THIS IS HOW these things happen, of course: gradually, and then all of a sudden. Ichiro Suzuki suited up at beautiful Safeco Field in Seattle last night, as he has for the last eleven and a half years, but he did so in Yankee greys. Knowing something like this was inevitable didn’t rob the news of its jarring impact. There were real tears here, I kid you not.
It makes perfect sense in every measure but the sentimental one, which of course is the first one to register. I know he wanted to leave the Mariners organization so that he was no longer an impediment to their development. I know he deserves a shot to win a title. I know this is standard practice for the Yankees, sitting way up there in first place, stocking the cupboard for the long autumn ahead. I know Ichiro will do what he can to help his new team, and that he will do so with grace and quiet honour.
But still: damn.
YOU’VE GOT YOUR HEROES and I’ve got mine. The busts in your pantheon might not match the ones in my temple, and we can sit around all day and argue about who deserves our adoration and who doesn’t. You might try to talk me out of Robby Alomar or Ryne Sandberg, but you won’t change my mind about Ichiro.
I first saw him in August of 2001. It was his first year in America, and he was on his way to both a Rookie of the Year award and an MVP nod (he was also the top All-Star vote getter). He was just kicking off what would turn out to be a 21-game hitting streak, one seemingly intended to silence his critics who, seizing upon a mini-slump following the All Star break, were quick to brandish I-Told-You-So’s regarding his small stature, his lack of Major League experience, and his undeniable non-American-ness. On a steamy night in Seattle, I watched him play right field against Toronto and collect a hit and a walk, and score a run in a losing effort. Not that the loss mattered; the Mariners had already won 83 games by that Thursday night, August 9th (read that again), and would end up with an American League record 116 wins for that incredible season. They beat the Indians in a close Division Series but were stopped cold in the ALCS by these same Yankees.
I was an instant fan. The Mariners became my second team, after Toronto[i], and I’d listen to their games on the internet after Jays games had wrapped up. I followed Ichiro in the box scores and broke my personal rule which stipulated never getting a current player’s name on a jersey (they always get traded). Ichiro was an exception; he was my guy.
The reasons I adopted him so earnestly were many. His skill, certainly, but also his work ethic. His modest eccentricity. His dedication. In the field he was capable of incredible things like The Throw, nailing Oakland’s Terrence Long with a bullet from right field that still looks as though some rule of physics was violated in its commission. The hitting streaks. The ten Gold Gloves. That odd, asymmetric batting stance, and the manner in which he flung the bat out, nearly always making contact as he strode, so that he was already three steps into his run toward first. I loved everything about Ichiro Suzuki.
All my favourite players have been right fielders, for whatever reason. Their grace, their speed. Clemente, though of course I never saw him play. Jesse Barfield. Vlad Guerrero in his prime. Jose Bautista. Men who could run, who could punish a runner trying to go first-to-third, or attempting to sneak home when they had no right doing so. Men who could hit, be it for power or average or, in Ichiro’s case, a man who could collect more base hits in a single season than anyone had ever done before.
ICHIRO IS PROMINENT in many of my baseball memories, but none moreso than the single greatest afternoon I have ever spent at a ballpark, at the Rogers Centre in Toronto on the 23rd of September, 2010. It was a getaway day, noon start on a Thursday. No crowd to speak of but for a few loud people with hand-painted Japanese signs near where we sat in right field. The M’s were 26 games back in the AL West; the Jays were 14.5 games behind New York in the East. The game meant nothing. But it was Ichiro’s lone trip to Toronto that season, so I took my daughter, who was then 4 (and having my love if Ichiro forced upon her), and drove into the city for the matinee.
Ichiro was chasing a record that day. He was two hits shy of a tenth consecutive season with 200 or more hits, which no one had ever done (Pete Rose had ten non-consecutive years with 200+). I wore my Seattle #51 jersey for the occasion. I think that was why the Japanese TV host spotted me on our way into the stadium and asked to interview me. A camera was pointed at my face, a man with an enormous pompadour shouted at me in Japanese and pointed a mic at me, and a woman stood behind him holding a clipboard, translating his questions into English (“Where are you from?” “Why do you love Ichiro?” “Do you come to every game?” “What would the record mean to you?”). I answered as best I could, but it was a bewildering experience. It was, I imagine, what it would be like to be the first of your species discovered by an alien race.
We sat in right so we could watch him play his position. He struck out to lead off the game, but then smacked a double in his second at bat and stood one hit shy of the record. In his next AB, in the 5th, he hit a sharp single to centre, and stood at first base the holder of another record. We stood, my daughter and me, and twelve and a half thousand others, and applauded. My daughter screamed. I whooped. On the giant video board a graphic commemorated the achievement, and then slowly dissolved into a shot of Ichiro standing at first, his face steely and blank. There’s a game to be played, his focused eyes said. We took his cue and in a moment the game resumed.
Had that been all, it would have been a memorable day at the ballpark. But atop Ichiro’s record that afternoon, Jose Bautista hit his 50th home run of the season, the first Jay to hit that milestone, and Felix Hernandez tossed a two-hit complete game, taking the loss despite pitching masterfully (it was an effective thumbnail sketch of his season, which saw him go 13-12 but still win the AL Cy Young, the voters finally recognizing that wins have very little to do with the quality of a pitcher’s performance). But that’s not all! Former Expo and then-Mariner bullpen coach John Wetteland tossed my daughter a ball, which she caught at the railing out there in right field, and then the Japanese TV crew interviewed me again after the game (a free Barnstormer coffee mug to anybody who can find evidence of these interviews on Youtube). We went home happy, and in the days since I have wracked my brain to come up with a more amazing afternoon, save for the really big ones (wedding, childbirth, etc.), but have come up short. There simply are no more perfect days than that one, spent with my little girl and my favourite player. The final score was 1-0 Jays, but that number fails to capture the joy that I can still unpack from the memory of that afternoon.
ICHIRO ISN’T DONE, of course. There may yet be meaningful games and wonderful performances ahead. This Yankees team, which probably isn’t finished adding pieces ahead of the deadline in preparation for the playoffs, may have a championship in them, and if they do there is no more deserving player than Ichiro. But anyone who’s been watching knows he isn’t the player he once was. He still covers the field well, throws with above average range and accuracy, but his hitting took an uncharacteristic dip last season that can’t be attributed to anything but age. He is simply no longer worth the money the Mariners were paying him. His request of a trade is an acknowledgment of that fact, no doubt a tough one for a man as proud as he is. But he recognizes that he is best used now as a role player on a championship-calibre team, and that’s what he’ll be, getting playing time in the wake of Brett Gardner’s likely season-ending injury. In New York he is not the elder statesman leading a cadre of youngsters, but another veteran on a team studded with future Hall of Famers. He brought some value to the Mariners in the trade, removing himself and his salary from the mix in Seattle, freeing up money and playing time for the young players coming up behind him. For all concerned — the M’s continuing the long slog back toward the top of baseball, the Yankees trying to make it happen again, and the man himself — it was the right decision.
Though It won’t look right, seeing him in pinstripes, wearing #31, hitting way down in the order (Joe Girardi dropped him into the eighth spot last night, and he responded with a base hit in his first at bat, and then promptly stole second). This, however, is how it happens. Ichiro takes his 3212 professional baseball hits (if you include his time in Japan) to the Bronx, where he’ll quietly perform to the best of his ability toward the ultimate aim of helping his new team win ballgames. He’ll chase down fly balls, maybe scale the wall out there in Yankee Stadium’s shallow right field, and slap some more base hits. He’ll do it all with a stony face, if history holds, for Ichiro has never been one to show much emotion.
There was an exception yesterday, though, during the press conference held at Safeco before he changed clubhouses, from home to visitors’. He spent five or so minutes speaking Japanese, mainly for the TV cameras covering the event for his still-adoring fans back home, looking mostly composed, with only a slight falter or two. And then he sat silently while his interpreter repeated his comments in English. And with those moments to kill, sitting and waiting for the interpreter to finish his business, Ichiro’s mind seemed to wander a bit, and though he struggled to keep his face passive, he couldn’t help but betray hints of the emotion roiling beneath. For how do you dismiss eleven and a half years of memories? How do you suppress as basic a human emotion as sadness? You don’t, not even if you’ve shown yourself capable of superhuman things, as Ichiro repeatedly has.
Don’t be surprised, of course, if he finds himself in a Mariners’ uniform again, even if it’s only for one day as he announces his retirement in a couple of seasons’ time, and then when, five years after that, he’s elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot and he goes in wearing Seattle’s cap. In the meantime he’ll toil in pinstripes, and improve if only slightly their chances of winning another title. He’ll visit Seattle once a season and enjoy standing ovations every time he steps to the plate there. He’ll show up early and stretch and prepare for each game like no one else does. He’ll show glimpses of the hustle, the knowledge, the skill, and the instinct that he’s always displayed. All the old things. All the wonderful, baffling, glorious things that have made him such a thrill to watch since he came to America in 2001 and set about confounding all expectations but his own. Everything that makes him Ichiro.
[i] I’m aware this reads as blasphemous to certain readers, and perhaps incorrect to others who know me and are asking, “What about the Expos?” But by 2001 or 2002, the Death Watch was well underway in Montreal, and rooting for the team, while I still did it, felt like planning a vacation with a terminal patient.