1-2-3 Sports! Week of March 9, 2018

Hockey hair is coming…

Prisoner of Perfection

It doesn’t feel like an overstatement to say Ichiro Suzuki is the Michael Jordan of Japan. He rents out stadiums to train. There are signs at every table of his favorite restaurant demanding no photographs. The Japanese press has covered his every move for his 26 seasons of professional baseball. At 44, Ichiro is prepping his last tour of MLB. While he looks to extend his career (Ichiro has previously said he wants to play until he’s 50), his time is about done, so Wright Thompson attempts to look back at the obsessive rituals that have both made Ichiro a Hall of Fame player as well as perhaps a trapped individual.

The story is long, and completely worth your time. Thompson knows how to paint a picture, and there are so many fascinating nuggets throughout, including:

Japanese culture in general — and Ichiro in particular — remains influenced by remnants of bushido, the code of honor and ethics governing the samurai warrior class. Suffering reveals the way to greatness. When the nation opened up to the Western world in 1868, the language didn’t even have a word to call games played for fun. Baseball got filtered through the prism of martial arts, and it remains a crucible rather than an escape. (end)

He could choose the best players in Japan to help him but he doesn’t. He doesn’t need to get better at swinging a bat. What he needs, and what he seems to find in this rented stadium, is the comfort of the familiar, a place where he knows who he is supposed to be. (end)

These stories are funny individually, but they feel different when taken as a whole. Like nearly all obsessive people, Ichiro finds some sort of safety in his patterns. He goes up to the plate with a goal in mind, and if he accomplishes that goal, then he is at peace for a few innings. Since his minor league days in Japan, he has devised an achievable, specific goal every day, to get a boost of validation upon completion. That’s probably why he hates vacations. In the most public of occupations, he is clearly engaged in a private act of self-preservation. He’s winnowed his life to only the cocoon baseball provides. His days allow for little beyond his routine, like leaving his hotel room at 11:45, or walking through the lobby a minute later, or going to the stadium day after day in the offseason — perhaps his final offseason. Here in the freezing cold, with a 27-degree wind chill, the hooks ping off the flagpoles. The bat in his hand is 33.46 inches long. He steps into the cage and sees 78 pitches. He swings 75 times.

Up close, he looks a lot like a prisoner. (end)

His relationship with his father has defined him, for better or for worse. Ichiro has been in pursuit of baseball perfection since he was three. He’d had a baseball routine for 40+ years, and anyone who knows him wonders if he’ll be able to stop.

And while Ichiro and his father are not currently on speaking terms, Ichiro is still in some ways under his father’s thumb, or, as Thompson more eloquently puts it, “Ichiro now does to himself all the things he resents his father for having made him do.”

While there are some questions left open in this story, of which I’m sure TOB will address, this is one hell of a read. – PAL

Source:  ‘When Winter Never Ends”, Wright Thompson, ESPN (03/07/2018)

TOB: Maaaaaan, do I love Ichiro. This story was sad, though; it’s not only a portrait of an aging ballplayer, seeing the end of the road, with no plan for life after baseball (Ichiro has previously said, “I think I’ll just die,” when asked what he’ll do after his career), a story we’ve seen before. It’s also, as Phil said, a portrait of a man who made it to the very top of his sport, after a lifetime of obsession with doing so, by sticking to the same routine, day after day after day. Ichiro did so to the point I have to wonder, as a person absolutely unqualified to say this, not just whether Ichiro has OCD, but how severe and debilitating his OCD might be. And it’s also the story of a father and son, and how the father more or less robbed the son of his childhood by forcing him into these routines, day after day, not letting him play with friends or be a normal kid, only to have it create one of the greatest baseball players ever. And it’s about how, despite that success, the son resents the father for it all, even while continuing those same routines to this very day.

And as sad as that all is, there are some fantastic Ichiro nuggets in here, as always. For example, Ichiro’s former teammate, Mike Sweeney, tells a second-hand story about an unnamed professional baseball player strolling through Central Park one day with his wife. The player saw a man in the distance, throwing a baseball 300-feet, and hitting balls against the backstop with the “powerful shotgun blast of real contact familiar to any serious player.” Curious, the player got closer, only to discover Ichiro, on an off-day, getting in his reps.

Or this one:

The Yankees clubhouse manager tells a story about Ichiro’s arrival to the team in 2012. Ichiro came to him with a serious matter to discuss: Someone had been in his locker. The clubhouse guy was worried something had gone missing, like jewelry or a watch, and he rushed to check.

Ichiro pointed at his bat.

Then he pointed at a spot maybe 8 inches away.

His bat had moved.

The clubhouse manager sighed in relief and told Ichiro that he’d accidentally bumped the bat while putting a clean uniform or spikes or something back into Ichiro’s locker, which is one of the main roles of clubhouse attendants.

“That can’t happen,” Ichiro said, smiling but serious.

From that day forward, the Yankees staff didn’t replace anything in his locker like they did for every other player on the team. They waited until he arrived and handed him whatever he needed for the day.

I will be sad when Ichiro retires, and I was very happy to hear the news that he had signed with the Mariners this week. I died laughing at this tweet, which shows Ichiro arriving in Seattle for the first time back in 2001, and again this week in 2018.

It shows not only the vagaries of fashion over the last nearly 20 years, but it also shows a young man, grown into an old man, and all that entails. I hope, whenever he retires, Ichiro doesn’t “just die” as he suggested. But for now, as Wright Thompson says, Ichiro is like the rest of us: “out there, hungry for a chance to keep his routines in motion.”

1-2-3 Sports! Exclusive: An Interview With Gregg Popovich

This week, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. “Pop”, as he’s known, has been the Spurs coach for 23 seasons, leading them to 5 NBA titles. He is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. Pop is also increasingly outspoken on social issues, including having been especially outspoken about President Trump, including calling Trump a “soulless coward” last year. 1-2-3 Sports! had the opportunity to speak with Coach Popovich in San Francisco this week. The conversation is reproduced here, in full:

TOB: Hey, Coach.

Popovich: Hey.

Unfortunately, Popovich is a busy guy. But we hope to find more time with Popovich soon. -TOB

PAL: Dammit, TOB; you have to ask Pop about wine. Make up some brand and ask him about the odd years, e.g., How about DeLillo’s 2011 cab, Underworld, from Paso Robles, eh?

See that? I literally looked at the bookshelf and made up a wine.

I need you thinking, TOB. I’m not roaming the streets of downtown San Francisco anymore. I need you at the top of your game, dude.

TOB: Hey, I’ve seen what he does to people who ask stupid questions:

I played it safe. Wisely.

How Are Jon Lester’s Yips Not A Bigger Deal?

No big analysis of a story here. I just want to pause to ask how the eff this isn’t a bigger deal? Jon Lester is top of the rotation pitcher for the Cubs, which is a serious contender again this year. Jon Lester can’t throw to first base. He can’t do a pick-off throw, and he has a hard time flipping it to first on the come-backer ground balls. He hasn’t been able to for years!

It would be one thing if Lester was a bust in the midst of a breakdown. He is not. As recently as 2016 he was 19-5. He’s been a serious factor for 3 World Series champions.

So we have a pitcher, which is the one dude in the game of baseball who pretty much always has the ball, who can’t throw 40 feet in one direction while making $27.5MM in 2018 (including a signing bonus). It’s become so bad that he’s now intentionally throwing the ball into the ground:

What.The. Shit? How isn’t this a bigger story? – PAL

Source: Jon Lester Is Doing This On Purpose Now”, Tom Ley, Deadspin (03/05/2018)

Breaking: Sports Media Narrative May Have Been Wrong

Shortly after entering the league, a narrative began to form around San Antonio Spurs’ superstar Kawhi Leonard. The narrative centered around the fact Leonard doesn’t speak very much. Many joked that Leonard was a basketball robot; quiet, hard working, tough, talented: the Perfect Spur. But this season has been a peculiar one for Leonard. He’s been dealing with a quadriceps injury that has caused him to miss all but 9 games. More curious, the team has cleared him to play, but he won’t. There have been rumblings this season that Leonard has grown disgruntled with the Spurs, feeling perhaps they are trying to rush him back from his injury, especially concerning for Kawhi because he’s just over a year away from free agency, where he will make a lot of money, but less so if not healthy.

More recently, things came to a bit of a head. ESPN’s Jalen Rose reported that Leonard, the Perfect Spur, wants out of San Antonio. Then this week there were reports that Leonard turned down an extension offer from Jordan Brand, reportedly worth more than $20 million over 4 years. Suddenly, things doesn’t look so functional in San Antonio, where things have been functional since at least the late-80s, when they drafted David Robinson.

This was all enough to prompt the Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor to wonder if the Spurs’ dynasty is finally over. We thought they were done when the #8 seed Grizzlies knocked them out of the first round in 6 games waaaaaaaay back in 2011. Nope. We thought they were done when they (kinda) collapsed in the Finals against the Heat in 2013. Nope. They won the title next year. We thought they were done when Duncan retired before last season. Nope, they were the #2 seed last year and made it all the way to the conference finals. But this feels different, and if Kawhi really does want out, there’s just no way they can rise from the dead of that one.

But this finally brings to my point. Kawhi’s unhappiness has many in sports media kinda shocked because he’s not the basketball robot they had made him out to be. He’s a real human, with real emotions, and just because he doesn’t talk to them, it doesn’t mean he’s an emotionless machine who cares about nothing but winning basketball games. Rightly, the man wants to get paid, so he shouldn’t rush back before he’s ready, and he should get as much money out of shoe companies that he can. And no one should be surprised about that. -TOB

Source: No, Seriously This Time: Is This the End of the Spurs’ Dynasty?”, Kevin O’Connor, The Ringer (03/08/2018)

PAL: Who will be Leonard’s main employer? Who will pay him more: a shoe company or a NBA franchise? As good as Leonard is, he is not a part of pop culture like LeBron, Durant, Harden, and Curry are, so I think his primary employer will be an NBA franchise, i.e., he’s not getting more than 20MM a year from a shoe company.

Also, this might be a point in time where speaking up might help. If the notoriously quiet all-NBA player still feels he’s injured while the Spurs have cleared him to play, then he should speak up. If he doesn’t, then he risks being seen as a wimp to whom the Spurs are currently paying $18.8MM per year so he can personal concerns ahead of the team.

Of course he wants to get paid what he’s worth, but this is not a Tim Lincecum situation when he was winning back-to-back Cy Young awards while making 400K and 600K in those years. Leonard is undervalued, but not to an alarming degree…especially if he’s missed all but 9 games this year with an injury he’s had in the past.

Is he pissed because he feels the team is rushing him back, or is he pissed because LeBron is making almost twice as much as him? If it’s the latter, then moving forward he should follow LeBron’s lead and sign short-term deals and bet on himself while maintaining flexibility.

Video of the Week

That was a shot, right?

PAL Song of the Week: Night Ranger – “Sister Christian” (no fireworks)

Like what you’ve read? Let us know by following this blog (on the right side, up near the top), or:

Email: 123sportslist@gmail.com

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I took her to the hospital and the doctors tried to save her life. They did the best that they could. And she is going to be okay.

-M. Scott


2 thoughts on “1-2-3 Sports! Week of March 9, 2018

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