How To Choose A Favorite Baseball Player
How do you choose a favorite player in a given sport?
Odds are it’s someone who plays for your favorite team. Sometimes it’s simply the best player. Other times it’s the guy who finds a way to get the most out of his talents. Other times it’s a rookie you’ve followed since the day he was drafted, investing your hopes in him and watching him develop into a big leaguer.
In baseball, it’s a tougher dilemma for me. Since I don’t have a favorite team, that immediately makes the situation much more challenging.
When you have no strong local loyalties, someone who, say, wins a fantasy league for you can become a leading contender.
You might also choose the guy whose impact transcends the field of play, with wildly different talents and interests than his peers.
There’s the guy who plays for a team you might not even like all that much, someone whose greatness is underappreciated and deserves accolades just for being really good for a really long time.
You might root for the guy who loves the game, but isn’t defined by it, someone willing to step away entirely for a year, try something else, then come back and share great stories about it.
Or it could simply be the guy who plies his craft better than everyone else, but with a certain flair to match.
All fine choices, all players who have jockeyed for top spot on my own list.
But there’s one player who transcends all others for me.
He’s the most quotable player in all of sports, his esoteric quips and parables both confusing and delighting those in earshot.
He’s great, sure, but in a way that vexes and perplexes many people who follow the game for a living, unable to figure out what to do with this player’s unique abilities and more than eager to call him overrated.
There’s a bit of a pushback, contrarian element to rooting for him too, rallying behind a guy who gets whispered about by snippy (and jealous?) ex-teammates and old-school writers who demand uniformity and fake enthusiasm from players, and can’t/won’t accept someone who adheres to his own, unique routine.
And what a routine it is. So committed is this player to perfecting his game that he goes to the ballpark every day, 4 hours a day, even on days off to work through an elaborate stretching routine, the kind of work that rivals Jerry Rice or any other athlete for the most obsessive regimen our generation has ever known.
In the end it’s all these things – and also the little things. Like coming up to bat in the 9th inning of a game, down 1, facing the greatest, most unhittable closer of all-time. One night after winning the game in his last at-bat, he does it again, not even bothering to work the count, but instead jumping on the first pitch and sending it into the heavens, even though he’s never been known for power hitting. The hit causes delirium everywhere in the stadium, in the stands, among his teammates, all in a season that has for all intents and purposes been over for weeks, with just a few stats left to compile and a few prospects to evaluate.
And even in all that pandemonium, the player rounds the bases calmly and methodically after launching the ball into the seats. Head down at first, jogging around third, then finally looking up at his teammates…and doing something we’ve never seen before. No wanton tossing of the batting helmet, no huge Bobby Thomson-style leap into the scrum, no Big Papi-esque exultation. No, the player looks quizzically at his ecstatic teammates…and does a little hop. Sort of an Ickey Shuffle, with 90% less enthusiasm and 200% more je ne sais quoi.
And only after his little hop, and then another hop, does he hit home plate and get buried beneath a mass of humanity. He has a huge grin on his face as he escapes the pile, but it’s not your standard, “WOO!!!” celebration you see when you win a game with one swing against a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
It’s a rare combination of joy, personal satisfaction, and a kind of bemused expression, as if to say: “Hmmm, that is very curious. Chicks who dig the long ball may not be interesting, infield hits may be the purest form of baseball success, but I believe I just pwned Mariano Rivera.”
It was pure, unadulterated Ichiro. And that’s why he’s my favorite player.
UPDATE: The video of Ichiro’s game-winning single from the night before, in which he sprinted way out into the outfield, away from his teammates, may be even better. He’s the best.
UPDATE 2: MLB removed the video of Ichiro homering against Rivera from YouTube (and thus made it a blank on this site), because wouldn’t it be awful if people could enjoy MLB content anywhere outside approved sites? This came back to bite them when the video of Phillies Dad, the guy who caught a foul ball at a Phillies game, handed it to his 3-year-old daughter, watched her throw it away into the level below, then sweetly hugged her to assure her she’d done nothing wrong, was removed from thousands of non-MLB.com sites around the Web, just as the vid was getting ready to go viral (and provide great publicity for baseball as a family game, etc.). I understand copyright laws, but being smart in their application is something all sports leagues should strive to do.