Wednesday, September 29, 2004

In Further Praise of Ichiro

What, exactly, is the gripe against Ichiro? Are we witnessing some sort of cultural bias here or is it just my imagination that a large portion of the country doesn’t appear the slightest interested that this remarkable player stands on the verge of breaking one of the greatest records still standing in baseball?

Why aren’t American (as opposed to Japanese) camera crews following him everywhere? Why aren’t TV broadcasts breaking away to watch his at-bats?

When George Sisler stroked 257 hits for the 1920 St. Louis Browns no one realized his record would stand for 84 years. During the intervening years many hallowed records have fallen not the least of which were Ruth’s 60 home runs in a season and 714 for a career and Lou Gehrig’s 2131 straight games played. And while many baseball fans and players watch Ichiro’s inexorable march toward immortality with awe and pride, there are still others out there who ho-hum the entire pursuit and dismiss him as a mere singles hitter.

Ichiro is in fact much more than a hitter. He may be one of the two or three best outfielders in the game today as his three Gold Gloves in three seasons attest. And once he catches the ball, he knows what to do with it (see the quote by Tommy Heinrich to the right); no one runs on him.

In his nearly four seasons in the majors Ichiro has 912 hits, a pace that would put him over 3000 in twelve plus years. (He also amassed 1278 career hits in Japan, where they play shorter seasons.) To put his pace in perspective, Pete Rose needed 24 years to amass 4256 hits. Ichiro knows how to bunt, hit behind the runner, shorten his stroke when necessary, go the opposite way, in short, control his bat with amazing dexterity. He is also fast, legging out an extraordinary number of infield hits.

His greatest contribution, however, is to generate excitement. Every time he comes up to the plate expectations run high. Very high. He can do so many things to get on base and does. The defense hasn’t yet been invented to keep him off the base paths.

We are watching an amazing ballplayer, in his prime, and we shouldn’t take him for granted.

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