Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ichiro ~ An appreciation

During our recent Labor Day weekend trip to Seattle, I had the occasion to spend a very pleasant, 60-degree sunny afternoon among friends watching the marvelous baseball player Ichiro Suzuki at work. Or was it play?

There's something extraordinary about Ichiro's consistency. Game after game, season after season.

Extraordinarily consistent,
game after game
While there was nothing remarkable about watching the lowly Mariners beat the equally lowly Cleveland Indians 3-0 at Safeco Field on the Sunday afternoon before Labor Day, a game that had no bearing on either the American League West or Central pennant races, I took advantage of our seats 11 rows up from the field down the first-base line in Section 116 to enjoy studying Ichiro over the course of nine innings, be it work or play.

Nine straight 200-hit seasons,
a Major League record
Against the Indians, the left-handed batting Ichiro led off the bottom of the first with a crisp single to left field against Cleveland starter Jeanmar Gomez.  Quickly, he stole second base for his 36th stolen base of the season, but was left stranded. After striking out to lead off the third, Ichiro got his second hit of the game in his next at bat in the fifth, beating out a grounder to second.  He flew out to center field to end the eighth.  He finished the afternoon with a 2-for-4 performance, which raised his batting average to .313. (Through Monday, Ichiro was hitting .309.)

"Ichiro is better at putting the ball on the bat than anyone in Major League history," the NPR commentator Frank Deford recently opined in a radio commentary.

"There's nobody like
Ichiro in either league ~
now or ever."
~ Bruce Jenkins
In a 10-year Major League career, all with the Seattle Mariners, Ichiro has strung together a record-setting nine straight 200-hit seasons ~ as of Tuesday, he needed only 14 hits for another 200-hit season ~ and he's been an All-Star every year.  He also holds the Major League record for most hits in one season with 262 set in 2004.  He won the American League Rookie of the Year and MVP in 2001, when he hit .350, stole 56 bases and accumulated a rookie-record 242 hits.  He has also won nine Gold Gloves.

"There's nobody like Ichiro in either league ~ now or ever," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins. "He exists strictly within his own world, playing a game 100 percent unfamiliar to everyone else.  The game has known plenty of 'slap' hitters, but none who sacrifice so much natural ability for the sake of the art."

Ichiro, 36, came to Seattle after playing nine years in Japan where he had a career .353 batting average and amassed 1,278 hits playing for the Orix Blue Wave.  Since his arrival in Seattle as one of the first position players from Japan to play regularly at the Major League level, Ichiro, who wears uniform No. 51, has gone on to hit safely more than 2,200 times.

Bright and cheerful, Ichiro's
work ethic is a joy to observe.
Unfortunately for Ichiro, he doesn't have a very good supporting cast this season and the Mariners (55-89 through Monday) are destined for a last-place finish in the AL West.  Still, Ichiro remains bright and cheerful.  His work ethic, which includes the use of yoga-like stretching exercises to stay limber while playing right field, is a joy to observe and appreciate.   And, his pre-swing pose of extending his right arm toward the pitcher with his bat pointing due north is, well, uniquely Ichiro. On this September day, among 22,621 fans who still cared enough to spend the day at the ballpark, it's what kept me interested and entertained.

All photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2010.

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