Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Twilight Saga: Rising Sun

By Photos and story by Tony Mangia


He broke in as a rookie at age 27 and took the American League by storm--leading the league in batting and stolen bases. The Japanese import led his team, the Seattle Mariners, to a record 116 game winning season in 2001, while being voted both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player--an unprecedented debut. The rightfielder with the soccer-like single name continues to defy all his long-surrendered critics and take his fabulous career into the gloaming. One can only hope Ichiro gets a chance to showcase his skills one more time in a national stage like the playoffs. Maybe it is the fans who'll bask in the privilege of seeing one the game's most exciting players shine on network television beyond his tenth All-Star game.

Ichiro Suzuki may one of the greatest rightfielders baseball has ever known. He is definitely the finest and most athletic this generation has to offer. Nine straight Gold Gloves and nine straight 200 hit seasons attest to his durability and consistency. A rifle arm, blazing speed and occasional power makes Ichiro a demon in every aspect of the game--in the field, on the base paths and at the plate. The right-throwing and left-hitting Ichiro is chasing 4,000 professional hits and his 262 hits in 2004 broke a single season record that stood for 84 years. Don't forget his record of 41 consecutive steals without being caught.

Detractors may consider Ichiro's first years in Japan's Pacific League no more than stat-padding--sort of like the NFL's Warren Moon's, which include his inflated CFL statistics but, even if you took Ichiro's statistics for his first nine-plus years in the AL, the Hitsman has numbers that scream Hall of Fame. Does 350 stolen bases and over 2,000 hits in America mean anything? He still keeps runners at bay with his 50 mm sniper arm and don't call him just a slap-hitter. You should see the bombs in batting practice.

The Seattle Mariners haven't seen a playoff since losing the ALCS to the Yankees in 2001 and had high aspirations at the beginning of this season. Felix Hernandez finished last year with a sparkling 19-5 record and another ace, Cliff Lee, made the startling decision to leave the NL champions Philadelphia Phillies and head for the grunge city--giving the Mariners (on paper) one of the best one-two punches in the majors. All-around good player Chone Figgins came over and consigned himself from leadoff to second while bringing more sure hands to an already good defensive team. The team got out of the gate slow and the power hitters, Seattle's favorite son, Ken Griffey Jr. and always a risk, Milton Bradley have failed miserably. The streaking Mariners just took two of three at Yankee Stadium but remain 14 games behind the ever-improving West Division.

Ichiro's current contract ends in 2012. This decade's premier leadoff hitter is still batting .330 this year and once said at his last contract signing, " I'm going to do my best to play ten more years here." That leaves seven more years for fans to enjoy the 37 year-old's pre-swing contortions and idiosyncrasies and they're well worth the wait.

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