Tim Barto: Ichiro and El Hombre had work ethic, practice discipline that kept them at top of their game for decades

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By TIM BARTO

Ichiro Suzuki was the best baseball player in the Japanese big leagues when he signed a multi-million dollar contract with the Seattle Mariners in 2001 and brought his game to America.

Despite winning three Most Valuable Player awards and seven batting titles in seven seasons in his native Japan, there were many Americans – fans, players, coaches, and owners – who doubted that the skinny 27-year-old right fielder with the unorthodox, running start swing could make it in the American major leagues.

But make it he did, winning Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors that season while leading the league in hits, batting average, and stolen bases. 

If there were any remaining doubters after his rookie season, Ichiro silenced them with his first 10 seasons as a Major League player. Each season from 2001 to 2010, the Mariners’ right fielder was selected as an All-Star, won a Gold Glove Award for being the best fielder at his position, and collected at least 200 hits. Each season.

In 2004, he broke the record for most hits in a season with 262. His statistical achievements invoke comparison with the greatest names the game has ever known: Honus Wagner, George Sisler, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, and Pete Rose. As he gained popularity in the United States, he remained as popular as ever, probably more so, in his native Japan. Japanese television carried Mariner games, and Japanese fans took vacation time to travel to Seattle to see their beloved Ichiro play.

How popular was Ichiro? When Paul Kariya, a Canadian of half Japanese ethnicity was playing hockey in the NHL, he dressed up as Ichiro for Halloween. 

After 11 and a half seasons in Seattle, Ichiro went on to play two and a half seasons for the New York Yankees and three for the Miami Marlins, before returning to Seattle in 2019 to finish out his career. This past weekend, the Mariners organization honored Ichiro with membership in their team’s Hall of Fame. In two more years, he is a shoo-in to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. 

While a player, Ichiro learned English, but being concerned that his words were conveyed properly, he relied on an interpreter. When giving his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in front of a packed stadium, he delivered it in English. In addition to learning English while a player, Ichiro also learned Spanish because of the influx of players from Spanish-speaking countries.

Albert Pujols stands for the National Anthem. Photo credit: Kevin Wong, 2014, Flickr.

Albert Pujols was born in the Dominican Republic in 1980, and made his Major League debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2001, the same year Ichiro debuted with the Mariners. Over the same ten year period in which Ichiro was piling up hits in the American League, Pujols was tearing up the National League, averaging over 40 home runs and driving in over 100 runs per season while recording batting averages no lower than .312 each year.

As the Seattle fans endeared themselves to Ichiro, so did the St. Louis fans with Pujols, who they started calling “El Hombre,” Spanish for “The Man.” It was done out of respect for Pujols because the most popular Cardinal of all, Stan Musial, was known as Stan “The Man.” Pujols let it be known that he did not prefer the moniker, feeling it was improper to compare himself to Hall-of-Famer Musial, a man respected as a true gentleman of the game.

St. Louis fans began calling him “La Maquina” because he produced like a machine. That name stuck.

Pujols and the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, with Pujols tying Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson for most home runs in a World Series game (three, in game seven). But in the offseason, Albert opted to exercise his rights as a free agent, leaving his beloved St. Louis for the deep pockets of the Los Angeles Angels and guaranteeing himself better than 25 million dollars a year for the next ten years. In 2022, Pujols returned to St. Louis to close out his career. 

As of Aug. 29, La Maquina has 694 career home runs, two behind Alex Rodriguez and only six shy of the hallowed territory of 700, achieved by only three players in history – Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Barry Bonds. Unlike Rodriguez and Bonds, Pujols’ achievements have been accomplished without the aid of steroids, and his reputation is of one who played the game clean. Albert is a man of deep Christian faith who treats fans well and is generous in his philanthropy. One of his daughters, Bella, has Down’s Syndrome and competes as a Special Olympics swimmer. Pujols has responded by setting up a family foundation that contributes generously to Special Olympics. 

Five years from now Albert will be eligible for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and, like Ichiro, his election is guaranteed.

These two men with completely dissimilar builds but a deep love for the game and respect for its history, are remarkable athletes closing out their careers with class, returning home to where their American sports journeys began.

Sure, they’ve made mistakes and disappointed fans along the way, but their athletic achievements and commitment to greatness are deserving of respect. Their work ethic and practice routines kept them at the top of their sport for more than a decade. They were two of the ballplayers that would garner everyone’s attention when they came to the plate; Ichiro for his unique swing and style of play, and Pujols for his strength and clutch performances. They earned the admiration of their coaches, fellow players, and fans. Even fickle and highly opinionated baseball fans are able to stop, reflect, and appreciate the excellence these two ballplayers strove for and the entertainment they provided.

Well done, gentlemen.

Tim Barto is President of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks baseball team, and Vice President of Alaska Policy Forum. Photo credit: George Oates, Flickr.com

2 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent reminder of the ‘GOOD-GUYS’ in sports. I am a fan of football, basketball, & some baseball, with
    very limited knowledge of sports specifics as Tom Barton writes. The current WOKE narrative and kneeling
    during the national anthem has changed my support/attitude of the professional leagues.

    Thank you for identifying these two EXCEPTIONAL players and what makes them an inspiration for kids to follow ! ! 👏 👏 👍

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