The Legend of Ichiro Suzuki

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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

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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.

 

The Importance Of Winning One-Run Ballgames

By Richie Gebauer, Contributor

Richie.gebauer@gmail.com


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At the start of every baseball season, I cannot stand when friends, family, and/or colleagues tell me that the first several weeks of the MLB season are not important because there are 162 games to play. Every game is of drastic importance! Ask Joe Torre and the ’73 Cardinals. They went 5-20 in April and found themselves losing the division to the Mets by a mere 1.5 games. I bet they wish they could have April back. I wonder if Tim McCarver wakes up with night sweats thinking about ’73. But yeah. Keep telling yourself it’s okay that your team had a slow start or lost a few one-run games in the middle of the season because they have 161 other games to make it up. That’s the kind of thinking that has you cheering for your favorite football team in the first week of September rather than uncontrollably waving your rally towel in section 118 after Matt Stairs rips one into the night causing even Joe Buck to show the tiniest bit of emotion.

So, why am I stressing the importance over each of the 162 games all 30 MLB teams play? Let’s use the 2017 Phillies as the lens for this discussion. This year, the Phillies have been on the wrong side of the win column. Currently 24.5 games out of first having only won 34 of their first 96 games, many are considering the Phillies to be one of the worst teams in baseball history. If you take a quick look at the standings, how can you disagree? 29 wins at the all-star break can make any fan sick to their stomach. However, what is most intriguing is looking at the way that the Phillies lose. The Phillies are 11-26 in one run games and are 4-9 when going into extras. 56% of their losses have come in games that were within their reach. Let’s just imagine that these Fightin Phils – claimed as potentially one of the worst teams in baseball history – win two-thirds of these games. They are then 57-39, find themselves 2nd in the division only 1.5 games back from the Nats, and heading into a battle for the divisional crown. This would come at a time when they are playing some decent baseball following the break, most recently taking two of three from the Marlins and then the Brewers.

Would have, could have, should have right? I don’t disagree. Back at the conclusion of May, Dan Levy said that after 75 pitches the Phillies had a 7.45 ERA. You deserve to lose one-run games and to send your team to extras only to lose at the rate the Phillies are when pitching that poorly. But, are they really as bad as their record indicates? I would argue they aren’t. Instead, they are just a prime example of how important each inning of all 162 games is. The best baseball teams – those consisting of players with “guts” – win one-run ball games either by maintaining the lead or digging deep and scrapping for late-inning runs because that’s what leads to them playing in October.

So let’s toss the “April isn’t important” philosophy out the window and pray that each one-run game your team loses in April, May, June, or any month of the season isn’t what keeps them out of the playoffs and has you wearing your ridiculous Tom Brady Jersey right after Labor Day.

Don Mattingly: The bricklayer of a baseball dynasty

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I’ve now been a die-hard Yankee fan long enough to understand what comes with it, and believe me I understand all of it: I know I’m not from New York, I know I grew up in South Dakota, I know the payroll, I know people hate A-Rod (or did, he’s actually great on TV) , I know they blew 3-0 in ’04, I know the “Yankees suck! Yankees suck! Yankees suck!” and the whole nine-yards.

The good news is I’m now old enough to know that none of that matters to me nor does it bother me. I truly believe I understand the club and the franchise and the team top to bottom just as good as any true Bronx season ticket holder. I’ve been to the city and to enough ballgames there to know that this is indeed true. I get the MLB package every season to catch as many games as I can. To me, the beauty of baseball overall is beyond any one player and any one franchise so it essentially is bullet proof. Haven’t you heard the James Earl Jones speech in ‘Field of Dreams’??? I love the MLB, I love watching big leaguers compete, I love the high-level battles and I love how good they are. Plus the good news is that the way the game is now, you really can’t just stack your squad with the best offseason free agents and win a title every year. (I also think that the 2009 Yankees will be the last team to be successful at this and that will be a story for another day). Well, actually Boston continues to sign every big name free agent that comes up even though all the while their “RSN” mantra was built on being the “Anti-Yankees” when in reality they are now basically the Yankees. This is now true. At least Chris Sale seems to be working out much better than Panda and Carl Crawford. Anyway.

In today’s game, you need to grow your talent and they need to be good when they get to the Big Leagues. If you miss too many, you won’t be good. That’s the way it is. But in reality I don’t need to be a Yankee defender/apologist. But what I do want to get into is a three word subject:

Donald. Arthur. Mattingly.

Growing up as a kid, the Yankees weren’t really all that great. In fact, they hit rock-bottom in around 1990 and were terrible. But one of the brightest moments of this era was the career of Mattingly. Mattingly is my #1 favorite athlete of All-Time. To me, he was my original Eddie Vedder. What I mean by that is he was my original hero: the guy I checked box scores of every day, the guy my dad would always tell me when he homered, the guy that I collected the most cards of (this is true, I have over 350+ Mattingly cards and haven’t met anyone in the world who has more. Even though today all 350 cards combined are probably worth about $65). He was left handed, I’m left handed. He was gritty, tough, had a sweet mustache and a constant five o’clock shadow. But beyond all that he was ready to play every damn day.

Prior to a back injury in 1987 that ended up lingering and worsening for him thereafter, Donnie Baseball was one of the top players in the game. Mattingly still holds Yankee records for most hits in a season (238 in 1986), doubles in a season (53 in 1986), and holds the MLB record for grand slams in a season (6 in 1987). He was the MVP of the 1985 season, and as I type this I can’t help but wonder how in bloody hell he didn’t win it again in 1986? He hit .352 in ’86. Wait, who the hell won it then? Give me a sec while I check Google………………………………….Roger Clemens was AL MVP in ’86. Ok, got it.

Recently, Sweeny Murti (@YankeesWFAN) of WFAN New York Radio put together a great podcast (30 With Murti) that gave an inside look at when Mattingly as a 26 year old in 1987 homered in 8 straight games. The eight straight homer games generated a lot of attention and media coverage, and became one of the biggest stories in sports that summer. Yet during the season Mattingly never once made it about himself and always reverted back to the team. It was always about “the team, the team, the team” and never about him. The majority of MLB writers covering him during this time still speak fondly of this. He literally did this his entire career, he constantly downplayed his achievements. No matter what happened, it was always about moving forward and playing winning baseball. Hmmmmmmm….Does this sounds familiar? There seems to have been a guy named Jeter that mimicked this formula for twenty years.

There’s a great clip on the Murti podcast from a joking Mitch Williams, who was a young pitcher with the Texas Rangers in 1987: “Mattingly goes to the equipment manager in the locker room every year and says ‘give me a pair of pants that are too big, give me a jersey that doesn’t fit, and a pair of lightening-fast hands and I’ll go play.'”

Mattingly’s back injuries worsened each year after 1989, and there’s no question it limited him from being the same hitter he was before the injury. But he learned to play through it, to fight through the pain and continue to battle at-bats each and every ballgame. He did this until 1995. Right around that time, the Yankees organization started brining up key young players. Starting in 1991 with the debut of Bernie Williams, and culminating with other young players Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter. The latter four each made their Major League debuts during Mattingly’s last season in 1995. What happened with these players and teams after is a run of success that more than likely will be unmatched for quite some time in modern baseball: 4 titles in five years starting in 1996 and three straight in 1998, 1999, and 2000.

It’s always bummed me out that Mattingly missed out on ’96, but every player from that team speaks of Mattingly and his influence of why they won and also how each of them approached the game everyday as a professional. Mattingly wasn’t there physically, but he certainly had a profound impact on that championship dynasty. There’s no question that the selflessness of those clubs was a direct influence of Mattingly. He truly laid the foundation.

There’s not an anecdote about the Core Four that hasn’t been told already. It’s a part of history, and some would argue it’s been told too much and at times has seemed difficult for the franchise to move on from. Hence Derek Jeter Day, Derek Jeter Evening, Derek Jeter Morning, Derek Jeter Brunch, Derek Jeter everything at Yankee Stadium in the last couple years. But the most excited I get is during those times when a member of those championship teams talks about what Mattingly meant to them in their development. Donnie Baseball paved the way for them. He dug the foundation, he laid the bricks.

Barry Bonds 1992

Thanks to an overwhelming amount of requests (actually just one: from my good friend Jamie Davies) it’s time take a quick glance at the 1992 season of Barry Bonds. Just to note: this isn’t to put the guy on trial for what he did or didn’t do. What really interests me is how good he was before getting really really massive. His last season in Pittsburgh was in ’92, and he had a beast of a season for a 96-win Pirate club.

Bonds 1992: In only 140 ballgames Bonds hit .311 with 36 doubles, 39 steals, 127 walks, 34 HR’s, drove in 103 runs, his on-base % was .456 (100 points higher than any other Pirate) while striking out just 69 times. Oh and he won a Gold Glove. And an MVP. That’s basically dominating every facet of the game. All before getting massive, and dominating with a lean physique. The guy was likely on his way to Cooperstown before 1998 happened.

What happened in 1998?

Bonds was having another year like the one above, but no one was really paying any attention because of the McGwire/Sosa home run chase. Ken Burns majestic “Baseball: The 10th Inning” addresses this topic and states that Bonds was raged and jealous over Sosa/McGwire and this eventually led him to have the feelings of: “Oh, yeah? You think that’s great? Watch this!”

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My Friends: Joe Ford and the Drive By Truckers

I moved to Seattle in 2003 with every intention of seeing every band I’ve ever been into at least once. It’s now 2017 and I can honestly say that U2 is really the last on my list that I made years ago. I can proudly say I crossed Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Springsteen off this list most recently.

Rewind to early 2004 and my buddy Jared called me and said “The Drive-By Truckers are playing at the Tractor Tavern tonight. I know you don’t know them but they are awesome and we need to go.”

So of course we went.

It was great, and should’ve been at Key Arena instead of a tiny bar. When we arrived, I noticed that Peter Buck from REM was in attendance. I couldn’t imagine he wasn’t into great music so I knew this was likely a good sign for whats to come. It was a phenomenal set and Jared and I were front and center and afterwards we saw one of their guitarists, Jason Isbell. I went up to him and shook his hand and told him “hey man amazing show” and he replied in the heaviest Southern accent I’ve ever heard:

“Yeah that was about the best show we ever played.”

Really great to hear that, especially since we were there. So I was instantly hooked. And for several consecutive years the Truckers returned to Seattle and each time they did I’d see Jason before the show and tell him “Hi I’m Joe, not sure if you remember me but I saw you after the Tractor Tavern show years ago and said hello.” And he would tell me every time:

“Yeah I remember you, Joe. That was the best show we ever played!”

One of the times included me buying him a shot of Jack Daniels, and he took it with me. This may have not been such a good thing, because rumor has it that a big part of Jason leaving the band in 2007 was because of his drinking. But he’s proudly stopped drinking and now today is one of the most renowned recording artists in all of music.

But following that first show in 2004, I called my best friend Joe Ford back in South Dakota and really was jacked up to tell him about the Drive By Truckers and that we really needed to dive into their catalog. And boy did we ever as Joe and I have shared a great bond over Isbell and the Truckers and their music over the years. To me, the Truckers truly hit home that small-town rural Americana sound and to someone who grew up in a small town it’s easy to relate. It’s as easy as breathing.

Yesterday when I texted Joe that I got the Town Mile site up and running he responded: “You should do one about the first time you saw DBT and called your buddy back in SD and the band you recommended was so profound in your buddies life that he named his first born son after the lead singer.”

This is true: Patterson Joseph Ford was born March 12, 2015. He’s named after Patterson Hood, the founder of the Truckers and a guy who I’ve also had the pleasure of running into a few times throughout the years. To me that’s the beauty of rock and roll music, is the time stamp it places on lives and the great connection it helps solidify between friends. It’s a deep, powerful thing. And Patterson Ford will more than likely end up with bowed legs and be really really fast like his dad was. This is him recently at age 2, already training:

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Barry Bonds 2001-2004

One thing I find myself almost unconsciously doing over the years is visiting BaseballReference.com and looking through the career numbers of Barry Bonds. Whatever your opinion of Bonds, some of his metrics are just mind-numbingly awesome and hard to believe. I’ll save a rant on 1992 Bonds for a later time, but just take a look at the peak of his head-growth and Bio-genisis mechanical swing:

2001 Bonds: 153 games, 73 HR, 177 walks, 32 doubles

2002 Bonds: 143 games, 46 HR, 198 walks (not a typo, really walked 198 times), 32 doubles

2003 Bonds: 130 games, 45 HR’s, 148 walks, 22 doubles

2004 Bonds: 147 games, 45 HRs, 232 FUCKING WALKS!!(120 intentional), 27 doubles

**So to summarize: Barry Bonds for four consecutive seasons either hit a home run, a double, or walked in EVERY. SINGLE. GAME. For four straight years.