The Legend of Ichiro Suzuki

File Aug 10, 8 50 18 AM

Recently I was going through the MLB app to see how the Don Mattingly-led Miami Marlins were doing. To my amazement, Ichiro Suzuki still is playing baseball. Actually: correct that. I’m not amazed or surprised  at all that he’s still playing. Not surprised that he’s appeared in 95 games so far at age 43. Not surprised he’s played in 143 or more games every season since 2013. So have decided to dig a little deeper. Pulled up his career on Baseball Reference.

While scrolling through, it brought to mind a Lou Pinella story about Ichiro in the spring of 2001, when Ichiro came to Seattle from Japan as a prized international signing. Pinella was the manager for the Mariners then and according to a 2011 Seattle Times article by columnist Larry Stone, was not impressed by the then 27-year old rookie during spring training. Most notably was frustrated at how a light-hitting Ichiro never hit the ball hard, never hit it on the screws.

“Ichiro, do you ever turn on the ball?” Pinella asked in the dugout before a first inning spring training at-bat.

“Yeah, sometimes” Ichiro replied.

He then went into the batters box and crushed a ball onto a hill well beyond the center field fence. As he arrived back into the dugout, he asked Pinella: “Is that turning on the ball, skip?”

I know Pinella must’ve loved that. He then challenged his rookie on his next at-bat to pull the ball. The left-handed Ichiro had been hitting the ball so much to left field in spring training that teams were starting to defend him like a right-handed pull hitter. Pinella challenged him in his next at bat to pull the baseball. Sure enough in his next time up, Ichiro hit one over the right field fence and said to his manager:

“Are you happy now?”

To that Pinella replied: “You can do whatever you want for the rest of the year.”

All he did the rest of the year was win the AL MVP for 2001. Also won Rookie Of The Year. Led the league in hits, at-bats, stolen bases. Throw a batting title in there as well.

I listened to lots of Dan Patrick that summer. At the time he did a show with former Cincinnati Nasty Boy Rob Dibble. Dibble wasn’t sold on Ichiro’s early success and boldly proclaimed on the show in July of that summer that he would tattoo Ichiro’s name in Japanese print on his ass if Ichiro won the batting title. Well, he’s had that tattoo on his ass since October 2001.

In the summer of 2003 when I first started going to Mariners games at Safeco Field, they would show his Japanese highlights between innings. His Japanese highlights. They were incredible to see. He was throwing dudes out at third from deep right field with these rope laser throws. The crowd at those games would erupt at these amazing video feats. The thing that always amazed me is that they never showed the same highlights more than once. There was an endless supply of footage to tap into and use.

In the Summer of 2004, Ichiro’s powers were at full peak. He set the MLB Record for hits with 262. TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTY TWO!!!! That’s nearly 1.62 hits per game. Nearly 2 hits per game. In the big leagues. Hit .372. Did all this and somehow finished 7th in the MVP voting. Finished behind Vlad Guerrerro, Sheffield, Manny, David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada, and Johan Santana. Chicks dig the long ball and heaters I guess.

Not that Ichiro didn’t bust out a long ball on occasion. In September of 2009 I sat behind the Yankees dugout at Safeco for a Friday night game. AJ Burnett vs. Felix Hernandez. Both starters had great outings. It was 2-1 Bombers in bottom 9. 2 outs, nobody on. Mariano Rivera on the mound, ready to close the door. Suddenly some guy named Sweeney doubled one off the wall, nearly cleared the fence. Ichiro was up next. The first pitch to him he smashed into the right field seats, about 18 rows back. Game over. Mariners won. Now as I type this I hope Lou Pinella was watching then. “He sure turned on that one, didn’t he Lou!” It was probably the most heart-breaking and shocking baseball moment I can remember seeing in person. A Rivera blown save right in front of my very eyes. But it shouldn’t have been that shocking. It was Ichiro.

As I think back of my time in Seattle, I feel fortunate to have been able to see so many of his games. He’s easily the best player I ever got to see consistently in person.  There’s so many Ichiro moments I can think of. I don’t know how many times I watched him hit slow roller ground balls to all sides of the infield and say “whoa, he’s gonna beat this out” while watching him speed (more like fly) safely into first. He had this incredible speed, could just flat-out fly. Don’t recall too many guys that have carved out careers doing that. To a majority of major leaguers, that is an out. Not Ichiro. Not him. It was like he perfected the infield bunt while actually swinging.

The reality is that Ichiro is probably fully responsible for vaulting my love affair with seeing the game in person. Helped reload an appreciation for the subtleties and preparation in the game of baseball.

For example: Ichiro stretches constantly. ALL. THE. TIME. He never seemed to stop stretching, and seemed like he was made of a rubber band. He’s constantly keeping his body ready. Constantly preparing for the next moment, the next at bat. How else could a guy play until he’s 43??

I remember he’d always communicate through a translator, yet I can recall him speaking to outfield mate Mike Cameron in 2003 on the outfield grass during pitching changes. Either Mike Cameron knew Japanese or Ichiro was just that private. I think it’s safe to say it’s the latter. Which only adds to his legend. This also came to be a somewhat negative on his career, as he took lots of heat from baseball writers for a few years in the Northwest for not being a vocal leader in the Mariners clubhouse. His soft, quiet, subtle approach was easy to make him a target during any losing season in Seattle.

But all that is water under the bridge now. What needs to be remembered in the twilight of Ichiro’s career is his soft, quiet, subtle approach that has painted an amazing tapestry and leaves a beautiful mark on the game of baseball. Ichiro’s game wasn’t built on power. It was built on beauty and substance. Speed. It was built on art. Ichiro’s career is truly that: a work of art. It’s been beautiful to watch.


George Webb and chasing the Pearl Jam experience

File Jul 27, 5 47 54 PM

It was spring of 2004. My Rock and Roll Kickstarter friend Jared Nelson convinced me that I needed to nearly overdraw my Washington Mutual (RIP) checking account and purchase a $200 secondary market ticket to see Sonic Youth. They were playing the Showbox in Seattle, and the gig hand been sold out for several weeks. It was fantastic. Thurston Moore seemed like he was 6’10” and each time he traded guitars between songs they literally were on fire. Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth’s bass player and Thurton’s wife at the time, had an incredibly confident New York strut and moved onstage with such style and substance that I have not forgotten about it since.

Before the show started, we were having a beer at the Showbox bar when I noticed Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam’s bass guitar technician George Webb near me. Now if you know me, you know that Pearl Jam has been an inspiring and dominant force in my life. Their 1996 full length release “No Code” still reigns as my favorite record of all time. I can fully admit now that a big reason I moved to Seattle was because of Pearl Jam, and more importantly to be exposed to music and see all these amazing bands that I had only read about and existed only in their CD that I owned. To take it even further, I probably moved to Seattle so I could be somewhere and run into a guy like George Webb. Come to think of it you almost need to be borderline insane to recognize a bands’ bass guitar tech. But it is what it is. So of course I went right up to him.

“Hi George, I’m Joe and I just wanted to say hello and thank you for what you do. I saw you on the ‘Live From The Garden DVD’.” I don’t exactly remember his response, but it was something to that effect of “Cool, man. Thanks” while shaking my hand.

About 6 months later, I ran into George again. This time I was at a bar called the Rendezvous, which for the sake of this story is borderline irrelevant. So same thing:

“Hey George, I’m Joe I don’t know if you remember me but I saw you at Sonic Youth. Awesome show.” He responded something like “Yeah, I remember you. That was a great show.”

A couple years  later, I’m at I don’t remember where. But sure enough, George was there too. So I went up to him again: “Hey George, I don’t know if you remember me but I’m Joe and I saw you at Sonic Youth in ’04, and at The Rendezvous a year or so ago” And sure enough he says:

“Yeah I remember you, man. You’re the only one that ever does this.”

Well that was great! He remembered me. I took it as a tremendous and deep compliment, and I heard it as the bass guitar tech of Pearl Jam essentially told me I was pj’s biggest fan. No other Pearl Jam fan ever recognizes me other than you” is how I heard it. It can be argued either way, but that’s certainly how I heard it and I’m sticking to it.

I started college in the fall of 1998. The first time I ever skipped class was in my third year in the fall of 2000, when some friends and I road tripped to East Troy, Wisconsin and to Chicago to see two Pearl Jam shows on their Binaural tour. The Chicago show still stands out 17 years later as the best show I’ve ever seen, they opened with my favorite song “Release” and finished with “Baba O’Riley”. There was an energy in the building that was hard for me to wrap my twenty year old mind around: “What did I just see?? How am I going to apply to this to my life going forward. Nothing will be the same again” were my thoughts afterward. More than that, I wanted more live Pearl Jam experiences.

It would take nearly 3 years for the next one. This time in Vancouver, BC. (hi Barry!) It was phenomenal and unique in it’s own right as well. As were the other PJ show’s I’ve seen, and I’m lucky and proud to say 12 total. Most recently in Philadelphia with my beautiful wife Stephanie. Forgive me for the sappiness but I will say that experiencing that with her and seeing her enjoyment and sharing that pure stoke feeling with her afterward was pretty special.

I’ve sat on how to end this piece for a few days now, and it’s been difficult. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not fair for me to write words on how a silly rock band has impacted and inspired my life in the most positive way possible. You know what, it’s actually not silly. In reality I don’t really have the words. The truth is, it’s an emotional thing. I love that the late, great Joe Strummer of The Clash gave a theme to the band as “The only band that matters.” Well hey, Pearl Jam matters to me man. Matters a lot, and rock and roll matters to millions of people. (Don’t believe me: check out any live Iron Maiden video from any South American country on you tube).

I’ve seen it all over the place. In fact, a great bond I shared quickly as an expat living in Germany was through connecting and talking with Europeans about Pearl Jam. All of a sudden I was plugged in and had friends. Although I’m not sure how many of them would recognize my friend George Webb though.