Ichiro

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I’m writing before Ichiro Suzuki, now largely a pinch hitter, reaches the 3000 hit mark.  If the stars are aligned and the baseball gods awake, his 3000th will be a ground ball up the middle, a ball an acrobatic shortstop could spear and peg to first.  The play should be close, but, as he has on most of the 3000, Ichiro beats the throw, hitting the bag just before the ball slaps the first baseman’s mitt.

I hear a lot about baseball having slipped out of the public’s attention, about the NFL and the NBA, maybe even MLS Soccer winning the hearts and minds of sports fans today, about baseball joining boxing, horse racing, and yachting as sports few people care to see.  I’m not going to rhapsodize about the clean geometry of the game, or of the legacy of fathers playing catch with sons, although I start to tear up when I remember my own pilgrimage to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa (midway between Luxemburg and Worthington), standing on the first base line when my son said, “Want to play catch, Dad?”  No, I’ll put the drama in baseball up against any other sport, especially in this era, when we see pitchers routinely throwing strikes at a 100 miles an hour and offering up curve balls that seem to drop off the edge of the table, facing batters whose reflexes are incalculably quick.  Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, and a dozen others combine power and grace at the plate, and the current batch of daredevil fielders put on a display of acrobatic gymnastics in grabbing sure hits out of the air, catches that the barrel-chested shortstops of the Golden Age would have watched screaming past their outstretched gloves.

This is a golden age, and Ichiro will play his final games , stretch out his final hits, as the next generation of athletes come to plate.  Others hit the ball farther (Stanton owns 20 of the 21 longest home runs in the history of the Home Run Derby), but none combine the craft with which Ichiro approaches hitting and the reverence with which he approaches the sport.

I’ve never been a Marlins fan, or a Mariners fan, or a fan of the contemporary celebrity warehouse known as the New York Yankees, but I consider myself fortunate to have seen Ichiro play in person and on tv.

I’m not a bandwagon fan (sorry Cubs/ Nats/ Sox).  I was lucky in growing up in a small town in Connecticut that happened to get WPIX, Channel 11, from New York City, the station that broadcast the Yankees’ and Giants’ home games, and so got to see Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in their prime.  Hard not to be a Yankee fan during those glory years.  The Yankee-Red Sox duels were not as heated back in the 1950’s, so it was possible for a Yankee fan to appreciate Ted Williams and to enjoy the spectacle that was Jimmy Piersall.  Piersall and Yankee second baseman, Billy Martin, were a matched set, both combustible with a very short fuse. They saved their best battles for after the game, fighting to a bloody draw in the tunnel under the stands. Good times.

I do admit to falling away from the Yankees as an adult, not in reaction to their lean years, but in response to what I saw as lapses in character.  Look, Mantle, Ford, Martin and Bauer were bad boys; I know that now, but I did not then.  The Bronx Zoo was too much to take, Steinbrenner was too much to take, and I’d spent years in Michigan by that point and had become grotesquely fond of Michigan football.  Moving back to Michigan in 1980, I decided to get behind the Detroit Tigers.

Again, I got lucky.  Sparky Anderson had just left the Reds to join the Tigers, and a roster that would take the team to a championship in 1984 began to coalesce, and the Tigers picked up  Willie Hernandez, one of three pitchers to win the Cy Young Award, MVP, and a World Series Title in the same year, joining Sandy Koufax and Denny McLain in that select company.  Great days for Tiger baseball.  Then in 2003, the Detroit Tigers lost the most games in a single season in the history of the American League, but even in that year, the seeds of a contending team were starting to emerge, waiting for Rookie of the Year, Justin Verlander, and centerfielder, Curtis Granderson, to pull Los Tigres back to the top of the league in 2006.  Hard times as they lost to the Royals at the end of the season to give up what looked like a certain Divisional title (don’t talk to me about the Royals), good times as they played their way as they beat the Yankees as the wild card team, and familiar times as they lost in the World Series to a Cardinal team they should have slaughtered.

So where does Ichiro Suziki fit into this narrative?  My son and I got our first look at Ichiro in person during Spring Training in 2002, Ichiro’s second season with the Mariners. The Padres and Mariners shared a ballpark close to our home base, and as we tried to get in two games a day, we’d get seats for the first game and sit on the lawn behind center field for the evening game.  Ordinarily, the best thing about seeing the game from the lawn was in being able to watch pitchers warm up in the bullpens, but on our first night in Arizona, we sat directly behind Ichiro, who played deep, almost to the center field wall.

I explained to my son that Ichiro was out of position, that he’d have no chance for balls hit just beyond the infield and would have a tough time trying to get off a satisfactory throw to any base but second.  As I spoke,  the leadoff batter for the Angels cracked a line drive over second base.  Ichiro somehow got to the ball on the first hop and rifled a throw to first in time to nail the runner.  I had seen Roberto Clemente’s arm on television, but I had never seen a throw such as that in person.  A frozen rope.

Ichiro played a stunningly effective defensive game from center field that night.  We had come to see the AL Rookie of the Year hit, and he was a spectacular hitter, but it was the completeness of his game that most impressed me.

A few words about Ichiro as a hitter.  Everything about his stance and batting ritual is distinctive.  Most fans are aware of his stretching and squatting before he steps into the box; he takes sweeping practice swings as he steps in and then out of the batter’s box.  As he assumes his stance in the box, he twirls the bat in a giant arc, stopping the bat at the top of its second circle, tugging at his sleeve as his bat is effectively pointing at the pitcher.  When he first came into the American League, after having been a superstar in Japan, that batting ritual seemed an affront to the pitchers he faced, and they tried to brush him back with what old timers call, “chin music”.

But this is where the Ichiro story takes on a different dimension.

The frenzy with which Japanese  photographers flooded the sidelines as Ichiro became the first position player from Japan to hit the big leagues was compared to the pandemonium meeting the Beatles at Shea Stadium.  The temptation was to write the guy off as a publicity hound, but Ichiro’s gravity and seriousness of purpose quickly convinced real baseball fans that they were watching something special.  He went on to earn a place as an All Star seventeen times, also winning seventeen Golden Gloves.  He was Rookie of the Year and American League MVP in his first year, added four batting titles and three more selections as MVP, and holds the single season record for most hits (262 hits in 2004 while a Mariner).

Stunning.  And yet, what sets Ichiro apart in my mind is the ethos with which he approaches the game.  It’s hard to remember just how spectacular Ichiro was in that first season; 242 hits, 56 stolen bases, batting average of .350, Gold Glove, and the best arm in the game.  He was given the number 51 by the Mariners, and on learning that the number had belonged to Randy Johnson, a player Ichiro respected greatly, the rookie wrote a note to Johnson promising not to “bring shame” to the uniform.  Ichiro’s fielding was so effective that his corner of Safeco Field was called “Area 51”.  No shame in that.

Before facing the Red Sox’ s Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiro famously announced, “I hope he arouses the fire that’s dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul.  I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger.”  I think I knew he was an uncommon ballplayer when he refused to give the press the name of his pet dog, explaining that he didn’t have the dog’s permission to make the name public.

I’ve watched a lot of baseball over the years, but aside from the moment on the Field of Dreams with my son, the memory that lingers is of Ichiro, moving fluidly and with deceptive speed, snaking a ball from the turf and releasing a strike to first base without seeming to have moved at all.

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