The Silver Slugger

In comparing Ichiro to our country’s most beloved athlete, Jacob Eisenberg believes that the Japanese star isn’t quite getting the love he deserves.

A 6-foot-3 inch, 230 pound mammoth wearing the number 3 trots out of the dugout and makes his way toward the batter’s box. He is greeted to the roar of 70,000 fans chanting his name. He is not only the face of his team; he embodies his sport and he is the identity of his country. As he delicately marks his territory around the plate with his bat, he grimaces at the realization that the opposing team wants nothing to do with him. With two outs in the bottom of the first in a tied game in the World Series, the opposing manager doesn’t trust his ace of preventing a home run. On four straight intentional balls, the batter is given first base for free. While most hitters would feel honored at the amount of respect the other team has given him, this hitter feels cheated of opportunities. This free pass marks the 75th time this season Babe Ruth has been intentionally walked, a new Major League record.

A meager five-foot-nine inch, one hundred sixty-pound man wearing the number 51 jogs out of the dugout and runs towards the batter’s box. An underwhelming crowd of 17,000 fans applaud, yet nearly no one stands up to give an ovation. It is September 27th and his team trails first place in the division by an insurmountable 27 games. Since his arrival to the big leagues nine seasons ago, he has only tasted the postseason once and for the majority of his career, his team has toiled in the cellar of the division. The pitcher, not intimidated by the skinny batter, delivers the first pitch of the game without any hesitation. The batter unexpectedly lays down a bunt toward the left side of the infield and immediately scurries to first base. The ball slowly dribbles toward the third baseman, who hustles to gobble it up. After retrieving the ball, the third baseman contemplates a throw to first. While looking at the base, however, he holds the ball. He puts his head down and mutters, “Just not fair.” The runner is already at first base with a single. The third baseman tosses the ball to the pitcher and returns to his position to await the next at-bat. The runner shakes his head in disappointment at the lack of a challenge; he didn’t even need to use his excess speed to beat the throw. This infield single marks the 75th infield hit of the year for Ichiro; a new Major League record.

The patriarch of America’s pastime is indisputable. George Herman Ruth, Babe Ruth, The Great Bambino, The Sultan of Swat, or simply The Babe. Whichever moniker Ruth is identified by, greatness is associated. As the first great Yankee, Ruth not only became an icon in New York, but across the entire country. He had enough talent to attract an entire city to the ballpark, but he also had enough personality to captivate an entire country through the media. When you think of a decade in American history, very seldom will an athlete be among the first images associated with the decade. However, the “roaring twenties” and The Great Depression will forever be linked hand-in-hand with The Babe. His uncanny flare for the dramatic and jaw-dropping home runs led him to become the most prized athlete in sports history. To this day, the ultimate praise to an athlete is when someone refers to him as the “The Babe Ruth of his sport.” Ruth not only dictated the success of his team; he lifted the mood of the nation. Ruth’s most impressive feat may have been his ability to attract millions of fans in a time when there was no mass media. Just imagine how big Ruth would have gotten had he been able to Tweet…

The most underrated player in baseball today is not who you think it is. Though he is an afterthought in the discussion of being underrated, he is anything but an afterthought in the opposing team’s clubhouse. Ichiro… just Ichiro. Basic and unassuming, just the way the Mariners’ right fielder likes it. It’s no surprise that Ichiro is not considered in the upper echelon of the greats within the Major Leagues — heck; he’s not even the most popular Japanese baseball export of the 21st century. While he produces year in and year out, Japan’s golden child of baseball is still Hideki Matsui. Japanese critics complain that Ichiro doesn’t possess the resume to be a national hero; he’s never won a playoff series and has never hit more than 15 homeruns in a single season. Although he has hit for a tremendous batting average in each season (minus last) since coming to America in 2001, he is far from a baseball icon. In fact, outside of his current city of Seattle, very few analysts still consider Ichiro an All-Star. With all of the technological advancements in the modern world, it is very puzzling that the captain of the Japanese National Team — a team that has played in the past two World Baseball Classic finals — hasn’t become an international figure in the sports industry.

It’s easy to understand why the American public is enamored with Babe Ruth. He is the personification of the American Dream. He was not born into money. Ruth’s parents both died during his childhood and he was forced to grow up on his own. Never a great athlete, Ruth was simply a chubby boy who had a natural ability to throw and hit a baseball harder than anyone who shared a field with him. After being the most dominant pitcher in the Major Leagues with his overpowering arm for four seasons, Ruth switched trades to become the most legendary hitter in Baseball history. As a pitcher, Ruth brought top-end velocity to baseball at a time when Cy Young was still pitching. After several 20 win seasons and 3 World Series victories with the Red Sox, Ruth’s salary demands became too rich for the Red Sox. The Red Sox then mercilessly dealt him to the hated rival New York Yankees for 125,000 dollars. As a Yankee, Ruth went on to win four more World Series and was awarded the 1923 Most Valuable Player Award.

It’s easy to understand why Ichiro isn’t awarded the credit he deserves. He is a great player playing in the wrong time period. Following baseball’s steroid era, fans grew accustomed to seeing bulked up players who hit long homeruns. When the Mariner’s bid $13.4 Million on Ichiro in the winter of 2000, many baseball experts speculated that the bid was Seattle’s way of establishing a monopoly in Japan; Ichiro was considered more a diplomatic investment than a baseball rising star. Then in 2001, Ichiro came to the major leagues and produced never-before-seen hitting efficiency at a time when Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa were still in the prime of their careers. After leading the league in batting average and guiding the Seattle Mariners to the best record in Major League history with 116 wins, Ichiro was awarded the Rookie of the Year award along with the Most Valuable Player Award.

Babe Ruth was all that America wanted to be, a winner who always came through when he needed to. Like the Model T-Fords of the 1920’s, Ruth was loud, forceful, and bulky. It was quite ironic how Ruth, a man of so many titles, needed only one way to beat his opponents — power. Ruth related to the fans because he was far from a great athlete. He never trained to perfect his body; he didn’t lift weights to gain his strength. His greatest skill was confidence. In the 1932 World Series, Ruth reportedly pointed over the wall in center field during a crucial at bat. On the next pitch, Ruth hit the ball to exactly where he had pointed the bat. With that homerun, the Yankees were able to take control in the game and the series. In 1928, when asked how he was preparing for the upcoming baseball season, Ruth shrugged and said, “Natural ability, beer, and hot dogs have gotten me this far, why change now?” In a time of prohibition in America, a statement like this from an ordinary man could result in legal troubles. In Ruth’s case, the statement was cheered.

Ichiro stands for all that Japan values most; a sleek modern amalgam that highlights resources and industry to compete with larger players on the world stage. Like the Toyota Prius of modern society, Ichiro is an engineering feat: fast, quiet, and efficient. Ironic to think that Ichiro, a man of only one name, possesses so many superior skills that he can use to defeat his opposition. While many of today’s great players garnered respect with long homeruns, Ichiro has gained respect through his blinding speed. He doesn’t need to hit the ball out of the infield to get on base; he is the only player in baseball who can outrun a seemingly easy groundout. As a boy, Ichiro’s father forced his son, a natural righty, to bat lefty because it would give him a slight advantage when running out of the batter’s box. With his patented slap approach at the plate, Ichiro generates two steps toward first base by the time he even makes contact with the ball — turning any groundball into a potential base hit. Incredible speed doesn’t only benefit Ichiro at the plate but in the outfield as well; In 2005,  Angels’ outfielder Garret Anderson hit what seemed to be a game clinching home run. By the time the ball was descending in right field, Ichiro had caught up to it. Upon realizing he had run out of room on the warning track, Ichiro shifted his momentum and started to run up the wall vertically. As the ball was landing, Ichiro sat atop the wall ready to make the catch and save the game. Ichiro works like a machine to achieve the success he finds. In high school, he spent two hours a day working on his body and four hours a day in a batting cage perfecting his swing. When asked how he was preparing to add power to his swing in 2008, he responded, “Chicks who dig home runs aren’t the ones who appeal to me. I think there’s sexiness in infield hits because they require technique. I’d rather impress the chicks with my technique than with my brute strength. Then, every now and then, just to show I can do that, too, I might flirt a little by hitting one out.”

Originally Published on on 05/02/12

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