By: Mike Carter
I tend to read pages and pages of baseball statistics every week. Some of it is in preparation for fantasy baseball games (I’m a geek), but most if it has to do with general interest in my favorite game.
As I was thumbing through my Who’s Who in Baseball 2016, I stared at the statistics of Ichiro Suzuki. Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player in his first season, 2001. Ten consecutive seasons with more than 200 hits. The all-time hit record for a season with 262. Over 500 stolen bases in his career. Almost 60 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for his career. He currently sits at 2,989 hits as I write these words, coupled with the 1,278 hits he had in Japan. Ichiro is also a .993 fielder with over 100 outfield assists in his career. This year he is hitting .338 as a 42 year old with the Miami Marlins, helping them surprise the NL East with a 42-39 record that most did not see coming. I love it because he’s a couple of months younger than me, and I get tired just writing these words, so I love watching Ichiro, and the man I share a body type with, Bartolo Colon, do well. It drew my mind back to my first experience watching him play. It was an astounding experience.
Let me tell you what I observed: during his rookie year, 2001, I went and saw Ichiro play at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. When I attend a game alone, I tend to go early and watch batting practice. Obviously I had heard of his exploits and could not believe what I witnessed that evening. The first three or four balls he hit in batting practice, he hit towering, no-doubt-about-it home runs. Then he bunted a few times down the third base line, then the first base line. Ichiro then hopped out of the cage and let someone else hit. When he returned the cage a few minutes later, he hit two ropes over the third base area, then two right back up the middle, then two over the first base area. He was simply toying with the batting practice pitcher. I had never seen bat control like that. I have never seen anything like it again. His Mariners made short work of my White Sox during the playoffs that year. He led off the game that night with a rip over the third baseman’s head, what I thought was a clean single, and I looked up to see him cruise into second base. There is no doubt in my mind that Ichiro could have hit 20 home runs every year, if he simply wanted to cater his game that way.
Then he went out to throw with a teammate, right before the game started, and I couldn’t believe the cannon attached to his shoulder. Playing catch almost foul line to foul line. It was an unbelievable experience to observe this slightly built, regular-looking guy display this massive skill set. I was in awe, and I have been a fan ever since. I often wonder how many hits he would have had in the major leagues if he had come to the United States earlier, for example, at age 22-23. He’d be challenging tireless self-promoting, Hit King Pete Rose, who had 4,256 hits in his MLB career. As it is, he has more hits combined in Japan and MLB than Rose did: 4,267 hits. A staggering number, no?
We live in a day and time when the preoccupation is with the distance the ball flies on a home run, its exit velocity, or which pitcher is hitting triple digits with their fastballs. Ichiro has been a throwback to an earlier time, a time when the game was purer, when hitters executed plans at the plate, when making hard contact and getting on base were the desired outcomes. Now we watch a bevy of true three-outcome players dominate the game and make it less interesting, in my opinion. The art of guys like Ichiro can be lost on casual fans. People miss the little things all the time, not only in this great game, but also, in life. It’s the little things in the game, the nuances, that we diehards love, isn’t it? So while I appreciate the towering home runs guys like Chris Davis and Giancarlo Stanton hit, give me a 2-1 game any day of the week, and twice on Sundays. Give me baseball players, please. Give me the Jose Altuves, the Ichiros, the Hunter Pences, the Dustin Pedroias, the engines with spirit and energy that drive this beautiful game.
Guys like these and Ichiro will always have a place. They know how to play, how to hit behind the runner, how to get a runner over, when to try and pull one around the pole for a home run, when to drag bunt, knowing which base to throw to. Rock on, Ichiro. Keep playing while I sit here and watch in amazement.