|Monday, July 1
Ichiro's bats more than pieces of wood
By Jim Caple
"Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz felt so comfortable using a certain pen that when its manufacturer announced it was closing, he bought the company's remaining inventory to use the rest of his life. When world-renowned cellist Matt Haimovitz flies somewhere he buys an extra plane ticket and places his instrument in the seat next to him. The fictional Roy Hobbs carved Wonderboy from a tree split by lightning and carried the bat in a bassoon case.
And then there's Ichiro. He keeps his bats in a humidor.
Two humidors, actually. He has a large metal case that holds 10 bats and is kept inside a locked room in the Mariners clubhouse and he has a smaller carrying case for road trips. Seriously. Both contain a chemical rod that keep the bats from losing or gaining moisture. He also has his bats shrink-wrapped for delivery to protect them from the elements. During games, Ichiro keeps his bat leaning upright at a special spot on the dugout bench and personally brings all his bats to his locker after games. He is so meticulous, when he returns to the dugout after an at-bat, he always wipes the dirt and grass stains off the bat.
God forbid if anyone accidentally spit tobacco juice on Ichiro's bat. It would be like leaving the Shroud of Turin in the rain.
"To become a better player, you have to take care of your equipment," Ichiro said through Mariners translator Hide Sueyoshi. "The same thing applies to a chef (and his knives). You're a professional. You earn money with a profession therefore you respect the tools you use to earn the money."
In other words, what Ichiro keeps in his humidors are even more precious than a case of Cohiba Esplendido cigars freshly smuggled out of Havana. You win eight consecutive batting titles and then tell him he's wrong.
Ichiro's bats are 33.5 inches long and weigh between 900 and 910 grams (about 32 ounces). They are jet black with his name on the barrel in stylish lettering. He says he's been using the same model bat ever since a trip to the Mizuno factory after his rookie season when he plucked it from the inventory as if he were King Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone.
He uses separate bats for batting practice and games. The batting practice model is made from tamo wood. His game bat is made of ash.
"I used the tamo wood when I played in Japan," he said, "and when I came here I used both to compare them and I found that with this climate, the ash is more durable than the tamo."
Think about that for a moment. This is a man so studious about his profession that he takes the climate and humidity into account when he bats. Any more questions about how he led the league in batting average his first season here?
Ichiro, of course, isn't the only player who takes great care with his bats. Edgar Martinez carries a scale with him so he can weigh his bats to make sure that they haven't gained excess weight from the pine tar he layers on the handle. Just as I thought -- .00003 ounces heavy. Bring me the head of the Louisville Slugger rep! But longtime Seattle clubhouse manager Henry Genzale says he's never heard of anyone with a humidor except Ichiro. Neither has three-time batting champion Larry Walker, who pays so little attention to his bats that he might use bats from three different manufacturers in one game.
"I've never thought of sticking them in a humidor," Walker said. "I have a lot of superstitions, but none that involve my bat. I just grab what's there. Grip it and rip it."
It is not superstition though that prompts Ichiro to treat his equipment so carefully -- it is respect. His gloves are lovingly handmade for him each year by a 69-year-old Mizuno employee named Yoshii Tsubota and Ichiro regards them so reverently it's as if he knew the cows personally, oiling the leather as religiously as George Hamilton preparing for an afternoon at St. Tropez. He is so meticulous with his gear that when the Mariners ran the proposed design for this year's Ichiro bobblehead doll past him, he told them it needed elbow pads (either for authenticity or as a precaution in case it had to bat against the Randy Johnson bobblehead).
Of course, even the great ones lose their grip occasionally. Ichiro admits -- gasp! -- that he threw his bat during a game in 1995 and felt such regret that he brought it to his room that night to keep it with him. He cannot believe the way many major leaguers treat their bats -- flinging them in disgust, smashing them against a wall in frustration, snapping them in half and not storing them in a hermetically-sealed chamber under 24-hour escort.
"It's not only the bat. It's the gloves too," he said. "Some guys let their gloves dry out and don't take care of them. Sometimes they sit on their glove. Those are things I can't understand. I can't imagine."
You get the feeling his batting gloves are less for his hands than for his bat. The Smithsonian should be so lucky to have curators this meticulous.
"Think about it," Ichiro said. "Those bats and gloves are not machine-made -- they are hand-made. If someone who makes a glove or bat sees their product thrown away they will be very sad about it. They feel invested in it. Hopefully the players will think of the people who made the equipment."
The book, "The Natural," ends somewhat differently than the movie. In the book, Roy Hobbs breaks Wonderboy and there is no "Savoy Special" to replace it. He strikes out, the Knights lose and after the game he carries Wonderboy to left field where he digs a "rectangular slash into the turf" to bury the bat.
Ichiro saves his broken bats to give to friends, but he says he understands how Hobbs felt when he buried Wonderboy. "Equipment has heart, human heart, inside it," he said.
Box score line of the week
1.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
He's the first position player to pitch for San Diego in three years.
Lies, damn lies and statistics
From left field
Consider that there were 30 All-Stars per league in 1960 when there were only 16 teams and still only 30 per league now there are 30 teams. Not only are there not enough slots, some are wasted because there must be at least one player from every team. Such mandatory representation is unnecessary. This is the All-Star Game, not the House of Representatives. If the commissioner says several teams are so bad they don't even deserve to exist, why should their players take up valuable space in the All-Star clubhouse?
It all means a true star such as Larry Walker will spend the break at home unless fans vote him in for the special final roster spot. Asked whether he was expecting fans from his native British Columbia to flood the Internet on his behalf, Walker joked, "I don't even think they have computers in Canada."
The answer is simple. Expand the rosters, then don't worry whether everyone gets in -- they'll be content just to collect their incentive bonus and rub elbows with the game's elite. In the meantime, here's our annual All-Star team of the players who will spend the break fishing:
Win Blake Stein's money
Q: Who is the only player to homer off the same pitcher in the All-Star Game and the World Series in the same season?
Answer: Good ol' Frank Robinson, who took Dock Ellis deep in the 1971 All-Star Game and in that fall's World Series. Robby returns to the midsummer classic for the first time since 1976 as a coach with the National League. It's good to have him back.
From the cheap seats
One fan of the Pirates admitted they deserve to be where they are "for allowing idiot Cam Bonifay to run them into the ground but (they) have no way to dig themselves out of the grave he put them in under the game's current conditions."
Another reader said the bottom line is: "In a perfect world, everyone should have the chance to see their team win. This may not be a perfect world as you have pointed out, but shouldn't we at least try for one?"
Yes, we should. There are improvements that can be made. But they still aren't going to make badly run teams competitive.
(My apologies if I didn't respond to your e-mail. It gets a little overwhelming at times --more than 1,000 e-mails one day to a certain column on Page 2 -- but I read and respond to as many as I can.)
-- Mike Sweeney on not being in the top five in the All-star vote for his position despite leading the league in hitting
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org