BY Art Thiel 04:42PM 04/07/2018

Thiel: Ichiro, Woods keep up the endless fight

Ichiro, 44, had two hits on the same day Tiger Woods, 42, had a 72 in the third round at the Masters. Those who rage against the dying of the light had themselves a day.

Ichiro was welcomed back at the opener, but for how long? / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

At the Safeco Field workout preceding the Mariners season opener, I asked Ichiro how much harder the game is at 44 than it was years ago. He offered a classic Ichiro deflection that was true, but also averted answering question truthfully.

“It was difficult when I started, and difficult today,” he said. “It’s never been easy, never will be easy.”

I thought about that answer this week watching Tiger Woods, at 42, do at the Masters what Ichiro, at 44, is doing with the Mariners — at the pinnacle of sports, fighting back hard against the predation of time on mind and body.

At any age, both games are exceedingly difficult to do well,  given the requirements for precision and the intensity of the elite competition. Although few of us can know from personal experience the degree of difficulty at the top, exactly everyone over 35 can identify with the changes in reflexes, eye-hand coordination and strength that come with the passing of seasons.

Beyond whatever personal affection fans have for each athlete, Woods and Ichiro are now much more intense objects of fascination because they brazenly seek to regain what all of us in some form will lose, and they don’t care about the skepticism of others.

Woods is amid a remarkable personal renaissance this weekend at Augusta National. His par 72 Saturday left him at four-over 220 through three rounds. He was never a serious threat to the leaders, but he made the cut Friday in the world’s toughest tourney field.

It wasn’t up to his previous Masters standards, but it was a spectacular climb from 10 months ago.

On May 29, West Palm Beach police charged Woods with a DUI after they found him asleep behind the wheel of his car in the middle of the road. The toxicology report showed five drugs, including two opioids, he used to manage pain and sleep problems following four back surgeries and numerous other injuries. The arrest video looked so pitiful that many assumed his career was unrecoverable.

But Woods underwent treatment to manage the meds, his back healed and he began playing well enough in several 2018 tour events to get his fan base dewy-eyed about Augusta.

“Six months ago, I didn’t know if I’d be playing golf,” he said Friday after he made the cut. “Forget playing at the (PGA) tour level, I didn’t know if I’d ever play again. But it’s incredible to have the opportunity again, to still come out here and play this golf course. Now I know I’m on the weekend.”

The tourney Sunday won’t have the Hollywood ending nearly all of the golf industry and CBS wanted. But Woods’ recovery into competitive legitimacy was a bonus unimagined 10 months ago. Whether it’s purely his golf, or his health or his love life, Woods remains perhaps sports’ most compelling figure.

The rally against age is more awkward for an athlete in a team sport. Unlike a golfer who is an independent contractor, the hire of an aging baseball player often denies playing time to a younger player.

Ichiro Saturday had two singles and scored a run in Seattle’s 11-4 win over the Twins in the coldest game (27 degrees) in Target Field history. He’s hitting .263 (5 for 19). But in the sixth inning, he miscalculated on two drives over his head. Both became doubles to produce the Twins’ first of three runs and helped chase starter Mike Leake.

Although not errors, the misplays weren’t the first field-judgment questions since his surprise re-hire March 7. His defensive vulnerabilities loom larger than his offense.

Since his March 2 oblique strain, starting LF Ben Gamel finally has returned to play in minor-league rehab games. Manager Scott Servais told reporters before the game Saturday that he thinks Gamel, as well as DH Nelson Cruz and C Mike Zunino, could rejoin the club for the start of a seven-game homestand Friday.

Gamel’s absence prompted the Mariners to answer the persistent calls from Ichiro’s agent. The rationale was that since Gamel’s injury was short-term, and the Mariners had no outfielders on the farm worthy of a call-up, hiring Ichiro would be an inexpensive patch. Plus, there was sentiment. Always, there is sentiment.

But there is also an end to sentiment.

A healthy Gamel likely means there’s no room on the roster for Ichiro. Thus comes the team-sports downside. Given Ichiro’s compulsive devotion to the routine of baseball and his unshakeable belief in himself, it seems unlikely that he would retire.

So he would have to be cut without ceremony. The potential for such an awkward denouement is largely why Ken Griffey Jr. rolled on into the night in the spring of 2010, driving away from Safeco Field without warning, once he realized his play couldn’t justify a roster spot.

That is the consequence of not going out on top. A thunderous resolved chord is never promised when a sports hero wraps it up. The pending absence of the ta-dah moment merely adds to the fascination.

Then again, we all should be Fred Couples. At 58, the Seattle golf legend finished the third round Saturday at Augusta at 219, one stroke ahead of Woods. 

Ichiro is right. It is never easy. But somehow, one guy keeps offering the counterpoint.


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YourThoughts

  • Xm’sfan

    After today’s disaster in left field there can be no doubt that Ichiro needs to be let go when Gamel is healthy.

    • art thiel

      That was not pretty.

  • ljstonebraker

    When the Sonics return, we want to see you at power forward.

    • art thiel

      I’d prefer to see Danny Fortson.

  • Theyfinallyfiredcable

    Hurrah for old guys ! We need a backup quarterback – does anyone have Mudbone on speed dial ?

    • art thiel

      Rick Mirer is also available.

  • Kevin Lynch

    Hand and eye coordination can hang in there for a long time. I played my first age 65+ USTA league tennis match last week and was surprised how strong our opponents were. They must have hit 10 or more aces and that was not because we weren’t moving to the ball. You develop your strengths to cover liabilities. The problem with pro sports is the consistency it demands. On another level.

    • art thiel

      As you mentioned, it can “hang in there.” That is not remotely close to the pro athlete standard, but I get your point — compensation via strengths.

      My jump shot range is in single digits, but nobody stops my Sikma catapult from behind the head.

      • Kevin Lynch

        Ha-ha! Yes, I would not attempt to block that shot. Nor would you wish to face my backhand overhead in tennis. Pro sports is us times 50.

  • woofer

    The pending release will be delayed to allow the club to cash in on one last Ichiro Bobblehead Night. First things first.

    • art thiel

      You know, of course, that he’ll get hurt the night before.

  • Scott McBride

    “A thunderous resolved chord is never promised when a sports hero wraps it up.”

    Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, please call your office!

    (As you may know, Sir Arthur composed The Lost Chord in 1877.)

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Scott, for noticing and informing. Please do more.

    • Kevin Lynch

      Bravo, sir! No mention of Gilbert?