The sad decline of Ichiro

It was the running start that always fascinated me.

Ichiro came to Seattle in 2001, the year after Kazuhiro Sasaki had won the AL Rookie of the Year and the Mariners had taken the New York Yankees to six games in the ALCS. If it were not for Arthur Rhodes’ chronic inability to get David Justice out, Seattle would have made the World Series that year. It remains the closest they’ve ever been to the Fall Classic.

Ichiro arrived the year after A-Roid left. Rodriguez decided to take his talents and needles to Arlington, Texas. Since Randy had left in the middle of 1998 and Griffey had departed after the ’99 season, Rodriguez’s departure seemed like a death blow to the franchise.

But it allowed them the money to afford the first Japanese position player in the history of major league baseball. He was a man who went by only his first name, like Elvis, like Pele. He was already a legend in Japan, but would his game translate to America?

The answer was yes.

Opening Night, 2001, I’m sitting in the left field bleachers with my family. As someone who was taking Japanese in middle school (I was 13 at the time), Ichiro was the player I was there to see. My expectations for the Mariners as a whole were modest. I had no idea Bret “most likely juiced to the gills” Boone was about to unleash one of the great offensive seasons by a second baseman of all time and Paul Abbott (Who? Exactly.) was going to win 17 games (insert disclaimer about wins being a meaningless stat.) Boone, in fact, had a career total WAR of 3.1 over nine seasons. That’s terrible. In 2001, he posted a WAR of 9.3. To give you an idea of how insane that is, Jose Lopez, the man who replaced Boone after the *probable use of* steroids finally wore off, has a career WAR of 6.4 over eight seasons.

So a lot of weird stuff happened in 2001 that allowed the Mariners to win 116 games and lose to choke against the Yankees in the ALCS. But Ichiro’s batting style was the weirdest thing I’d ever seen in the game of baseball. No one would teach their child to hit that way. You’re supposed to keep a solid base, weight back, etc. Ichiro did none of that. He was more a slap hitter in softball than a baseball player and I mean that as a sincere compliment. No one made a slow roller to short seem more dangerous than Ichiro. In fact in that Opening Night game against the Oakland A’s and their genius overrated GM Brad Pitt, Ichiro’s speed caused a late throwing error that cost Oakland dearly as the Mariners went on to win the first of 116.

Lots of players are fast. But very few incorporate their speed into their hitting style. Ichiro knew that all he had to do was pound the ball into the ground and he could beat it out. In an era of juiced up sluggers and hitter friendly ballparks, Ichiro’s style was refreshing, to say the least. But what was amazing was that his teammates swore he could win the All Star Home Run Derby if he chose to participate. Yes, Ichiro, the master of the infield single, was legendary for the shows he would put on in batting practice. Ichiro’s power though is entirely to right field so in order to be a more complete player, he mastered the art of the single. Two batting titles, the all-time single season hit record, over 3000 career professional hits, his accomplishments at the plate are undeniably Hall of Fame worthy by themselves.

But then you factor in the stolen bases and the defense and he rises to a whole different level. By at least one advanced metric, Ichiro is the 13th best defensive outfielder…ever. Now granted, defensive metrics are highly flawed (some bro named Paul Blair ranks ahead of him…who the hell is that?). But the eye test agrees with the metrics in Ichiro’s case, and then some.

He introduced us to his spectacular defense with the throw (against Brad Pitt’s Oakland A’s no less) and didn’t stop wowing us for 10 years.

Well, now he’s stopped wowing us. In fact, in 2011, he’s become a liability. At the age of 37, he finally failed to make the All Star team. He may not get to 200 hits for the first time in his career. And from a purely objective standpoint, his WAR in 2011 is -1. A replacement level player would be better than Ichiro. Even Chone “disgrace to the game of baseball and America” Figgins is having a “better” year (-0.5 WAR).

I could tell something was wrong early in the season when Ichiro dropped/badly misplayed a few routine fly balls. The man has always had his critics; there are some people in Seattle who have never liked the guy. (He is seen as aloof, arrogant, and lacking in hustle. There is a running joke that he has something against getting his jersey dirty.) Normally my response to these people was the same response I would give to people who think 9/11 was an inside job or that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. (Meaning, I ignored them and wrote them off as lunatics, and possibly a little bit racist.)

This year though the haters have had a field day and for good reason. Perhaps a decade of losing (they haven’t made the playoffs since his “rookie” year) has finally worn him down. I just fail to understand how someone who was still so good at age 36 can all of a sudden be terrible at age 37. Normally declines are slower in the game of baseball.

I hope this year is an anomaly.

However, I think this is the end of the road for one of the most unique superstars the game of baseball has ever seen.

It’s sad, but the man known for his running start…has crashed into a wall.

Mariners Radio and Living the Dream

A view from the visiting radio broadcast booth at US Cellular Field

I never really liked the word “dream.”

Dreaming that you can do something implies that you aren’t really working towards it. I dream that I can play major league baseball but my goal in life is to become a major league baseball broadcaster. It’s a singular focus of mine that has been unrelenting since I was around 11 years old. For instance, at age 13 I auditioned for a show called “Kids Talk Sports” (I got the gig by the way) and the guy asked me if I wanted to be a broadcaster when I grew up. I responded that I didn’t want to be one…I was going to be one.

As I grew older I realized that there are very few jobs in major league baseball for broadcasters. Also, everyone wants to be one. Becoming a major league announcer seemed more like a dream than ever before.

Rick Rizzs is living that dream. He’s the voice of the Seattle Mariners. He also happens to be best friends with John Dittrich, the General Manager of the Joliet Slammers. I work as the Media Relations Coordinator and sometimes broadcaster for the Slammers and when they hired me John told me that he would introduce me to Rick. I talked to Rick on the phone back in March and that in itself was a thrill.

But Monday, June 6 is a day I will never forget. I’ve been listening to the late Dave Niehaus and Rick all my life on the radio. Rick worked eight years in the minor leagues before being hired by the Mariners and this is the first season he’s been their number one voice with the passing of Niehaus. The Mariners opened a three game series with the White Sox on Monday and John arranged for me to go up to the press box and talk with Rick before the game.

The trip didn’t start so well. The traffic from Joliet to Chicago was unbelievably brutal and I got stuck on the highway while they cleared an accident up ahead. Words not fit for the radio were flying out of my mouth as I sat in my car on I-55. Luckily I got to the game in the nick of time and after a bit of confusion how I actually was supposed to get up to the press box (apparently I needed a ticket even though Rick had left passes?), I was there.

Rick was not though. He had stepped out of the booth for a few minutes. So I exchanged some awkward conversation with producer/engineer Kevin Cremin. Kevin is sort of a legend in my mind because he’s been in the booth on Mariners’ broadcasts for years but you never hear him. He also has a really cool name.

Rick arrived a few minutes later. He has a reputation for being one of the friendliest people you could ever meet and he more than lived up to that. When I mentioned that my favorite call of his was the Luis Sojo play in 1995…he repeated it verbatim. That was awesome. Rick also introduced me to Dave Valle, the color commentator for the game. He explained that Valle was a catcher for the Mariners back in the day (I knew this of course but I nodded politely). The number one piece of advice Rick has for aspiring broadcasters is to know the game inside and out. I could not agree more. If you don’t have a thorough understanding of the game and the team you are covering, you’re not going to make it no matter how good your voice is. He also emphasized that it’s important not to try and copy people. Find your own voice.

It should be noted that I brought a friend with me to the booth who is not my girlfriend, but I’m pretty sure Rick thought she was. So it was quite amusing to hear him tell me three times to “always listen to her.” But that’s good advice nonetheless.

Near the start of the game I made my move. I asked if he would give my demo CD a listen. He said absolutely, he would love to, so I gave him my demo CD with my business card inside the case as well. Rick reemphasized later as he was about to go on-air that he would definitely listen to it.

I hope he has a lot of feedback (well I actually hope he thinks I’m the greatest broadcaster ever and I should be in the big leagues right now, but there I go dreaming…) because that would be quite the thrilling email. Getting feedback from a major league announcer is not something very many people get.

The first inning started and Kevin gave me an extra headset so I could hear the call clearly. There was a crazy play in the bottom of the first where the M’s left fielder looked to have made an amazing catch up against the wall. But at the last second he dropped it. The White Sox runners became confused and at one point were both by second base. It was a crazy play and Rick was able to get through it like a pro. Watching him call it was hilarious because at the end he stood up and gestured to the field in excitement. I always like announcers who really get into the game because that’s my style as well, and that was a great moment.

Rick had other guests scheduled to come to the booth during the game (did I mention he’s very popular?) so we only stayed for the pregame and the first inning. But it is something I will never forget. They say life happens while you’re waiting for the next big moment; well that was a big moment, and I’ll treasure it forever.

The Mariners lost the game, but quite frankly I didn’t care. I think Chone Figgins did something stupid like getting picked off but I can’t be sure.

To paraphrase “Casablanca,” I hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Maybe I’ll get to go back to the booth sometime in the future and stay longer.

Maybe one day I’ll be the voice of the Mariners and live the dream Rick Rizzs is living.