When a pitcher like Felix Hernandez sets a career high for wins and lowers his ERA to 2.52, then gets bumped off the front pages, you know something happened that was special. And when Ichiro can do something nobody else has done in the history of the game, breaking a 108-year-old record, it’s pretty special. So, when you’re limited to writing a 25-inch (about 800 words) game story for the paper, you have to side with history. You ask yourself, “What are poeple reading this 50 years from now going to want to see?”
And with apologies to Hernandez, who is making a valiant late run at a Cy Young Award, it had to be about Ichiro in tonight’s game story.
There was so much I wanted to write, so little space. But that’s the beauty of newspaper stories. You squeeze so much into so little room. And when you read it in the end, it all makes sense.
Still, there is much more to say. Which is the beauty of the blog.
Ichiro and Hernandez share a lot of traits. Both are all-stars for one. Both are prodigies of sorts. And both hail from outside the United States, one from Japan and the other from Venezuela. Unless you come from another country, you may not appreciate the weight that such players feel as ambassadors of sorts to their countries. We discussed this on the blog last week in regards to Ichiro’s pursuit of the record nine consecutive 200-hit seasons and the media presence from Japan here to cover it.
What these guys do means a lot to people in their respective countries, which are both crazy about baseball. But this country is the place that invented the game, and whatever these two players do will be measured by their compatriots in relation to how they stack up against the Americans. Even people from those countries who won’t admit it out loud know it to be true. They want Ichiro to succeed so he can be the best against the folks who invented baseball. Same with people in Venezuela. In Canada, where I’m from, we couldn’t care less what Americans do in hockey or how we stack up against them unless we’re not beating them badly enough. But in baseball? Or basketball? Different story. And it’s different too because Canada borders the U.S, and is used to the culture here.
Japan and Venezuela? A different world.
Let’s hear what Ichiro had to say about his countrymen.
“When I break a record, I never feel satisfaction,” he said. “And I feel that it’s from the expectations from Japan. I strongly feel the expectation from Japan. And my records are things I feel that Japan feels that they must have. I always want to have satisfaction, but when I accomplish a record, I always feel relief.”
Wow. Haunting, in a way. There’s more.
“I believe that you guys have seen the situation here with the (Japanese) media and the expectation. And from that, I believe that you guys can tell that, for me, it’s not allowed for me to not accomplish this. So, for me, that’s why I feel this way.”
Ichiro was doused by his teammates in a post-game beer shower. They also took a giant container of icy spring water and poured it over him, letting it slowly come out. He’s had a handful of such celebrations before, of course. His teammates in 2004 weren’t about to let 262 hits go unnoticed. I asked him, though, whether he’d had a post-game night quite like this.
“Because I’ve had the opportunity to accomplish some records, I’ve had a few opportunities,” he said. “I think this year particularly, when I got my 2,000th hit, we lost the game so it didn’t happen. But when I got the walkoff hit earlier in the season, they did that for me. So, it’s happened in my career a few times. But to get to enjoy that with these teammates I have now…because of course, it’s impossible that we’re going to have the exact same members next year as this year, so to get to enjoy this moment now with them, especially that guy over there (Ken Griffey Jr.), he has a huge influence about it, makes me very joyful.”
It was Griffey who’d flung Ichiro over his shoulder and delivered him to the showers for the beer dousing. Griffey who made the clubhouse a place Ichiro could feel accepted in this season. And who’s given Ichiro a new taste for his life in Seattle.
“One thing I was preparing for was Junior not to get the 200-hit ball, because he would write silly things on it,” Ichiro said. “And he did write silly things on it.”
He also delivered Ichiro the team-wide shower dousing that was anything but a gesture of disrespect. It was one of acceptance.
“What I feared came true,” Ichiro said.
Would he do that to Griffey?
“The day that I’m able to carry him like that is probably the day I become a DH,” he quipped.
Did Ichiro appreciate it?
“Of course,” he said. “Although the beer gets in your eyes, gets in your pores and stings, it makes you feel good. It makes you happy.”
There was a serious side to all this. Ichiro battled through injuries this year, more taxing than in the past, yet still surpassed Wee Willie Keeler with his ninth 200-hit season in a row.
“More than the feeling of accomplishing this, the feeling that I had as I approached the record felt better,” he said. “Each step that you take as you get closer to the record, it feels good.”
The translation may not make it evident, but Ichiro was talking about the process of attaining the results. The preparation, the sacrifice the attention to specific detail needed this year — more than most — to maximize the opportunities he did have to compile his hits total, It wasn’t easy. But he did it yet again, in the face of adversity.
Something for M’s fans to celebrate.
Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu put it best. Wakamatsu saw Ichiro set the single-season hits record as a coach with the Rangers in 2004 and said this mark is the better one.
“This one is just, like I say, 1901,” Wakamatsu said, “A record from 1901, to see that being broken is unbelievable.”
Can’t finish off without mentioning Hernandez, who struggled with his command for the first few innings. But on two occasions, with a runner on third and fewer than two out, he contained the damage. He arrived at the ballpark late morning local time, but didn’t take the mound for another seven hours because of delays in starting the doubleheader.
“My back was a little bit stiff in the beginning of the game, then I was fine,” he said.
What changed? His command.
“I think I was a little too quick in the first three innings,” he said. “Then, I settled down a bit and I made good pitches.”
Here’s what Wakamatsu had to say.
“I think the special thing for me is he had five strikeouts and almost all of those came at real critical times,” he said. “But it shows how much makeup he has. How much it means to him to compete out there.”
That’s it for me tonight. Checking out. A great night to be a baseball fan.