July 16, 2009
Acknowledging baseball's past and respecting its tradition ought to be part of any fan's enjoyment of the game.
We sometimes wonder aloud — because of the money and other perceptions — if the players agree, or even understand this.
Ichiro, bringing his wife and some friends, put flowers on the grave of Sisler, a contemporary of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb who died in 1973 — the same year Ichiro was born.
Partly, Ichiro was returning a courtesy given to him by Sisler's family (including Francis Sisler Drochelman, a daughter, also pictured above) who attended Ichiro's record-breaking game at Safeco Field.
In a wonderful blog post by Larry Stone of the Seattle Times, Ichiro explained through translator Ken Barron the reasons for his visit:
"There's not many chances to come to St. Louis,'' Ichiro said. "In 2004, it was the first time I crossed paths with him, and his family generously came all the way to Seattle. Above all, it was a chance ... I wanted to do that for a grand upperclassman of the baseball world. I think it's only natural for someone to want to do that, to express my feelings in that way. I'm not sure if he's happy about it."
What a marvelous gesture from one of today's great players. With all of the demands on his time for All-Star festivities, Ichiro — along with family and friends — made sure to make time for a man whose decades-old record he toppled five years ago.
"Gorgeous George" Sisler joined the Hall in 1939, the same year as Lou Gehrig, and at one time was considered by some to be one of baseball's three best players — after Ruth and Cobb.
Time and further analysis of his career changed how Sisler has been remembered, almost to the point of obscurity. In the '90s, Bill James actually wrote Sisler might be the most overrated player in history, a point ironically challenged throughout Rick Huhn's book: "The Sizzler: George Sisler, Baseball's Forgotten Great."
(Also, does anyone in the Midwest even remember Sizzler steakhouses? Never as good as Ponderosa, Bill James might say.)
Sisler didn't hit a lot of home runs (102) like Ruth, he wasn't ridiculously bountiful with hits like Cobb (2,812). Not that sexy. He also played for teams that don't exist in their original cities anymore — and thus aren't as willing to honor that part of their past.
Most of his career was spent with the St. Louis Browns (no relation to me), who never won with Sisler and usually finished in the back of the American League standings (though never last).
Statistically, Sisler's career is similar to that of Tony Gwynn(notes), or even Ichiro. High batting average (.340), lots of stolen bases (375) and not as many walks as you'd like. He had a great reputation on defense, though his error totals at first base seem high. And he had really bad eyesight (which might explain his strike-zone judgment issues).
Some of his relatives naturally wanted Ichiro to fall short of the record in '04 but, like the Maris family in 1998, probably have appreciated the newfound attention given to old Sis'. All thanks to Ichiro.
Remembrance is a powerful thing.
Update: Here's a link to another post by Stone that addresses perceptions of Ichrio within the M's clubhouse.