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May 11, 2011

The Asian Equation

The Idiosyncrasy of Ichiro

by Michael Street

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Last month, I traced the early history of Japanese-American player traffic, from the Pirates’ sly attempt to sign Eiji Sawamura in the 1930s to the loophole-leaping of players like Hideo Nomo and Alfonso Soriano in the 1990s. To close that voluntary-retirement loophole and to prevent trading players like Hideki Irabu without their permission, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and Major League Baseball (MLB) agreed on the current posting system in 1998. The system was designed to allow MLB teams to sign NPB stars without turning the NPB into another minor league, by forcing MLB teams to pay twice for NPB players, with about half of the total fee typically going to that player’s club.

During the leagues’ offseason, NPB teams can choose to post players who want to test the MLB waters. Once a player is posted, any MLB team has four days to submit a bid to the MLB commissioner for the right to negotiate with him. The highest bidding team then has thirty days to sign a contract. If they succeed, the team pays the posting fee to the player’s NPB club, but if they can’t come to an agreement, no fee is paid. The winning club thus pays for a player twice, with a portion going to the team as a non-negotiable sealed bid. This kind of blind bidding can easily lead to overpaying, benefitting the NPB club, but not the player.

This inequity, combined with the fact that the player has no control over which team he bargains with, would never be tolerated by the MLB players’ union. Japanese culture and businesses, however, value loyalty and community harmony over individual rights. This mindset led the NPB players’ union to promise it will never strike, so they accepted the posting system without a fuss.

Individual NPB players might chafe at the lopsided payouts, but they can appreciate how the management-friendly, above-board method avoids the accusations of selfishness or disloyalty that have accompanied players leaving their native Japan. Players can still depart via free agency (made marginally easier when the NPB reduced its free-agency requirements from ten years to nine in 1998), but the youngest and most talented players have generally come via the posting system.

The Hiroshima Toyo Carp posted the system’s first players in 1999, offering Alejandro Quezada and Timo Perez. NPB teams—like their MLB equivalents—don’t usually let talent go for free, but the Carp’s reasons for granting the players’ posting requests isn’t clear. Like Alfonso Soriano, Quezada and Perez came from the Carp’s Dominican Republic training academy and might have had similar difficulties adjusting to the exhausting Japanese training regimen. Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker suspects that the Carp felt its existing outfielders (Tomoaki Kanemoto, Koichi Ogata, and Tomonori Maeda) were good enough to allow Timo and Alejandro to walk.

Hiroshima also might have felt that the posting fee would outweigh any loss of talent, although Quezada had already fared well in NPB. After being named MVP of the 1998 Fresh All-Star Game (Japan’s Futures Game), he hit .311/.333/.475 in 34 games in NPB. Perez, on the other hand, had his best season in 1997, when he hit .245/.295/.367 in 86 games. This performance disparity no doubt led to the Reds’ $400,000 bid for Quezada, while no team bid for Perez.

Quezada signed a $1.6 million deal with Cincinnati, where he changed his last name to Diaz. Whatever he called himself, he never got above Double-A, spending four full seasons at that level and accumulating a meek .267/.300/.412 minor-league triple-slash line. Interestingly, Perez would make a bigger mark in America.

Hiroshima granted Timo Perez his release after the next season, which Patrick and I suspect was due to his .173/.269/.174 line that year. Perez signed with the Mets in 2000 and helped them in their stretch run towards the 2001 World Series, where he appeared in all five games, starting four of them. His .286/.333/.469 line in 54 plate appearances in 2000 helped him stick around long enough to hit .295/.324/.437 in 481 plate appearances for the 2003 Mets, one of those fluky seasons that would ensure him a longer MLB career. After four seasons with the Mets, Perez was traded to the White Sox, where he played two more years, winning a ring in 2005. He then made his way to St. Louis and Detroit before fading quietly away with a limp overall line of .269/.308/.382 (.246 TAv) and a 2.2 WARP, nearly all of it accrued during that anomalous 2003.

Fortunately, these early posting failures didn’t prevent the importation of the most successful position player ever to make the transpacific jump—Ichiro Suzuki. Although it seems strange now, given his success, Ichiro’s posting caused considerable skepticism among American analysts, who saw the Japanese game as easier, particularly for a player like Ichiro. NPB teams played a shorter season, with a smaller ball, in smaller parks with artificial turf, and against lesser talent.

Moreover, Ichiro represented the stereotype of the Japanese ballplayer: slight of frame (5-foot-9 and 159 pounds) and fundamentally sound, but a slap-hitter, not a slugger. His distinctive pre-swing stretches and unique, knock-kneed batting stance surely had to raise eyebrows among baseball purists, and Rob Dibble famously swore he’d run naked through Times Square if Ichiro ever won a batting title in MLB.

The perceived difference between leagues, however, obscured Ichiro’s substantial accomplishments in Japan. Ichiro exploded onto the scene in 1994, becoming the first NPB player to collect more than 200 hits in a season; his 210 hits were even more impressive in a 140-game season. He ended with a .385/.445/.549 triple-slash line, reaching base in a record 69 consecutive games and winning the first of seven straight hitting titles and the first of three MVPs. He led Orix to the Japan Series in 1995 and 1996, winning it once, and accumulated seven Gold Gloves and seven Best Nine awards (given to the best overall player at each position) and once went 216 consecutive at-bats without whiffing (also an NPB record). He finished his NPB career with a .353/.434/.522 line, 1,278 hits, 199 stolen bases, and 118 home runs in seven full seasons and 3,619 at-bats.

This amazing record didn’t blunt criticism of him, possibly because he would be the first position player to make the jump and thus would be expected to hit, field, run and throw, and not merely pitch. With the exception of power, Ichiro could do all of those at an exceptional level (he could even pitch, as he had in high school and in the NPB All-Star Game). Ichiro turned out to be a unique talent, a truly idiosyncratic player.

Ichiro’s uniqueness began with his debut, when he became the first player since Fred Lynn (and the second ever) to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP. He hit .350/.379/.457 (a .307 TAv) and put up a 6.6 WARP that was 18th best overall among hitters. He led right fielders in putouts (which he would do five more times) and led all of baseball on the bases with his 7.8 EQBRR. He led the league in stolen bases with 56, in hits for the first of seven times (those other three times, he finished second), and even took the batting crown—and, yes, Dibble made good on his promise.

In the years to come, Ichiro would add to those statistics, leading all of baseball in hits for the decade with 2,244, despite beginning a year later than all of his competition (Derek Jeter, in second, trails him by 125 hits). Ichiro’s .331 batting average over that decade ties him for first with none other than Albert Pujols (although Ichiro’s .376 OBP puts him in 27th).

Looking at this huge gap in rankings between batting average and on-base percentage, we begin to get some sense of Ichiro’s idiosyncratic makeup. Though he had a top-notch contact rate just shy of 90 percent, he had a skimpy 6.2 percent walk rate, which would normally peg his average around .279. But he beats that by more than 50 points, thanks to a .357 BABIP that is second only to Shin-Soo Choo in the 2000s. It’s a combined hitting profile that consistently befuddles PECOTA. How, exactly does he do this?

He is not the first to hit well despite impatience and high contact, but few have been as successful. Looking at players with similar strikeout and walk rates with at least 1000 plate appearances, here are the top 20 TAvs:

Player

PA

K%

BB%

TAv

Tony Oliva

6880

0.90

0.07

.301

Nomar Garciaparra

6116

0.90

0.07

.296

Ichiro Suzuki

7488

0.90

0.06

.291

Al Oliver

9778

0.92

0.05

.289

Manny Mota

4112

0.92

0.07

.285

Felipe Alou

7730

0.90

0.05

.285

Walker Cooper

1603

0.91

0.07

.285

Steve Garvey

9466

0.89

0.05

.284

Del Ennis

5016

0.90

0.08

.283

Lyman Bostock

2214

0.91

0.08

.283

Thurman Munson

5905

0.89

0.07

.281

Bake McBride

4202

0.88

0.06

.278

Carney Lansford

7905

0.90

0.07

.278

Gus Bell

6551

0.90

0.07

.277

Ralph Garr

5423

0.91

0.05

.275

Tommy Davis

7736

0.90

0.05

.275

Willie Davis

9808

0.89

0.04

.274

Joe Pepitone

5475

0.90

0.05

.274

Curt Flood

6957

0.90

0.06

.273

Randall Simon

1717

0.91

0.05

.273

 

It’s an interesting collection of talent, with five Rookies of the Year and eighteen All-Stars. But there’s no player with more homers than Del Ennis’ 288 and no Hall of Famers (yet). Clearly, this is not a power-hitter’s profile; many of these players were good base stealers, however, and this collection of skills works well for a speedster.

Speed explains some of Ichiro’s BABIP and batting-average anomalies: he has led his league in infield hits for much of his career, and holds a 13 percent infield hit percentage over the last decade, fourth best in baseball. But that is a bit of an illusion, since changing the denominator from all ground balls to just grounders fielded by infielders pushes him down to 20th. And infield hits only comprise about 20 percent of his total hits, ranking him 40th overall over the last ten years. Despite the stereotype, Ichiro is not just a slap-hitter who puts the ball on the ground and legs out his singles.

Some of his success may also be due to his ability to make contact outside the zone and place his hits well. Over at Baseball Analytics, David Pinto created some great Pitch f/x heat maps to show that Ichiro swings at so many pitches simply because he makes successful contact, even when the pitch is clearly a ball. When he makes contact, he seems to be able to place them where the other fielders ain’t. Mike Fast created a graph of Bat f/x data from April 2009 (the only month for which clubs have released data), which seemed to indicate that Ichiro managed to place his hits right between the fielders:

 

It’s appropriate for Ichiro to use Wee Willie Keeler’s “hit ‘em where they ain’t” philosophy, since Ichiro recorded his ninth straight season of 200 or more hits in 2009, breaking Keeler’s record for consistency. This came one season after Ichiro tied Lou Gehrig for most consecutive seasons with 200 hits and 100 runs scored. A tepid Mariners’ offense and the first DL stint of Ichiro’s career (for stomach ulcers) prevented him from breaking that record, too, in 2009; he finished with only 88 runs.

He has been remarkably consistent on the basepaths as well. Ichiro is the only player in the modern era to record nine seasons with a .300 average and 30 or more steals. Among players of any era, only Ty Cobb (12) and Eddie Collins (11) have more, while Honus Wagner also has nine. This basestealing success comes not only comes from his speed, but also from selectivity. Among modern-era players with at least 200 swipes in their career, Ichiro’s 81.5 percent success rate ranks tenth, a shade behind Carl Crawford’s 81.8 percent. In 2006, Ichiro attempted 47 steals and was caught just twice, a 95.7 percent success rate unmatched by any expansion-era player with 40 or more steals.

Even when he is not stealing, he is running the bases well. Over the past decade, only two players were better than Ichiro at delivering runs for their team, according to BRR:

Player

BRR

Juan Pierre

76.8

Jimmy Rollins

48.9

Ichiro Suzuki

48.3

Jose Reyes

45.7

Chone Figgins

42.6

Rafael Furcal

40.3

Carl Crawford

36.7

Brian Roberts

35.1

Orlando Cabrera

33.3

Scott Podsednik

33.2

 

And in the field, Ichiro’s efforts also stand out. Combining his work in right field and center (where he played in all of 2007 and parts of 2006 and 2008), he ranks among some of the best outfielders (mostly centerfielders) for his run prevention since arriving in MLB. Seattle fans still talk about “The Throw,” his peg of Terrence Long, who was trying to get from first to third on a single. Players quickly learned not to run on him, or his FRAA likely would have been even higher:

Player

FRAA

Mike Cameron

103.5

Carlos Beltran

99.0

Darin Erstad

97.0

Ichiro Suzuki

88.5

Willy Taveras

85.1

Nelson Cruz

79.5

Andruw Jones

76.8

Curtis Granderson

75.2

Jay Bruce

73.6

Austin Kearns

69.2

 

Although we may never be able to understand exactly how Ichiro has been so successful, it’s clear that his idiosyncratic package of skills is unique in baseball’s modern era. No other player brings his combination of intelligent speed, consistent batting average (despite extreme secondary stats), and fielding acumen—were he to swing for the fences, he’d likely bring power, too. On either side of the Pacific, he is a truly unique player, likely to be the first enshrined in both the Japanese and American Baseball Halls of Fame.

To the Japanese-American market, Ichiro’s skill set has been both a blessing and a curse. Just as Hideo Nomo showed that Japanese pitchers could dominate MLB, Ichiro erased any doubts that NPB position players can not only survive, but thrive, across the Pacific. In the process, however, he has elevated expectations to an absurd degree—next month, I’ll look at the players who have suffered in the prodigious wake of expectations trailing behind the idiosyncrasy that is Ichiro Suzuki.

28 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

fawcettb

Great article. Thanks.

May 11, 2011 05:34 AM
rating: 1
 
jerrykenny
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I'm puzzled by the contradiction between your observations on how unusual Suzuki is as a player and the comment that he "erased any doubts that NPB position players can not only survive, but thrive, across the Pacific".

Suzuki (I refuse to engage in the absurd practice of referring to him by only his first name and if I had been the Commissioner or an official with his team I would have prohibited him from having his first name on the back of his jersey - that kind of bush-league, look-at-me crap belongs in trash sports like basketball, it has no place in baseball) has shown that he can thrive in MLB just as some AA and AAA players have shown that they can thrive in MLB. It does not logically follow that any player from those leagues can do so. For every Suzuki, Nomo or Hideki Matsui there are many more Kaz Matsuis, Tsuyoshi Shinjos, Kei Igawas and Hideki Irabus.

Another problem I have with this article is the repetition of the idea that Suzuki could hit for more power if he wanted to. If he can hit for more power and isn't doing it then he's cheating his team. More likely, like lots of guys he has 5 o'clock power but if he were to swing for the fences in games it would hurt the other parts of his game too much to be worth the effort.

May 11, 2011 06:44 AM
rating: -11
 
Marc Normandin

It's too early in the morning to be that worked up about a name, guy. Here is a picture of a kitten.

May 11, 2011 07:22 AM
rating: 0
 
jerrykenny
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I'm not worked up about a name I'm worked up about respect for the game. It's an old chestnut sure but it still doesn't seem right. I don't see "Albert" on the back of Pujol's jersey, I didn't see "Ken (or "George" - his real name) or "Junior" on the back of Griffey's jersey. Hell, I never saw "Barry" on the back of Bond's jersey or "A-Rod" on the back of Alex Rodriguez' jersey when he was with Seattle or Texas and who can name a bigger egomaniac than those two?

When you can show me a picture of Willie Mays wearing a jersey that says "Willie" or "Say-Hey Kid" on the back during his playing days I'll think it's OK for other guys to do it (even before they've faced a single pitch in an official MLB game).

May 11, 2011 14:13 PM
rating: -7
 
randolph3030

The author didn't state that "all" or "any" NPB position play would thrive. Only that some "can". Read better, please.

And Japanese naming conventions are such that the family name (Suzuki) is presented first, and the given name (Ichiro) is presented second. SO, having "Suzuki" on his back would actually be the "absurd practice" that so enrages you.

Dude, just love how awesome Ichiro is. And how cute that kitten is.

May 11, 2011 07:49 AM
rating: 8
 
randolph3030

playER would thrive.

Write better, please.

May 11, 2011 07:57 AM
rating: -2
 
BP staff member Michael Street
BP staff

Thanks for the defense, randolph, though I should correct you that Ichiro is unique in Japan, too, even with their naming conventions. He adopted the "absurd practice" after his team asked him to, in order to distinguish him from the many Suzukis in the league and to try to draw more fans to moribund Orix. It worked better than anyone imagined, and it just stuck.

Like many other things about his game, it was done for the good of the team, but he's accused of being selfish and egocentric because of it. One of Ichiro's guiding principles is modesty, something his father drubbed into him throughout his career. jerrykenny may not like it, but it's not something he does out of ego gratification.

Thanks for the comment!

May 11, 2011 08:14 AM
 
jerrykenny
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What was the reason for continuing the practice of having his first name on his jersey when he joined the Mariners? They might have asked him but he could have just said "No, I haven't played a single game in MLB and many other great players that came before me and are currently playing did not or do not have their first name on their jersey".

As for selfishness - isn't this the guy that bunted for a hit with two outs and a man in scoring position when he was chasing the single-season hit record?

May 11, 2011 13:56 PM
rating: -8
 
BP staff member Michael Street
BP staff

Ask the Mariners' merchandising department, not Ichiro, about carrying over the naming convention in Seattle. Do you think they would have granted him the name change and give up all those Japanese (and American) sales? Doubtful.

As to whether he's selfish or not, please don't offer one plate appearance among more than 7500 as evidence of his selfishness. A truly selfish player would have left Seattle long ago for a team that would have paid him more money and offered him a chance at a championship.

Learn more about the player and his background before you make snap judgments based on the tiniest of samples.

May 11, 2011 14:33 PM
 
kddean

Take it easy, Champ. Why don't you sit this next one out, stop talking for a while.

May 12, 2011 05:38 AM
rating: 0
 
jerrykenny
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"The author didn't state that "all" or "any" NPB position play would thrive. Only that some "can". Read better, please."

Why don't YOU read better? I never claimed that he stated that "all or any" NBP position players could thrive in MLB and he never stated that he was not referring to "all or any" NPB players.

One could, however, easily infer from his statement (which I quoted accurately excepting a typo (which I'm sure you never make) that he thought that others as well as Suzuki could succeed which is in contradiction to his main observation as to how exceptional and idiosyncratic Suzuki is - which I agree with.

May 11, 2011 14:05 PM
rating: -8
 
BP staff member Michael Street
BP staff

Here's what you said:

"It does not logically follow that *any* player from those leagues can do so." (emphasis mine)

May 11, 2011 14:43 PM
 
BP staff member Michael Street
BP staff

Actually, my next column will cover the fallacy that just because Ichiro was successful, everyone from Japan will be successful. That's about as silly as assuming that every player from Venezuela will play like Omar Vizquel.

There was (and still is) a lot of anti-Japanese player sentiment, but Ichiro proved that success in Japan could translate to America--many people were unwilling to grant even that simple assumption. While it's foolish to assume that everyone from NPB will stink in MLB, it's equally foolish to assume that everyone from NPB will thrive. I don't believe I ever say that--it's the difference between "can" and "will."

As for what I do say, I don't repeat that Ichiro could hit for more power--I say (once) that he "likely" could if he swung for the fences (and point out another time that he lacks power). My implication in saying "swung for the fences" is, as you say, that he could sell out his other skills and try to hit for more power, but his hitting game would suffer, and he chooses to use the tools that best suit his skillset. Carlos Gomez (and other speedsters who think they're sluggers) would be well advised to do the same. They also serve who hit singles and steal.

May 11, 2011 08:09 AM
 
Agent007

They use a smaller ball in Japan? Really? Wouldn't that make a team skeptical about signing a pitcher from that league?

May 11, 2011 07:43 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Michael Street
BP staff

The ball is slightly smaller and smoother, which is odd because of the Japanese love affair with breaking balls (smoother balls break less). Ichiro practiced with a major-league ball before he came overseas, and it's sometimes cited as a reason why some NPB pitchers struggle in changing over.

So, yes, it feeds plenty of skepticism--but more on that when I write up the pitchers who have followed Nomo and Ichiro, which will be two columns from now.

Thanks for the question!

May 11, 2011 08:17 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

When I was in high school I had a friend who was visiting Japan bring me back a Japanese baseball. I could feel that the ball was smaller. Also, when it is thrown, it seems to fly straighter.

I remember an anecdote about a MLB All-Star game where the NL team used Japanese balls for batting practice to psych out the AL team. Must've been late 80s or early 90s because it was mentioned that Larry Bowa was hitting a lot of them out.

May 11, 2011 11:29 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Michael Street
BP staff

That's a great story, Richard--I hadn't heard it before, but evidently it was the 1978 All-Star Game (Bowa was the NL starting SS):

http://www.seattlepi.com/default/article/Book-Review-The-Baseball-Stunts-Scandals-and-1306679.php

The shrewd manager who employed this tactic? Pete Rose.

May 11, 2011 13:52 PM
 
adambennett

These articles about Asian baseball are fascinating. Is this a monthly series now?

May 11, 2011 18:19 PM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Michael Street
BP staff

Yep, Adam--you can read my "Asian Equation" every four weeks through the end of this season.

Glad you like them!

May 11, 2011 18:36 PM
 
gklarsen

That's great! I've always wanted to know more about baseball in Japan so I'll really look forward to these.

This was a fantastic article, by the way. I'm a huge Ichiro fan and still learned quite a bit, especially that bit about his batted ball data.

May 11, 2011 19:13 PM
rating: 1
 
saigonsam

As a proud owner of Yu Darvish for the last 3 yrs in my keeper league ( rookie roster), I can't wait for the article on who will be posted this off season

May 12, 2011 21:31 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Michael Street
BP staff

Yu is the definite prize of NPB pitchers right now, but he continues to insist he has no desire to play in MLB, although his latest comment has been a "no comment." I'll certainly be talking about him when I cover the starting pitchers who have come (and might come) over from Japan.

May 13, 2011 09:44 AM
 
ostrowj1

Regarding Ichiro's low walk rate, I would assume that, because of his lack of (in game) power, he sees better 3-ball pitches (or more generally, hitter's count pitches) than a power hitter. It would be interesting for someone to look at pitching data to see if power hitters see a different composition of hitter's count pitches (% curve balls, % thrown for strikes, etc.) than guys with little to no power. It would go a long way to explaining his BABIP if it is the case that Ichiro sees better pitches...

May 11, 2011 20:55 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Michael Street
BP staff

That might be true in general of sluggers vs. hitters, but Ichiro's walk rate is based a lot on his impatience. His 3.74 P/PA last season ranked 97th, while Vlad Guerrero's 3.14 is worst and Brett Gardner's 4.67 was the best.

I can't find leaderboards on these stats, but Ichiro sees about 5% 3-0 and 7% 2-0 counts over his career. Someone like Pujols sees 10% 3-0 and 22% 2-0 counts, while Gardner sees 5% 3-0 and 12% 3-1 counts. Vlad the Impatient sees just 6% 3-0 counts and 6% 3-1.

So he doesn't see too many of those fat 3-ball pitches, even if they are good. Face it, the dude's just a freak :)

May 11, 2011 22:20 PM
 
BrewersTT

I think Ichiro's jersey should now read "He Hate Me". (apologies for the football reference)

I was stunned by the graph of batted balls vs. angle. I would have expected a smooth curve, not the highly multi-modal thing we see. It's hard for me to understand this unless all hitters are able to place their batted balls to within 5 or 10 degrees of the hole. Is that the case? If so, wow.

May 13, 2011 12:11 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Michael Street
BP staff

Not just football, but *arena* football, at least at the start of HHM's career. . .

The blue line on the graph represent Ichiro's hits, measured on the left axis. The red line is measured on the right axis, indicating the parts of the field where LHB have the most success.

So the graph shows (at least in a small sample) that Ichiro's hits tend to fall in the high-BABIP areas for LHBs. It doesn't say, however, that all LHB hit the ball between infielders, but Ichiro does it better. (I'd initially thought that, too).

As Mike Fast explained to me, if he'd created the blue line for all LHB, it would be (as you suspect) a "very smooth curve, with a hump in the middle and skewed towards 1B."

Thanks for the question!

May 13, 2011 18:59 PM
 
BrewersTT

Ah yes, thanks Michael, I did mis-read the legend. Makes sense now.

He Hate Me may have played arena football, I wouldn't be surprised, but I think the HHM thing started in the XFL, a short-lived outdoor rival of the NFL, created by folks who tried to bring the all-flash/little-substance nature of pro wrestling over to football. That may be even more removed from serious football than arena is, I guess.

May 14, 2011 06:06 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Michael Street
BP staff

I stand corrected--XFL, not arena football. As you say, they're all NFL derivatives, so they get jumbled together in my baseball-packed brain, especially the further they get from the genuine article :)

May 14, 2011 10:09 AM
 
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