Living close to Seattle I've had the privilege to watch some of the best baseball players in the last twenty years, some of the among the best all-time: Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and, of course, Ichiro.
Ichiro seemingly defies all the "rules" about batting but consistently gets 200 hits per year and makes it look easy. Recently I ran across an article by Scott Campanella about Ichiro that provides an interesting analysis of the great Seattle Mariner.
As I was listening to some sports talk show the other day, they were giving highlights of the previous evening's MLB All-Star Game. I heard the voice of Ichiro Suzuki, the game's MVP, come over my radio, speaking perfect English during the post-game interview. I was shocked to hear the progress he has made with our language. Of course, then I realized that Ichiro was speaking through an interpreter.
While Vladimir "The Impaler" Guerrero was bashing the baseball 500 feet on his way to winning the Home Run Derby, Ichiro demonstrated his skills when it counted. He went 3-for-3 in the Big Game, showing NL pitchers and fans what they've been missing over the last seven years. In the first inning, he drilled a patented Ichiro single off of Jake Peavy. Later in the game, he hit a long fly ball off the wall in right field. When the ball took a funny bounce off the wall right by the venerable Ken Griffey Jr, everybody in the park knew Ichiro had a chance to score. And he did.
The mystical Mariner outfielder has been a fixture in Seattle since 2001, when he was imported from Japan. He has not (or will not) speak fluent English, although some sources claim that he does this intentionally in order to avoid reporters. He reportedly keeps his bats in a humidor, listens to rap music, and loves "Star Wars". Ichiro's limited American vocabulary consists of phrases such as 'What Up Dog' and 'Yo Mama'.
As I write this post, The Seattle Mariners have just agreed to a five-year contract with Mr. Suzuki in the neighborhood of one hundred million smackers. Although the Mariners have their Moose, Ichiro is the true Mariner mascot. He is solely responsible for drawing thousands of fans to the stadium every night. What other player has their name chanted in unison by an entire ballpark when he gets ready to hit?
Hitting for contact is one thing Ichiro can do better than almost anyone who has ever played. His batting style is unorthodox, to say the least. He does not keep his balance back, as the book on hitting says to do, but often shifts his weight to his front foot, bringing the bat through the hitting zone as though it were a broom. You would not teach your child to hit the way Ichiro does, and yet he has proven extremely effective. He has hit over .300 every year in the majors, including .355 so far this year. If Vlad is the Impaler, then Ichiro is the Acupuncturist, sticking it to the other team one line drive at a time. He is the Peter Pan of the American League, gracefully flitting here and there, swatting cue shots up the middle, always just beating out the grounder to short.
Sabermetricians must hate him. He draws fewer than one walk for every fifteen plate appearances in his career, although his ratio is a little better in 2007. He displays little power, preferring to hit 'em where they aint (see Wee Willie Keeler). Although he has a .333 career batting average, his On Base Percentage is only .379, and his Slugging Percentage is .439, a hardly Ruthian figure. Yet, if you asked today's GMs about guys they would like to start a team with, Ichiro's name rises to the top.
In addition to Ichiro's incredible hitting prowess, he is a gazelle on the basepaths. He reportedly gets down the first base line in a nifty 3.2 seconds, putting him there with the fastest players ever. If he hits a chopper into the ground, forget it. If he sends one into the gap, he will likely be standing on third in less than ten seconds.
His throwing arm is a cannon, especially for someone who is so slight-of-build. Players and fans everywhere know that you can't run on Ichiro, so rarely does anyone try. His move from right field to center has allowed the Mariners to bring in Jose Guillen this year, a big improvement over Jeremy Reed or Willie Bloomquist. Ichiro is one of the best center fielders in the game, although we don't often see him on ESPN's Web Gems. Who needs to make a leaping or diving catch if you can beat the ball to the spot?
Two players which I saw play as I was growing up remind me of Ichiro at the plate. Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn defined pure hitting in the 80's, forsaking power for the ability to consistently hit line drives to all fields. If you look up Ichiro's comparables based on stats, though, you get guys like Bake McBride and Ron LeFlore...good players, but not nearly of his caliber. In fact, it is difficult to find a player like Ichiro anywhere in the history of baseball.
Ironically, the player Ichiro is least like is his own teammate, Richie Sexson, who hits one ball out of the park every five games and somehow makes millions of dollars doing it. Today's baseball is committed to the long ball, building behemoths who can drive towering shots over drawn-in fences. Sabermetrics preaches the value of the walk and the home run. Ichiro's greatness transcends modern-day wisdom.
I've come to a profound realization: Baseball is not (or should not be) about winning. The game I love is about Ernie Banks, the curse of the Bambino, and Pine Tar. We revel in blown calls, fan interference, and coaches jawing with an umpire face-to-face. In fact, my favorite part of the game is the pitcher-batter duel. The universe comes to a stop when John Lackey deals filth to Alex Rodriguez. Pitch by pitch, moment by moment, who will win the battle? Ichiro wins his wars more than any other player.
My daughter just turned one year old last month. I plan to share my love of the game with her as she grows up. I relish in the thought that she will see Ichiro Suzuki play, even if he is an old man. I will tell her that he is the Peter Pan of baseball - that he is from Neverland, sprinkled with fairy dust, always just a little too fast to be caught in the dreaded grasp of Captain Hook.
Sometime in the future, on a warm summer day, a crowd of people will gather in Cooperstown, New York. They will turn their attention to the man at the podium who has enthralled them with his bat and glove. He was not like any other player they had ever seen. He will not speak in a language that they understand, but his words will be relayed through another. That is because he comes from another place, seemingly not of this world. Mustering up the few English words that he knows, he will exclaim "What up Dog?", and the people in return will chant I-CHI-RO, I-CHI-RO!
Everyone have a nice, good day! Let's play two!
-Everyone have a nice, good day! Let's play two!">tfedge