Travis Ishikawa’s big hit has Federal Way High School on its feet
Ishikawa’s 3-run home run in Game 5 of the NLCS put the San Francisco Giants into the World Series. He also made the game-winning play in Federal Way’s state title game in 2001.
Seattle Times columnist
Game 1, Tuesday, San Francisco @ Kansas City, 5 p.m., Ch. 13
When Eric Fiedler talked on Friday via cellphone to Travis Ishikawa, suddenly the most celebrated athlete in the land, the discussion obviously centered on the pennant-winning home run that had thrust Ishikawa into national consciousness.
“I don’t even remember touching the bases,’’ Ishikawa told him.
To Fiedler, Ishikawa’s baseball coach at Federal Way High School, that response immediately took him back to 2001 and the Class 4A state title game against North Central of Spokane at Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium. It was Ishikawa who gathered in the throw to first base that completed a game-ending double play, giving the Eagles the title.
“Remember what you said when you caught that ball?” Fiedler reminded Ishikawa. “You said, ‘Coach, I caught it, but I don’t remember catching it.’ ”
Déjà vu all over again. For those who knew Ishikawa way back when, his heroics for the Giants in the final game of the National League Championship Series Thursday sent echoes back in time, and all the way back to his hometown. On Friday, Federal Way High School buzzed excitedly with talk of Ishikawa’s walkoff, three-run home run, as the news media swarmed the school for reaction.
The night before had been homecoming, and the Eagles’ football team was en route to a 49-6 win over Mount Rainier when Ishikawa connected on a 2-0 pitch from St. Louis reliever Michael Wacha to break a 3-3 tie and send AT&T Park into delirium. The head football coach, John Meagher, heard the news at halftime.
“We were up 42-0, so we weren’t completely involved in game-planning and adjustments,’’ said Meagher, who is also the athletic director. “We were celebrating, hooting and hollering with the coaches about Travis. I was trying to explain to the kids, as big as homecoming is, something way bigger for Federal Way happened last night.”
Ishikawa now becomes embedded permanently in baseball lore, one of just four players to hit a walkoff, pennant-winning homer in a League Championship Series. In Giants annals, he’ll be connected now with Bobby Thomson, who belted the “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” in 1951 to lift the Giants over the Dodgers for the pennant.
“Travis will probably be a ‘Jeopardy!’ answer now,’’ laughed Meagher.
“It’s so rare to know someone who accomplished a great feat on a worldwide stage,’’ marveled Fiedler, now the baseball coach at Enumclaw.
This was the Shot Heard ’Round Federal Way and adjacent locales, where Ishikawa is revered.
“Everyone is good in professional baseball,’’ said Fiedler. “What separates major-leaguers is a very thin layer of intangibles.”
The first time he played at Safeco Field, Ishikawa and his family hosted a barbecue after the game for old friends, coaches and teachers. He’s stayed closely involved with the school and its athletic programs, visiting often, hanging out with coaches and staff.
The home run resonated with particular force for Danny Graham, who was an assistant baseball coach during Ishikawa’s time as an All-State player at Federal Way. Graham’s son was playing in the football game, so he followed the progress of the baseball game on his phone from the bleachers. When Ishikawa connected, Graham and his wife went nuts in the stands, drawing curious glances in light of the fact that the football game was inactive at the time.
Ishikawa’s inspiring story quickly became told and retold in newspaper articles and on television — how he had been so frustrated after his release in April by the Pirates, his fifth team in the past three years — that he nearly quit. Re-signed by the Giants but mired in Class AAA Fresno, Ishikawa tearfully phoned a friend to discuss hanging it up for good.
That friend was Graham, who is now Federal Way’s head baseball coach. Their coach-player relationship had blossomed into a close friendship after Ishikawa was drafted by San Francisco in the 21st round. He signed for a near million-dollar bonus instead of attending Oregon State.
Graham was the best man when Ishikawa was married in 2007, and his confidant over the years. But this particular heart-to-heart, with Ishikawa questioning whether it was worth it to keep putting his wife, Rochelle, and their three children through the travails of a journeyman minor-leaguer’s life, was their most profound.
Ishikawa wasn’t even playing regularly in the minors, and he wondered if it was worth it to keep chasing his dream.
“I don’t know where to go,’’ an emotional Ishikawa told Graham. “I love baseball, but I don’t even know if I can do it anymore.”
Graham says now Ishikawa, who turned 31 last month, needed to talk it out with someone who wouldn’t judge him.
“I told him I don’t care what he did, I’d love him no matter what,’’ Graham recounted. “I said, ‘I don’t love you for what you do, but who you are.’ I told him, ‘You’re a strong guy, you’re going to persevere and be all right.
“We both believe in the Bible. I gave him a couple of scriptures and said, ‘Let this be your strength. ’ He got through it, and went from there.”
Ishikawa began producing, was called up to the Giants in late July, and became their left fielder — a mostly foreign position to the normal first baseman— right before the playoffs when Angel Pagan and Michael Morse were both hurt and other options for manager Bruce Bochy fizzled.
Ishikawa, who already has a World Series ring from the 2010 Giants, was ready on Thursday when history beckoned. Fiedler said that Ishikawa told him that during a pitching change in the top of the ninth inning, in which the Cardinals left the bases loaded, Hunter Pence gathered the outfielders.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,’’ Pence said, as related by Ishikawa. “(Jeremy) Affeldt is going to get out of this jam, and we’re going to win in a walkoff. You guys have to visualize that now.”
And back home, they were ready to celebrate the historic moment, once visualization became reality.
“It’s exactly what you want to happen for someone of his character,’’ said Mike Minahan, a teacher and coach at Federal Way High School.
“What a great kid to root for,’’ Fiedler said. “As sports fans, we’ve been burned by so many people – the Tigers and A-Rods. Travis is legitimate. He’s got strong faith, he’s a good friend, and loyal as all get-out. I’m honored just to have met him.”
For Graham, who had helped Ishikawa through one of his lowest points, it was overwhelming to witness the pinnacle of his career.
“As an athlete, you play for that moment since you’re a kid,’’ he said. “And now he’ll always be remembered.”
In Federal Way, Ishikawa had never been forgotten.
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives his take on the local and national sports scene.