A daily accumulation of history and present as I follow the 2011 year through the baseball season and reflect on the glories and disappointments of the greatest game on Earth.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ichiro Suzuki

In honor of the Baseball Project's Volume 2, the rest of this week is dedicated to the subjects of their songs, and for today, that subject is Ichiro Suzuki, who has been referred to as a $17million singles hitter, but that's not really all that he is. While he isn't the only Ichiro in the world of ESPN (Ichiro Chiba also pops up), but he is a 1-word name and a 10 year dominant force in the MLB.
From 1993 to 2000, he had 1,278 hits and batted well over .300 every year except his first year, which was limited to only 64 at bats. His high water mark was .387 in his walk year, and he even hit 25 home runs in one of his Japanese seasons. Like Ty Cobb who preferred the game of "small ball," Ichiro proved that he could hit home runs if he wanted to by hitting 15 in 2005, but for the most part, his game is about getting on base via the baseball bat (he's only walked 457 times in 10 American seasons, and only once did he have the patience to get 60+ walks). However, Pete Rose summed it up by saying that Ichiro is "the luckiest man ever to get that many infield hits." Rose then relegated Japanese ball to saying that "it's basically Triple-A ball."
Not hitting a country when it's down, but Japanese players have long known that to truly make their name, they have to be imports, and so they come to this country to be great. And when they do, their fans don't discard them, but they only love them more, which was shown in the battles between Ichiro and Godzilla (Hideki Matsui).
And for his country's love and his prolific rate of hits (5 more than George Sisler's former record from 1920 - 262 in 2004). In fact, 5 of his 10 US seasons are in the top 100 on Baseball Almanac. However, he's never hit .400 and unless he gets more patient, he won't either (the season that he smashed Sisler's record, he hit .372, which is still well beneath where he needed to be - mostly because he only had 49 walks. Sisler hit .407 in 70 less at bats with roughly the same amount of walks). That said, he's not even much of a doubles hitter, and while he can hit triples, those have declined as well. What he is is a solid get on base guy. When he's there, his rate of steals is 383 to 88 on successful versus caught stealing (roughly 4 to 1).
He's a hell of a glove man, too, but what he really is would be the level of success that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in Outliers. In short, Ichiro is 10,000 hours of practice, which is the level of practice that it takes to be great (not just good) at something. We hear about this in Ken Burns' The 10th Inning, and we've heard about it in many stories about Ichiro. Despite being the second son, he was named "The First Son" and he went on to follow in his father's dreams of baseball with a tiny bat at age 3. By his early days that would be equivalent to little league, he was hitting for 4 hours a day. A natural right hander, he learned to hit left handed to get an extra step out of the batter's box to move down to first base. Call it lucky or just call it another outlier. Like height for a basketball player and like birth day for getting into school and league, Ichiro was able to do something that many of us only dream 0f - standing in the batter's box and making it count.
And while he's never been to the World Series and he probably won't with Seattle's current team, he is an all star fixture. The last time that Seattle had a team, he was their MVP (2001). Oh yeah... he was the Rookie of the Year that season, too.
And if he's "just" a single's hitter, it should be noted that he twice led the league in INTENTIONAL base on balls.
So if Ichiro goes to the moon as the Baseball Project sing, don't you want to be there to see it happen? I know that I do.

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