Orlando Cepeda and Edgar Martinez are bookends in the history of the designated hitter. Martinez is the first player elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America largely on the credentials established as a designated hitter. Cepeda won the American League’s inaugural Outstanding Designated Hitter Award in 1973.
Cepeda’s experience as part of the first group of designated hitters provides him unique insight into what made Martinez great as a designated hitter. Cepeda fully appreciates the challenges that Martinez overcame to succeed in the transition from an everyday position player to a designated hitter.
“Edgar had the personality and the mental approach to excel as a designated hitter,” Cepeda said. “To be a designated hitter, you have to be prepared mentally. It’s a job that isn’t easy. The mental preparation is very important. And talking with Edgar, it was very challenging for him. He had to work and make adjustments.”
Designated for Greatness
Becoming a designated hitter requires a revamped mental approach and learning to prepare for at-bats differently. Players train from a young age and develop particular ways to prepare themselves for game action. They stretch. They take fielding drills and batting practice. Once the game begins, position players can stay loose while in the field. They contribute through their defensive play. Designated hitters return to the dugout after each at-bat and often wait several innings before seeing action again.
“When you play a position every day, you get warmed up. But when you hit and then sit in the dugout, you get cold. What (Martinez) did, with his mental preparation, it was something special,” Cepeda noted.
Martinez’s mastery of strictly batting versus also fielding a position led him to become the standard bearer for the designated hitter. Baseball recognized his place among designated hitters in 2004 when Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the American League’s Outstanding Designated Hitter Award would be renamed the Edgar Martinez Award.
American League team owners first approved the designated hitter at their Jan. 11, 1973, meeting, just weeks ahead of spring training. There was little time for players to prepare.
Becoming a designated hitter was a transition that no one in the major leagues had gone through. Cepeda was among the group of players who were signed by teams to fill the designated hitter role.
“Frankly, it was hard to make the adjustment. No one knew what it was. I had played a position and batted. But no one knew what it was going to feel like. With the introduction of the designated hitter, everything was new. I had to prepare myself mentally. It took me like two months preparing myself in spring training,” Cepeda recalled.
The New York Yankees’ Ron Blomberg made baseball history on Opening Day in 1973 as the first player to bat as a designated hitter. He drew a walk from Boston’s Luis Tiant in the opening inning. Cepeda stepped into the batter’s box the next inning as the Red Sox’s first designated hitter. The Puerto Rican went hitless in the Red Sox’s 15-5 rout of the Yankees. He was more impressive during the rest of the season, hitting .289 with 20 home runs and 86 RBI. He was voted the AL’s Outstanding Designated Hitter.
Cepeda’s lone season as Boston’s designated hitter was his last full season of major league action. He retired after appearing in 33 games in 1974. The powerful slugger was not voted into the Hall of Fame during his years of eligibility on the BBWAA ballot. He would have to wait until the Veterans Committee elected him for enshrinement in 1999.
Cepeda knows what Martinez is going through this week as Hall of Fame Induction Weekend nears. Both waited years to receive the call that informed them of election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Now, the ceremony draws closer. Final touches are being made to speeches. Excitement grows.
Cepeda also knows Martinez cannot fathom the emotions that will course through his body when he stands at the podium in front of all the Hall of Famers and the tens of thousands gathered at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, N.Y.. It was an unforgettable moment for Cepeda 20 years ago. He hopes the July 21 ceremony will be just as special for his friend.
“It’s a grand moment. When you stand there, and begin to speak, that is a moment that until you get there and stand before that crowd, you can’t understand,” Cepeda said.
Unfortunately Cepeda won’t personally witness Martinez’s grand moment. His doctor advised against the 81-year-old traveling across the country to attend the ceremony. Cepeda is still recovering from his cardiac episode and head injury in February 2018.
“I am saddened because I wanted to go and be with Edgar,” Cepeda said. “I admire him as a ballplayer, and respect as a fellow human being. He is a tremendous person.”
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