Ishikawa's life changed since walk-off, but he hasn't
By Chris Haft
SAN JOSE -- Scant hours after hitting one of the most monumental home runs in Giants history, Travis Ishikawa noticed how life had changed.
Seeking a well-deserved late-night snack after his walk-off, three-run drive off St. Louis' Michael Wacha had lifted the Giants to a 6-3 victory in the Game 5 National League Championship Series clincher on Oct. 16, Ishikawa and his wife, Rochelle, pulled into a burger joint. Though the Ishikawas opted to enter the restaurant, a patron in the drive-through lane peered beyond the window and noticed the Giants hero standing in line. Suddenly wanting more than just a double cheeseburger, the driver pulled over as soon as he received his order and rushed into the dining area to have his picture taken with Ishikawa.
That was just the first example of the attention Ishikawa's game-winner has brought him. Fans occasionally noticed the first baseman/left fielder out of uniform during his initial stint with the Giants (2006, '08-10). Now, he's receiving recognition that a potential '16 presidential candidate would envy.
"It's a night-and-day difference," he said recently, minutes before a stranger politely interrupted this interview to introduce himself. "I can count on one hand the number of times I've been able to go out and not be recognized. It's really cool. Sometimes it can be tough if you're doing stuff with your family, but it's a good problem to have. These fans show their appreciation."
Ishikawa, 31, has remained in high demand since helping the Giants win their third World Series in five years. He attended the San Francisco premiere of the Series highlight video, appeared at a couple of holiday parties for youths and dropped a ceremonial puck at a San Jose Sharks game. Though the exposure hasn't been too overwhelming, he has been forced to adjust.
"I've always been low-key, under-the-limelight," Ishikawa said. "That home run has changed my life in that aspect."
Though the public regards Ishikawa differently, the man himself remains unaltered by fame -- including, specifically, the Hall of Fame. The folks who stage exhibits at the Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., asked Ishikawa for the shoes he wore while homering. They would be placed on a special postseason display. Ishikawa donated other items but kept the shoes, which he had promised to send to Eli Graham, the 14-year-old son of his best friend, Danny. Sure enough, about two weeks ago, Eli received a package containing Ishikawa's famous footwear. A promise is a promise.
"I just can't say enough about his character," Danny Graham said.
Ishikawa knows all too well that his demanding profession can crush an individual's spirit, because it nearly buried his. Cast aside by five organizations from 2011-14, he spent most of that period in the Minors, frequently separated from his family and searching for hope.
By now, many fans have heard or read about a dejected Ishikawa telephoning his wife and Graham from Round Rock, Texas, after a game with the Giants' Triple-A Fresno affiliate in late June of this year. Ishikawa was batting .260 and saw no improvement in sight. "If they put the ball on a tee, I'd swing and miss," he said.
He shared his fears about his baseball future to Rochelle. Having been drafted by the Giants out of high school, Ishikawa had no immediate career options outside of baseball. He consulted his Bible for comfort. But, as he said, "My mind was so cluttered, I might as well have been reading Chinese or Spanish."
Pacing through the hotel parking lot, Ishikawa then called Graham, his pitching coach at Federal Way (Wash.) High School who had evolved into a confidant and was the best man at his wedding. Ishikawa wept into the phone while swatting at Texas-sized beetles and poured out his heart for an hour and a half. In return, Graham offered encouragement and cited Romans 8:35 ("Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?").
"He felt like he let everybody down," Graham said. "The one thing I wanted to convey to him was, 'Travis, no matter what happens, I'm going to love you. I don't love you for what you do. I love you for who you are. Worst-case scenario, if you never play baseball again, we're still going to be best friends. That being said, you're a persevering guy.'"
Soothed by Graham's support, Ishikawa again telephoned Rochelle to share reassurance. Previously given to questioning the hardship he endured, Ishikawa currently regards it as part of the journey he had to travel before reaching the pinnacle of his baseball career.
"Even though it feels like God's not there or he doesn't know what he's doing, he really does," Ishikawa said. "I have to believe that he was just sitting there laughing at me -- 'If you only knew what's about to come.'"
Needing depth at first base about a month later, as Brandon Belt struggled with a concussion, the Giants purchased Ishikawa's contract from Fresno, after he hit .400 (12-for-30) with three homers, three doubles and 14 RBIs in his final eight appearances with the Grizzlies.
Months after fearing that baseball was a dead-end career for him, Ishikawa's path around the bases against the Cardinals seemed to have been paved by a yellow brick road. He has agreed to a $1.1 million contract for 2015. The versatility he displayed by playing left field during the postseason earned him so much respect from the Giants' hierarchy that manager Bruce Bochy joked during the Winter Meetings about Ishikawa playing center field.
Ask Ishikawa about the pennant-winning homer, and he's likely to credit everybody but himself. He will, however, thank Rochelle, their three children and Graham for their love and support, the Giants organization for having faith in him, shortstop Brandon Crawford for making a run-saving play in the ninth inning of that game, Madison Bumgarner for yielding just one run after Ishikawa misjudged Jon Jay's third-inning line drive that fell for a double and Pablo Sandoval and Belt for reaching base before he went deep.
Ishikawa related that when he watched a televised replay of his homer, he playfully chided himself for not delivering a more demonstrative reaction, such as Michael Morse's fist-brandishing gesture after his eighth-inning homer. Ishikawa wasn't sure that his hit would clear the barrier, so he refrained from an all-out display of triumph.
Rochelle found no fault with what happened. "She's like, 'I wouldn't have changed a thing,' " Ishikawa said.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Haft-Baked Ideas, and follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.