Friday, May 1, 2015


               At any given time there are a small handful of Major League Baseball players whose talents and accomplishments deserve special attention. These are the guys we’ll tell our grandchildren we saw play, even if we can pick up a phone and tell them so today.  I’m not just talking Hall of Fame-eligible here, I’m talking about men who are making a singular contribution to the sport.
              Ichiro Suzuki fits that category. At age 41 the slender man from Japan is playing out the string with the Miami Marlins, but he’s still identifiably Ichiro, punching out hits in his inimitable fashion.  If he stays at it long enough he’ll go out as the most prolific batsman ever, eclipsing Pete Rose’s 4,256 big-league-hits record.

               Yeah, some of his hits were in Japan’s big league, but I’ll leave it to others to debate their relative worth.

               What’s beyond debate is that Ichiro (he goes by just the one name at home, not unlike some Brazilian soccer stars) has brought to the game a unique style and presence, no small feat in an activity that prizes orthodoxy. Not only does the left-handed batter hit off his front foot, a Little League no-no, but he does so with his hips turning forward, seemingly propelling him down the first-base line as the ball is being struck. He gets away with it because he has the best hands since Rod Carew, and the best results.

               He’s a sterling athlete and, as his 10 Golden Gloves attest, nobody of late has played right field better. Few run the bases better, either; his 487 stolen bases going into this season was the most of any active player. It’s tougher to measure throwing ability but he may be No. 1 there, too. For a recent Japanese TV commercial he made three throws from behind home plate to a wire-mesh litter basket near the right-field fence about 300 feet away. He sunk the third after two near misses.

               Few players have arrived in the U.S. majors more hyped—or more closely followed—than Ichiro. At age 27, he showed up in spring training with the Seattle Mariners in 2001 as the best-known sports figure in his sports-crazy land, trailed by a media contingent that would make a Super Bowl quarterback flinch.  So popular was he back home that his wedding two years earlier, to a Japanese-TV personality, had to take place in California to avoid a crush.

               The Mariners issued 100 spring-training press credentials in ’01, 80 of them to Japanese outlets. Every step he took in public was photographed and his daily press conferences were staged outdoors because the team’s Peoria, Arizona, base didn’t have a large enough room to hold them.  The attention lasted into the season and while it cooled with the years it never went away.

               It was merited because, next to the 1960s and ‘70s slugger Sadaharu Oh, Ichiro was Japan’s all-time greatest baseball player, with a .353 batting average in nine seasons with the Orix Blue Wave starting at age 18. Americans snicker over Oh’s towering home-run record (868), noting it was set in smallish Japanese parks, but the big majority of Ichiro’s 1,278 Japanese bingles were singles that would have been singles anywhere.  And indeed, during his 10 seasons in Seattle (2001-10), the meat of his U.S. career, his batting average of .331 wasn’t far below his Japanese mark.

               Ichiro got more than 200 hits in each of those 10 seasons, a record. His 262 hits in 2004 is a record, too.  He was the MVP of the 2007 MLB All-Star game with a three-hit performance including an inside-the-park home run, and got the game-winning hit in Japan’s extra-inning victory over South Korea in the 2009 World Baseball Classic final. For what it’s worth, Japan has won that tournament twice in the three times it’s been run, and the U.S. never has finished better than fourth.

               Ichiro collected 2,844 hits in his 14 Major League seasons before this one. Add in his Japanese safeties and his total came to 4,122, 134 short of Rose and 67 behind Ty Cobb’s 4,189. As a part-time player he doesn’t figure to surpass Rose this year but, barring injury, probably will get past Cobb.  He hasn’t committed to playing beyond this season so the argument over whether he or Rose belongs atop the hit parade might not arise, but no matter. Ichiro is playing now and you owe yourself what may be a last look.


               The Kentucky Derby, the latest edition of which will be run on Saturday, is both a feast and a challenge for horse players. It’s a feast because you always get good prices on good horses in what’s usually a stellar field. It’s a challenge because it involves two large unknowns—how the animals will handle its 1¼-miles distance, farther than any of them ever run, and how they’ll cope with a roiling field that will number 20 if there are no scratches.  It’s a real cavalry charge in which “trip” can be as important as talent.

               Complicating matters further this year is perhaps the best field of any recent Derby. On form seven or eight colts could win the race and not surprise anyone, and three or four more could sneak up on them. Putting together a winning ticket will require dexterity as well as knowledge and luck.

               The field is headed by three horses that together have won 14 of 16 career outings and close to $4.5 million in purses, a ton of money for three-year-olds.  They are the presumed favorite (5-2 in the morning line) American Pharaoh, Dortmund (3-1) and Carpe Diem (8-1). American Pharaoh gets the betting nod because he’s won his last four races by a total of 22 lengths and has been training like a champ. Dortmund has won six of six and Carpe Diem four of five. The latter hasn’t shown quite the speed of the other two, but they’re both front runners and he’s comfortable running with the pack for a while, a facility might come in handy on Saturday.

I originally liked Carpe Diem but his No. 2 post-position draw indicated he might be enveloped along the rail early and have difficulty finding running room. Similarly, American Pharaoh will exit No. 17, meaning he’ll have a tough time securing his preferred close-to-the front running position, and will have a long way to go in any case.

From PP8 long-striding Dortmund will have a straight shot out of the gate and should lead or nearly so. Barring late mind-changes I’ll be betting a $1, five-horse exacta box including he, the lightly raced Materiality (12-1) who’s maybe the fastest horse in the field, and three horses that have proven to have some late kick: Frosted (15-1), Upstart (15-1) and El Kabeir (30-1). It’ll cost me $20 but pay off a lot more if any of the double-digit-odds entries come in 1-2.


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