A Cheer for Ichiro 

Seattle’s leadoff man is the second coming of Ty Cobb

Seattle’s leadoff man is the second coming of Ty Cobb

By the time you read this, or almost certainly by the beginning of next week, Barry Bonds will have broken the home run record of Mark McGwire, who just three years ago surpassed Roger Maris, who surpassed Babe Ruth, who surpassed everyone.

This should be cause for great stir in the baseball world, which could easily be excused for hailing BB as the most legitimate heir to the Bambino’s legacy. After all, Bonds is a better overall hitter than the other two recent claimants, McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and a superior defensive player too.

Meanwhile, in the process of helping his team win a divisional pennant, which remained a possibility for the San Francisco Giants this week, Bonds may also manage an utterly jaw-dropping accomplishment: breaking the Babe’s record for slugging percentage (.847), which goes all the way back to 1920.

Oh, and one other little thing. Bonds is doing it all at the overripe old age of 38, well after his career (presumably) has peaked.

And yet, compared to the downright giddiness that attended the chase of the home run record in 1998, Bonds hasn’t roused up a whole lot of excitement. Oh, sure, the media have stayed on it like stray dogs on a pork chop, but the story hasn’t captured the national imagination the way Sosa and McGwire did.

Maybe that’s because we’ve already seen this show; a 3-year-old mark doesn’t possess quite the same allure as one that has stood for decades. In part, it’s because our attentions understandably have been elsewhere. A little of it may be that Bonds, unlike Sosa and McGwire, does not play in the time zones that maximize his TV exposure. A lot of it may be that Barry, unlike Sosa and Big Mac, is a me-first, me-last, me-always player who is loathed by the media and disliked by his own teammates.

Besides all of the above, I have my own reason for greeting the home-run story with less than Sosa-esque enthusiasm. For all his skill and the adulation he deserves, Bonds isn’t the most exciting player in the game this year, or even the most exciting reincarnation of a baseball legend.

That distinction belongs to Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners’ Japanese import, who not only is from another country, but also seems to be from a whole other era. Watching him, you can imagine what it must have been like to see Ty Cobb, whose style Ruth rendered obsolete. Now Ichiro might be doing the same to the Babe and all the latter-day Sultans of Swat.

For the past decade and beyond, baseball has been a home run derby. Teams attempt far fewer stolen bases than they once did, and, except for National League pitchers, they don’t bunt to advance baserunners into scoring position. Why labor to manufacture a single run when just one big blow can produce two or three—and when even guys in the bottom of the order hit 20 homers? It makes sense. But it can also rob baseball of some of its motion and energy, and it can have a way of making Major League contests look uncomfortably like softball games.

Ichiro is a throwback. He’s like an early mammal in the age of dinosaurs, surviving not through size and power but agility and cunning. And he’s fun to watch.

Ichiro is the un-Bonds, the un-McGwire, and the un-Sosa. He has hit only five home runs all season. He doesn’t belt out base hits. He slaps them and slashes them and bunts them and, sometimes, simply steals them with his speed. As of Monday, he had done them all often enough to lead the league with a .348 batting average.

Over Labor Day weekend, my dad and I saw the Mariners play two games in Baltimore. The locals were there to see Cal Ripken, who’s retiring. But throngs of Japanese tourists and Japanese Americans were there to cheer Ichiro. They unfurled homemade banners in the stands. They brought their children. One group of women wore kimonos. A roar went up every time Suzuki stepped to the plate.

See him in person, and you can understand what the fuss is about. You can appreciate that you don’t have to be a dominating physical presence to be a dominating player. And you’ll appreciate just how exciting the old Ty Cobb style of baseball can be.

During the three-game series, Ichiro never recorded even one extra-base hit, yet he was the Mariners’ offensive force. (Baltimore’s lone win came in the first game, when the Orioles kept Suzuki from reaching base all but one time.)

Once, he bunted for a hit, stole second, and scored a run. The next time up, the wary infield moved in slightly, so Ichiro punched an RBI single through the newly created hole.

Another time, the left-hitting Suzuki—who, like Cobb did, possesses amazing bat control—lined a foul to left, signaling that he was attempting to hit to the opposite field. Even with this forewarning to the Orioles, Ichiro still placed a perfect shot just inside the third-base bag.

There’s one more relevant contrast between the diminutive Suzuki and the big homer-hitting Harleys. Bonds, Sosa, and McGwire (when healthy) carry their teams. Ichiro jump-starts the Mariners, creating opportunities for his teammates in an offense in which everyone produces. They win as a team that appears to be greater than the sum of its parts.

To be sure, the Mariners owe much of their success this year to great pitching. But here are several stats that may or may not be mere coincidence.

One: Though their top home run hitter had barely half of Bonds’ total—and though they have lost two of baseball’s most prolific offensive players, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez—the Mariners have managed to lead the league in runs scored. (Meanwhile, two of the three home run leaders in the American League play for the woeful Texas Rangers.)

Two: Though none of them are the categories that receive the most media attention, Ichiro is either first or second in the league in four different offensive indicators: batting average, hits, runs, and steals. He’s also among the leaders in triples.

Three: Through Monday, the Mariners had won 111 games. That’s nearly 20 more victories than baseball’s next best team, the Yankees.

You can draw your own conclusions about who should be regarded as the model for a complete baseball player. (Did I mention that Suzuki is also an outstanding outfielder?) But with all due respect to Barry and Big Mac, I hope baseball scouts begin considering a new paradigm and teaching more young players to emulate Ichiro.

If they do, they may find that fans will rediscover some of baseball’s old appeal. And somewhere, Ty Cobb will be smiling.

How it looks from the La-Z-Boy

Ravens 17, Titans 10

One of the worst nightmares for Titans fans came true last Sunday: The Ravens are still for real. If they could derail Denver’s potent offense on the road, what they could do to Tennessee’s sputtering, more predictable offense at home in Baltimore is scary to contemplate.

The Titans know that a victory in this game is essential. They’ll be focused. Steve McNair will be back. They’ll be playing on an extra week’s rest. Unfortunately, they picked a bad time and place for a must-win.

Tennessee 27, Georgia 23

Florida 20, LSU 14

Mississippi State 23, Auburn 14

South Carolina 34, Kentucky 17

Alabama 40, Texas-El Paso 10

Ole Miss 30, Arkansas St. 14

Northwestern 30, Ohio St. 23

Oklahoma 24, Texas 17

Jaguars 19, Seahawks 10

Steelers 17, Bengals 13

Chargers 30, Browns 14

Buccaneers 17, Packers 16

Giants 40, Redskins 0

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