend my bonus money and be without a job next year.’ “
But at Carmelo’s urging, Edgar decided to give baseball a try. He had one more hurdle to pass: his grandfather didn’t want him to sign, thinking the money was too low. Edgar implored his uncle, Jose Juan Rivera, to convince Mario to let him go.
“I told him, Roberto Clemente signed for $400, and look where he went. Edgar could sign for $4,000,” Rivera recalled.
Mario relented, and Edgar wound up with the Mariners’ rookie team in Bellingham to begin the pro journey that would eventually see him win two batting titles and the hearts of Mariner fans.
Until their death, his grandparents watched Edgar from afar on the satellite dish Edgar had given them. When Mario lost his vision, he would listen to Mariner games on the radio. In 1992, when Edgar signed his first big contract — a three-year, $14 million deal — he was asked what he would do with the money. He replied instantly, “buy heart medicina” for his grandmother.
“Edgar was always very serious about everything, and he was devoted to his grandparents,” Carmelo said. “He only jokes around when he’s with me. I get him going. When he goes home, he knows what’s going to happen. People are going to come to him with all sorts of problems, and they know he’s going to help. He loves that. He loves helping people.”
Sitting on a bench in Edgar’s backyard in Maguayo, his relatives and friends describe the essence of the Mariner star.
Carlos Rivera tells fondly of his cousin’s absent-mindedness, epitomized by the time Edgar realized that one of his savings certificates was missing. A search ensued, and the certificate was found in a briefcase in the backyard shed, where it had been for five years.
“The only thing he doesn’t forget is how to bat,” says Rivera.
“And when he strikes out, he doesn’t forget that either,” chimes in Concepcion.
They laugh about Edgar’s terror of spiders. They tell of the fiesta he and Carmelo sponsor every Thanksgiving, when virtually all of Maguayo turns out to play softball and volleyball, barbecue hamburgers and watch fireworks.
They talk, with reverence, about his Hall of Fame chances. “Clemente, Cepeda. Next Edgar,” says Rivera.
They tell of the four Little Leagues in Dorado he has sponsored, the small good deeds he does for the people of Maguayo.
“A lot come and ask, but a lot comes from himself, and no one knows,” says Diana Colon, mother of Kevin Robles, who serves as interpreter by virtue of 30 years in New York.
Diana tells how Edgar has quietly sponsored Robles, financing his education at a junior college in Illinois and tutoring the 23-year-old catcher in the nuances of professional ball.
They show the picture Edgar has on the wall of his home, which features the eight Puerto Rican players in the 1997 All-Star Game, displayed above a young Puerto Rican boy asleep dreaming.
“That is the dream of every boy here,” Rivera says.
Rivera is asked if Edgar has changed at all since the days he took swings at raindrops and was devoted to “ma buela” and “ma puela,” as he called his grandma and grandpa when he lived on Calle 13.
The quick response: “El Mismo.” The same.