Simile Saturday: 2001 Edition

All season long, daily on Twitter and with weekly recaps on The Platoon Advantage (and in honesty, it hasn’t been daily or weekly lately, for the same agglomeration of personal reasons that’s kept me from writing here a couple times in the past few weeks, but I do intend to keep it up through the season), I’ve been looking back at what was happening at this time in the 2001 baseball season. It’s a nice clean full decade ago; it was a fantastically interesting season for all sorts of different reasons, originating both within the game and without; and it was a particularly meaningful summer for me, with a pretty large handful of big personal milestones that fell between April and October of that year. So it just made sense to kind of track the events of that summer as they would’ve happened.

So for this week’s Simile Saturday, we’re going back to the nearest Saturday to ten years ago from today: Saturday, June 9, 2001. It’s, like, time travel or something! Here we go:

Ichiro Suzuki is like The Beatles.

This would work a bit better if some huge percentage of The Beatles’ rabid American fanbase had actually been transplanted English citizens, and if the mob following the band had all been UK media, but still. Even though he’s still a huge star today, and even though every new Japanese import still creates a similar (albeit smaller-scale) Japanese-media-infusion phenomenon, it’s easy to forget now just what a sensation Ichiro! created when he debuted stateside in 2001. Ichiro was a national hero in Japan, akin to peak Michael Jordan in the states or David Beckham in the UK, and an enormous mob of almost-entirely-Japanese reporters and photographers followed his every move, eyes glued to him like a crowd watching a terribly tense tennis match (bonus simile!). He quickly captured the attention and imagination of the American baseball fan as well, with his highly unusual left-handed swing that gave the appearance of being jerky and off-balance while actually being incredibly balanced and fluid, as well as with his blazing speed, cannon arm, apparent ability to turn any pitch into a single, and funny (translated) quotes.

And of course it helped that his performance was well beyond what anyone could have expected of him. At the end of the day on June 9, Ichiro was hitting .356/.385/.473, with 20 steals in 25 attempts and 56 runs scored in just 60 games. In what had become very much a three-true-outcomes game (walks, strikeouts and homers), Ichiro — who had walked just 10 times against just 15 strikeouts, with only two homers — was playing a refreshingly very different kind of game, and playing it brilliantly.

The June 9 game (in which Ichiro went 1-for-5) was a 6-3 Mariner loss to the Padres, snapping a team-record 15-game winning streak. The loss dropped the team to 47-13 (.783), a 127-win pace, 17 games ahead of the second-place 30-30 Angels (an entire second article could be written on the performance of the 29-31 Athletics from this date forward, so I’ll leave that alone). It’s crazy to claim, as many fans did, that losing Alex Rodriguez somehow helped the Mariners, but I don’t think it’s crazy to claim they were better off with Ichiro than they would’ve been with A-Rod, so if you don’t think they could’ve afforded both…

The Twins are like the 2011 Indians.

For the first couple months of 2001, the Twins, who most experts picked to finish toward the bottom of the division (like always, since about 1993), shocked the world. They won 9 of their first 11 and 14 of their first 17, and more or less kept pace with the Mariners all the way through May. (It was the best possible time to be a Twins fan living in the Seattle area.) With emerging stars like Cristian Guzman, Corey Koskie and Torii Hunter (and this was the year young Torii would rob Barry Bonds of a HR in the All-Star Game), the Twins were giving the perennial favorite Cleveland all they could handle. As of June 9, Minnesota was 39-21 (.650) a 105-win pace, half a game back of the Indians and five games up on the Yankees in the Wild Card race. The galvanizing Guzman was batting .297/.340/.487, having just hit his ninth triple in today’s interleague win over the Pirates. Matt Lawton was putting up an OPS near .900. Joe Mays won his 8th game on this date, with a 2.87 ERA.

They kept it up for another month, too, peaking at 5 games up on Cleveland in mid-July. But it was all too much, too fast. Lawton was dealt in a bewildering deadline deal for Rick Reed; Guzman got hurt; the Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar and rejuvenated Juan Gonzalez-led Indians just proved too much. The Twins’ time would come, and come soon, as the young core of Hunter, Jones, Koskie and Pierzynski improved and was eventually supplemented (or replaced) by the likes of Santana, Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, and so on…but not this year.

Sound familiar? Cleveland was picked fourth or fifth in the Central heading into 2011, then was probably the best team in baseball through May this year; only now is the team’s youth and lack of depth starting to catch up with them. And with guys like Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall and Drew Pomeranz in the wings, even better days are ahead. The difference, of course, is that there was no equivalent of the 2011 Kansas City Royals in the 2001 AL Central, and with the stable of prospects that team has, the 2012-2020 Royals probably figure to be a closer comp to the 2002-2010 Twins than the 2012-2020 Indians do.

Luis Gonzalez is like Susan Boyle.

You know Boyle, right? A plain-looking nobody at age 48 who would occasionally perform with her shockingly beautiful voice at local venues, she got her big break on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009 and just shocked everyone, and has now put out two successful albums and tours the world and all that.

Through 1997, Luis Gonzalez’s age 29 season, he had been a useful role player, hitting .268/.342/.425 (108 OPS+) as a third or fourth outfielder with an average of 15 homers per 162 games. He took a bit of a late leap forward from 1998-2000, hitting .306/.380/.524 (126 OPS+) and 28 homers per 162. He made the All-Star team in ’99, but by the offensive standards of the time, those still aren’t star-type numbers for a corner outfielder.

And then, of course, 2001. Gonzalez had hit 20 homers (for just the fourth time in his 11-year career) by his 40th game on May 17, setting a record for fewest game to 20 HR that was broken a few days later by Bonds. With a 2-for-4 performance on June 9 that followed a three-homer game on June 8, he was now hitting .339/.427/.716 with 25 homers, 54 runs and 51 RBI in just 62 games. Overnight, he’d gone from a nice little player to the kind of superstar who (the following spring) causes people bid upwards of $10,000 for a piece of used gum. (And, yep, that’s it. You’re looking in the wrong place for speculative nonsense, and I don’t buy that PEDs = overnight superstardom anyway.)

Johnson and Schilling are like Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

With Pedro Martinez on the shelf for much of 2001, it’s an incredibly dull time for starting pitchers in the American League. Roger Clemens goes on to win the Cy Young Award with a totally uninspiring 3.51 ERA (but a pretty 20-3 record), and the deserving winners are probably the even more boring Joe Mays (17-13, 3.16 for the Twins) or Freddy Garcia (18-6, 3.05 for the M’s). Things are a little better as of June 9 in the NL, with Kevin Brown off to a great start and Mike Hampton, having signed a huge contract with the Rockies in the offseason, off to a 8-2, 2.86 start with his new team (great signing!). But the former gets hurt and the latter gets terrible, and even Greg Maddux (while his usual excellent self, era-adjusted) can’t keep his ERA below 3.00. Starting pitching excellence pretty much becomes a two-man show, and the two men both play for the same team.

Randy Johnson, as of June 9, is 7-4 with a 2.83 ERA and an incredible 148 strikeouts in 98.2 innings. On May 8, he struck out a record-tying 20 batters in 9 innings against zero walks (3 H, 1 ER), but received a no-decision as the Diamondbacks went on to win it in 11. He finishes 21-6 with a 2.49 ERA in just one out shy of 250 innings, leading the league in ERA, ERA+, and strikeouts (with 372) and winning the Cy Young Award.

Curt Schilling has outdone the Unit as of June 9, at 10-1 with a 2.60 ERA (though “only” 108 Ks in 100 innings) and completing four of his 13 starts, including a thrilling second game of the season on April 10, winning 2-0 over Brown’s Dodgers; they throw matching complete games, combining to allow just 5 hits and one earned run while walking 0 and striking out 18. Johnson surpasses Schilling by the end, of course, but Shilling leads the league in most categories the Unit does not, including wins (22), innings (256.2), and complete games (6), while in most other categories, like ERA (2.98), ERA+ (157), and strikeouts (293), he comes in second.

In my mind, there are basically two names worth remembering in early-1990s music, and both came out of the Seattle grunge scene: Nirvana and Pearl Jam. There are a few little flashes in the pan that were solid, but as far as popular bands with staying power, those two were essentially it. So there, like with Schilling and Johnson in 2001, you’ve got two behemoths among a sea of nobodies, and they’re both emanating from the same place. Pretty proud of that comp, actually.

Oh, and because I know you’re looking for him, Barry Bonds is like Superman or something. After June 9 (0-for-3 with 2 BB), he’s .309/.480/.901, with 32 HR in 57 games, 60 RBI, and 57 walks. But you know all about that.