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Saturday, October 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:47 A.M.
By Bob Sherwin
One man is from Japan, the other from the 19th century. They couldn't be more distant and dissimilar, yet through decades and the seemingly timeless game of baseball, they are connected.
Ichiro, the Mariners' diminutive right fielder from Kasugai, Aichi prefecture, Japan, claimed George Sisler's 84-year-old season-hit record last night before a sold-out crowd of 45,573 at Safeco Field.
Ichiro, who was born in 1973, the year Sisler died, bounced a first-inning single over Texas third baseman Hank Blalock for his 257th hit, tying the record. Then, in the third inning, he lined a 3-2 pitch just to the left of shortstop Michael Young for his record 258th hit. Both hits came off Rangers right-hander Ryan Drese.
In his fourth at-bat in the sixth inning, Ichiro bounced his 259th hit, a slow roller that Young couldn't reach in time to throw out Ichiro at first.
"It's definitely the most emotional I have gotten in my life," Ichiro said after the record-breaking hit. "It's definitely the highlight of my career, and I was thinking, 'Is there something better in my future?' "
Mariners hitting instructor and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor would say there is.
"I will tell you that you have not seen the best of Ichiro yet," Molitor said. "That's the best compliment that I can give him."
Ichiro's season-long quest for the record ended in the Mariners' 160th game, an 8-3 victory. Sisler's 81-year-old daughter, Frances Sisler Drochelman, who was on hand, said Ichiro is the right person at the right time.
"He [Sisler] would be proud of Ichiro," Drochelman said. "He would be delighted to know what a fine person he is."
Sisler's grandson, Bo Drochelman, one of five Sisler family members at the game, added, "My grandfather really respected the game of baseball. He cherished it and played every minute to the hilt. That's the part of Ichiro I think he would have loved, a man dedicated to the game. That would have made him proud, that kind of person breaking his record."
"It surprises me that not more national media is here," Mariners manager Bob Melvin said. "It's one of the great records of all time. Look at the top five. Four of them played back in the 1920s. Now Ichiro is one of those guys in there. That's more impressive to me."
Melvin added after the game that that Ichiro "is the best at what he does. That should not be diminished just because the ball does not leave the ballpark."
The crowd was in electric anticipation as Ichiro returned home from the Mariners' 10-game road trip just one hit shy. In the bottom of the first inning, Ichiro took his spot in the on-deck circle as all eyes carefully watched his preparation ritual.
He swung the heavy bat, then switched to his game bat. He whipped the bat around, stretching his hamstrings as the crowd buzzed, waiting for his name to be announced. He bent down, then sat on his heels. As he stood, the announcer introduced him.
Fans stood, and their ovation grew louder as Ichiro approached the plate. Flash bulbs popped all over the grandstands. The "thump, thump" percussion of the public-address system kept the beat as Ichiro made a couple of practice swings before stepping into history.
Drese threw an uncontested strike as a flood of flashes poured down. Ichiro fouled off the next two pitches, then, on an outside fastball, he hammered the ball down, 10 feet to the left of the plate. It bounced high enough to just elude the reach of Blalock, who was positioned on the edge of the infield grass, and rolled into left field.
The crowd roared. Fireworks exploded along the outside wall north of the ballpark. Ichiro stood at first base for more than two minutes to accept the ovation. Finally, with time called, he stepped off the bag and lifted his helmet high above his head.
For the moment, he was tied with Sisler, who was born in 1893, retired in 1930 and died at age 80 on March 26, 1973. Ichiro's record run has brought Sisler back from baseball's shadows.
"That's why we are here, to celebrate baseball, my grandfather and baseball in general," said another grandson, Ric Sisler.
The tie lasted just two more innings, although Ichiro's record-setter almost never happened. In the top of the third, Ken Huckaby hit a long foul down the right-field line. Ichiro raced to the railing, stepped on the short bleacher wall and fell awkwardly back onto the field.
"Even if I broke a bone there," Ichiro mused, "I was going to get up to the plate."
Ichiro led off the third inning, falling behind 1-2. He then took a couple pitches for a full count. Drese tried to come inside with a fastball, but Ichiro's quick swipe sent that ball to the Hall of Fame.
The entire Mariners team came out to greet him. Ichiro then walked over to five Sisler family members sitting along the first-base side. He greeted Frances and the four others. He talked briefly with the group, shook hands, then went back to first base, continuing to take bows and tipping his helmet to the appreciative crowd.
"In Oakland, I got to the point where one more hit and it was tied, but I wasn't able to get it," Ichiro said. "When I look back and with this experience tonight, I'm glad I wasn't able to get it. I can say that now."
Ichiro, 30, who wouldn't have been allowed to play the game in Sisler's time because of racial intolerance, has gone where no one from any country has gone before.
"My grandfather would say right now that Ichiro is a professional baseball player," Bo Drochelman said. "He would absolutely not want anyone to talk about where he is from, who he is or be opposed to him because of that. He would be proud of this man, this professional, and the job he is doing right now."
Bob Sherwin: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com
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