Ichiro's worth not measured by long ball

The Baltimore Sun

Just one more reason baseball deserves all the angst it's getting right now: All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Ichiro Suzuki.

Nobody in Tuesday's game in San Francisco was more fun to watch play than Ichiro. Nothing that happened during the two days of festivities was more electrifying than his dash around the bases for the first inside-the-park home run in 78 All-Star games spanning 75 years.

The next most spine-tingling moment? Willie Mays' entrance. One master of the art of playing every facet of baseball brilliantly - not just power-hitting, everything - preceding a modern master of the practically lost art of small ball, baseball minus the power hitting.

But today's game is more about Monday's prelude to Mays and Ichiro, which featured three hours of deep fly after deep fly, the sport reduced to its most gimmicky element and packaged as the entertainment centerpiece. It was unwatchable. It has been for years.

Yet that's essentially the game we'll keep getting, starting with the post-break resumption of the season. All about the long ball, and whatever substances are fueling it.

This is what baseball wanted, all power all the time. To get there, it turned a blind eye to the rise of performance enhancers, and the price was a rancid scandal whose stench wafted over this All-Star break and every story line within it.

Ichiro and his moment of glory were only the latest victims. Yes, he woke a lot of people up to another way the game can be played. Yes, he will actually be rewarded contractually (a five-year, $100 million deal is reportedly in the works) for something besides one narrow skill that, clearly, is no longer as rare as it used to be.

But he also inspired a lot of talk about how many homers he could hit if he wanted to, because he launches them out like crazy during every batting practice and did it again in San Francisco. "He made it look easy, like it was nothing," marveled American League manager Jim Leyland of the Detroit Tigers.

Ichiro doesn't want to be, or need to be, a slugger. And a lot of people are mad about that. Everyone else wants to be one, they reason, and that's what this game is all about, isn't it?

He keeps trying to tell people that it's not, and not enough people are listening to him. If they were, he'd be the poster boy for this sport. He isn't, though, and it's not because of his nationality or market size or time zone. It's because he's not launching balls into orbit every night.

That stinks.

It stinks even more that he's so much the exception. Some 20 years ago, he might not have been - still great, yes, but not so completely out of the ordinary. That's what homers are now, ordinary. They're cool, but not when they come all day, every day, from everybody, at the expense of everything else.

Alex Rodriguez went into the break with 30 of them. That puts him on pace for, uh, the ninth-highest total of the past decade.

Baseball made it this way, made a conscious decision about it. Fans allowed it to happen - yeah, you're in this, too.

And now, this is the environment we have, in which Victor Conte and Jason Grimsley are as recognizable names as the All-Star MVP.

After the 1994 labor dispute and cancellation of the World Series, baseball needed to win back the fans' trust. Instead, baseball decided it just needed to win back fans, period. It didn't matter if they weren't actual baseball fans who appreciated someone like Ichiro, and who recognized that there was more to Mays than 660 home runs. And, for that matter, that there once was more to Barry Bonds than his solid-but-not-outrageous home run power.

It wasn't that long ago that a 30-homer, 30-steal season was an exalted achievement. Teams ran, as an organizational philosophy. Doubles that traveled 110 feet, the way Jose Reyes' did Tuesday, were treasured. Stardom was judged by five tools, not just one. Baseball was good then; it was fun, the way it had been fun when Mays defined it.

Not anymore, not after '94. Baseball dumbed down the product. It would be as if the NBA had tried to recover from its lockout by lowering the rims to 8 feet, because everybody loves dunking.

And while it will never acknowledge its complicity in the steroid troubles it battles now, baseball might as well have rolled out a red carpet for all the chemists. The message: This is what we value now. This sells tickets, this drives up ratings, this puts zeroes on your contracts. Do what you've got to do.

Including you Ichiro-types - start hitting 'em out, or live in relative obscurity, depending on your home country's fans to vote you into the midsummer classic.

However, he's sticking to his principles, the ones that say baseball is played within the outfield fences, too, and that you can actually still round the bases when the ball stays in the yard.

It's refreshing, seeing someone who looks like a baseball player again, playing what baseball used to look like, before it pumped itself up.

david.steele@baltsun.com

For David Steele's blog entry on the All-Star Game, go to baltimoresun.com/steelepress.

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