Tuesday, April 2, 2013
April 2- Seattle Mariners
Where does the time go? I realize for most of you it’s hard to imagine a time when I had frosted tips and a pretty skimpy beard growth. Yes, this was my 2001 in a nut shell. I had moved to Vancouver, Washington about half-way through the summer of 2000 on account that life in Bakersfield, California wasn’t healthy for me anymore. My father and I were constantly fighting and I felt that I was slinking into a deeper hole of depression by staying there. My mother had moved to Vancouver two years prior. I didn’t think it was that bad at first, but then again, I had only visited during the summer months. I really had no comprehension of the rain that would eventually drive me crazy once autumn rolled around. Obviously it hasn’t made me too crazy as I still live in the Pacific Northwest. Not going to lie though, I still hate the rain most days.
By the time March of 2001 had rolled around things were starting to get a little crazy in the baseball world. The hype around the signing of some dude from Japan was building and building every day closer to Opening Day. There wasn’t much that any of us knew about him other than the facts that he played for the Orix Blue Wave and had pretty much been bred and taught by his father to be one of the greatest hitters of all-time. I was honestly rather skeptical. I mean, it was great that he had dominated Nippon Professional Baseball from 1992-2000, but how would his game translate to the Majors? I was working at the Vancouver Just Sports location at the time and one of the things I will never forget was how much Ichiro Suzuki product before the season started. It was quite amusing to be honest, and I’m going to do my best to try to not offend anyone with this next bit.
I think anyone who has been around baseball knows that Japanese people love to support their own. The first time I can recall this is when Hideo Nomo made his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. With Ichiro, things amplified a smidge. For those who don’t remember, Ichiro was the first position player to ever make the jump into the Show. Despite all the awards he won overseas: Japan Series Championship in 1996, stolen base award in 1995, seven-time All-Star, seven-time batting champion, seven-time Gold Glove award winner and three-time MVP; none of the critics felt that he game was going to be able to translate to the US on account that his frame is too small and his routines and motions are too unorthodox. I didn’t feel that strongly, I pretty much only though that he’d strike out a lot more than he did. But no matter how much the media dogged on him, Japanese folk would walk into Just Sports in droves and say, “Ichiro!” Very few words were exchanged between the customers and us, as the language barrier kind of tangled things up. Literally, all I did for the entire season was point out our Ichiro section and help them find the size they were looking for. The transactions usually broke down like this:
Me: I’d point them in the right direction and point out the hats as well.
Customer: “L!” Size name were never used, it was only the first letter. For extra large they would say, “2-L!”
Me: Ring them up.
When the day finally came I happened to be working. We didn’t have a television in the store so we turned on the ESPN radio affiliate to catch the game. From what I recall that night was also the first time in about six years that I had listened to a baseball game from first to last pitch on the radio. Geez, I was breaking all sorts of record that day.
I chose to mark up this cap because this is the exact style that the Seattle Mariners wore on Opening Day of the 2001 season. The hat made its debut during the Mariners’ home opener back in 1993, which means that this year that hat will be celebrating its 20th birthday. Hooray! Of all the moments throughout Seattle’s past I had to roll with this. While I realize the importance of the 1995 American league Division Series versus the New York Yankees, the impact this mark has on the baseball realm is almost similar to what Tiger Woods has done to golf.
4/2/01- April 2, 2001 was the day Ichiro made his debut in Major League Baseball…. but unfortunately it had to come against my Oakland Athletics. Despite being an “unproven” talent, Ichiro went 2-5 with two singles and the Mariners won the game 5-4. With his solid discipline at the plate, the critics eased off a little bit, but still questioned how he would perform in the field. It only took seven more games for Ichiro to silence everyone.
“The Throw” as it has been named in Japan took place on Wednesday, April 11 when a relatively speedy Terrance Long tried to test the arm of the fresh-faced rookie right fielder. What an embarrassing mistake that was. If you haven’t seen it or don’t recall it, shame on you. But here it is anyway: http://seattle.mariners.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=16865121&c_id=sea
The thing that we all tend to forget, at least at that time, is that Ichiro had nine years of professional baseball experience before the 2001 season. While the critics tried to argue that it’s a completely different style of baseball in Japan, here we are 12 years later to celebrate the man, sadly on a new team, who revolutionized what it means to be a five-tool player. In his first season Ichiro became the second player to win the Rookie of the Year award and the League MVP in the same season. Fred Lynn was the first to accomplish this with the Boston Red Sox back in 1975. In 2001 Ichiro batted .350, which earned him his first of two AL batting titles. He also Made the All-Star team, won a Gold Glove, stole 56 bases which led the league as well, had eight triples and a league high 242 hits. It was hands down the most impressive rookie campaign I had ever witnessed. Oh, and the Mariners tied the MLB record for most winds in a season with 116.
Ichiro’s career clearly didn’t go downhill after that season, despite the lack luster years for the Mariners that soon followed their greatest success to date. From 2001-2010 Ichiro made the All-Star team every year, he hit .303 or higher ever single year, he had 206 or more hits every single year and he won the Gold Glove award for right field ever single year. In 2004 Ichiro broke George Sisler’s single season hit mark by knocking 262 into the field of play. This year also brought attention to long-time Mariners fan Amy Franz (@ichimeterlady) who had her famous Ichi-meter counter inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The other thing you have to consider in this time frame are all the other players that made the jump from, not only Japan, but South Korea and Taiwan as well. For the past eight years I have been ardent about Ichiro being a Hall of Famer once his career is over. At the time I got a lot of flack for it, but now there isn’t much of an argument anymore. The kid’s got the goods! Even though his career has taken a bit of a turn since the 2011 season, he’s still doing better than most Hall of Famers did in their twilight. For his career Ichiro has a .322 lifetime average, a .365 on-base percentage and 2607 hits at the moment. Ichiro is currently 39-years-old and still in better shape than a lot of guys throughout the league. Realistically, if he stays healthy and hits .274 or better he could break 3000 in about two years. Just imagine how many hits he would have been able to tally if he started in the Majors when he was 18-years-old like in Japan.
It took me a few years to really appreciate what Ichiro has done throughout his career, but that mostly comes from a pro-Athletics standpoint. He is, without a doubt, on my all-time fantasy team list, as he should be on pretty much everyone else’s. It’s a shame to see him wearing pinstripes, but it will be more than deserved when he gets enshrined in Cooperstown while wearing the Mariners compass.