Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Top 3 Seattle Mariners
I plan to do all 29 remaining MLB teams tomorrow to make up some ground, so brace yourself for that. I would have done them tonight, but well, I got a little carried away writing about the Mariners. I do love that stupid team.
1. Felix Hernandez
3. Michael Saunders
It's hard to overstate just how much I love the first two guys on this list--they're two of my absolute favorite athletes of all time. When the M's were horrible and depressing, Ichiro gave me a reason to still love and watch them and Felix gave me hope for the future.
I distinctly remember when we first signed Ichiro, seemingly out of the blue when A-Rod left for Texas and a quarter of a billion dollars. It was the third straight year that we'd lost a surefire Hall of Famer and we all knew the M's run of goodness was over, but Ichiro made things interesting all of a sudden. He was mysterious and quirky, and a megastar way bigger than even Griffey in his homeland. The Japanese media circus around him was unlike anything you'd ever see for an American baseball player, and his game was so fundamentally un-American that nobody really knew what to expect, especially since he was going to be the first-ever starting Japanese position player in MLB. We were excited to find out, but nervous that his finesse game and tiny body wouldn't translate to the faster, stronger, longer American game.
In his second game, he laid down the most beautifully perfect bunt I've ever seen. I'm not a fan of the bunt, but this one was so perfect that I thought, maybe, just maybe this whole Ichiro thing would work. A week later, Ichiro was hitting great but was held out of the lineup for the first time at a game in Oakland. A bunch of fans had been yelling racist taunts at him throughout the previous game, so the manager decided to give him a break rather than risk some kind of incident (seriously, this was in 2001--Oakland). Ichiro pinch hit in the 8th and got a huge clutch single to spark a rally that put the team in the lead. In the bottom of the same inning, now in right field, he gunned down speedy Terrence Long going first-to-third with a throw so awesome people in Seattle and Japan call it simply "The Throw". That was when we knew this dude was the real deal, for really real, a baseball player unlike any other, especially in the Juice Era.
By the end of the season, Ichiro had a batting title, an MVP, a Rookie of the Year Award, and a team with the most wins in MLB history. Alex who? Three years later when the team around him was finally terrible for good, he broke the MLB single-season hits record... and I was there! Ichiro is amazing, and I can't imagine what the last decade of Mariners baseball would have been like without him.
Now Felix. Oh boy, I've got a lot to say about him too, but I'll try to keep it shorter. The Mariners pitching prospect attrition rate is something like 1000% the MLB average, so when we learned about the 16 year old Venezuelan kid tearing up the minor leagues, all we could collectively think, was oh please, oh please don't get hurt. The M's were absolutely horrible during this period, and one of the worst run teams in baseball, so there was little hope of things getting better any time soon. Except there was Felix.
He forced his way onto the major league team at only 19 years old and set the baseball world on fire. I went to all but two of his home starts his first two seasons in the league, when I was working near the stadium. Although he was one of the youngest players in baseball and well above-average, his next couple of seasons were considered a disappointment by many after his incredible start. The last two years, however, he's lived up to his extremely lofty expectations, finishing second in the 2009 Cy Young race, and winning it last year, despite playing on the worst team in the league.
If it seems like it took a long time for Felix to take home the prize (six years), consider this amazing fact: Felix Hernandez, with six excellent major league seasons already under his belt, is just one year (to the day) older than Jeremy Hellickson, the current number one pitching prospect in baseball. At the age Hellickson is now, as he's just breaking into the major leagues, Felix had already thrown over 900 innings and struck out over 800 batters. That's incredible.
But of course, being incredible isn't reason enough to rank ahead of the amazingly awesome Ichiro. Earning that honor takes a little extra something. And that something is this: In 2008 I went to New York City for the first time, and watched the Mariners play the Mets at Shea Stadium. By sheer good luck, Felix was pitching against defending Cy Young winner Johan Santana. With the bases loaded, Felix came to the plate for just the ninth time in his career, against arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He hit a grand slam, of course. A freakin' grand slam off Johan Santana, with me in the stands jumping all over the place.
The Mets fans were great--they didn't seem to mind my boisterous glee during their anguish; they joked with me for a while, then commiserated when Felix hurt his ankle later and had to come out of the game. Queens ain't Oakland, that's for sure.
So that's the lengthy story of why Felix and Ichiro are my two favorite Mariners. I also like the young Michael Saunders a lot, and hope to have some similarly amazing tales to tell of his exploits one day.
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