Once in a while, every decade or so, a man with a bat gets a chance to write his own epitaph.
No matter what else Travis Ishikawa has accomplished at the age of 31, no matter what awaits him beyond baseball, the Federal Way High School graduate forever will be linked to the home run that won a pennant for the San Francisco Giants.
Ishikawa’s three-run shot Thursday night made him the newest member of a fraternity synonymous with bench-clearing celebrations. The names of the incumbents need no introduction. We know who you are, Bobby Thomson, Bill Mazeroski, Carlton Fisk and Bucky Dent. We saw what you did, Ozzie Smith, Kirk Gibson and Aaron Boone.
Although the events preceding the series-clinching blast Thursday seemed scripted to the point it was almost inevitable — with two on and nobody out in the bottom of the ninth, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny chose to stay with right-handed pitcher Michael Wacha, a rusty starter thrust into an unfamiliar role as a reliever — Ishikawa ranks as the most improbable of postseason legends.
A journeyman whose 923-game career in the minor leagues is more than twice as long as his 444-game career in the majors, Ishikawa appeared destined to play out the season with the Fresno Grizzlies of the Pacific Coast League. The father of three, weary of bouncing from one organization to another, was considering retirement when the baseball fates intervened in late July.
San Francisco first baseman Brandon Belt was out with a freak injury — the freakiest: a concussion suffered during a batting practice — and Ishikawa filled in. When Belt got clearance to return, the Giants had a vacancy in left field due to Angel Pagan’s season-ending back problems and former Mariner Mike Morse’s strained oblique muscle.
After brief stints with the Brewers, Orioles, Yankees, White Sox and Pirates, Ishikawa finally found himself in the right place, at the right time, in San Francisco, his original big-league home.
Even then, some kismet was required to set up Ishikawa’s historic plate appearance against the Cardinals. If Matheny makes a call to his bullpen for lefty specialist Randy Choate, it’s certain Giants manager Bruce Bochy responds by using Juan Perez as a pinch-hitter for the left-handed Ishikawa.
But Matheny’s bullpen was a beleaguered mess, and he stuck with Wacha, who promptly ran the count to 2-0. Wacha shook off the catcher’s first sign, perhaps as a ploy to make Ishikawa expect something other than a fastball.
Ishikawa wasn’t fooled. He sat on the fastball, he got the fastball, and he hit the fastball.
Watching from home, Eric Fiedler, coach of Ishikawa’s 2001 4A state championship high school team , had something of a premonition. He punched the record button on his big-screen TV.
“Three pitches later, I’m screaming as loud as I can with my wife and daughter,” Fiedler said Friday. “There were hugs, and there were tears. It couldn’t have happened to a better kid.”
Fiedler, who has served as the baseball coach at Enumclaw since 2009, was in charge of a middle school team when he met Ishikawa.
“He was skinny, with huge glasses,” Fiedler recalled. “Travis was a good player, but not the best we had. He was probably third, fourth or fifth best. At Federal Way, he was a pitcher who led our JV team in strikeouts. But he could hit, so we made him a first baseman.
“His sophomore season we’re playing Puyullup, and his first two times up, he strikes out on six pitches. I didn’t want to humiliate him like that, and with runners on first an second and one out, I thought about putting on a bunt sign for him. Then I figured, let’s give the kid another chance. He hit the ball over the fence. That’s Travis: Nothing fazed him. He was always very mature.”
An advanced-placement student with a 4.0 grade-point average, Ishikawa was prepared to accept a scholarship from Oregon State before the 2002 draft. Pro scouts, meanwhile, were intrigued by a batter whose swing drew comparisons to John Olerud, the former Interlake High and Washington State star who went on to enjoy a stellar career with the Blue Jays, Mets and Mariners.
“My advice to Travis was, ‘Talk to your parents and come up with the precise dollar amount that would persuade you to sign with a team instead of going to college,’” Fiedler said. “He got back to me with a figure: $1 million.
“I told a scout from the Orioles that and he laughed it off. He said, ‘Travis Ishikawa will never get $1 million from anybody.’”
Ishikawa, once projected as no lower than a third-round pick, fell to San Francisco in the 21st round.
“Travis was playing for my summer-league team,” Fiedler said. “We went to Reno for a tournament and he hit three homers. The assistant general manager from the Giants was there, and he signed him on the spot. For $1 million.”
Before Thursday night, Ishikawa’s career highlight was winning a World Series ring with the 2010 Giants. He’s never appeared in more than 120 games in a season, never hit as many as 10 home runs, never produced as many as 40 RBI.
Before Thursday night, Ishikawa was seen as a serviceable utility player whose most conspicuous attribute was pro’s pro attitude.
“And then he hits a home run that will never be forgotten,” Fiedler said. “That’s the beautiful thing about baseball. Here’s a kid who waited forever, who never quit, and he finally gets a minute in the sun.”
A minute? Travis Ishikawa’s place in the sun is secured between two timetables.
Always and forever.