As children, we sometimes do or say things that we look back on with a great deal of regret because we just simply did not know better, even though we absolutely should have. I’m going to tell all of you about one of my biggest mistakes from my youth. On July 23, 2012, Ichiro was traded from the Mariners to the New York Yankees a few hours before the two teams were set to start a 3-game series at Safeco Field. Ichiro packed up his things, and made the short journey to the visiting clubhouse. Meanwhile, across the Puget Sound, I was seeing the news for the first time, and in a classic case of a 17 year old not fully understanding what was happening, I got on Facebook and said, “I hope Ichiro gets booed tonight…”
Now, you could spend the rest of your collective lives telling me all the reasons why that was a really stupid thing to say, but I promise that you don’t need to. All my Facebook friends did it for you seven years ago. You can also rest assured knowing that Ichiro was very much not booed that night, nor was he the next night, or the night after that. He was not booed by me, and he was not booed by anyone else in the entire city of Seattle, the entire state of Washington, and I am not a betting man, but I would wager he wasn’t booed by anyone in the entire world.
But at the time of the trade, this was the height of betrayal to me. For a few hours, all memory of everything good that Ichiro had ever given to me, and the city of Seattle disappeared. Forgotten was the time he threw out Terrence Long at third. Forgotten was the entire 2001 season, his Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player season. Forgotten was the 242 hits he had and the 56 bases he stole that year to help lead the Mariners to 116 wins. Forgotten was 2004, when he eclipsed George Sisler’s single season hits record that had stood for 84 years. Forgotten was the walk-off home run he hit against Mariano Rivera in September of 2009. Forgotten were all ten Gold Glove Awards, and all 3 Silver Sluggers. Forgotten was every robbed home run, every infield single, every outfield putout. Every good memory, taken in broad daylight.
Every one of those memories and hundreds more were wiped away with the work of a few pens. Until just before he stepped into the batters box for his first Yankee at-bat, when he stopped, took off his helmet, turned to the crowd of standing, applauding Mariners fans, and bowed. He bowed once to the fans along first base and the Mariner dugout, then turned and bowed again to the remaining fans at the stadium. Then he hit a single to center field, just as he had done in a Mariners jersey dozens, if not hundreds of times before.
Tom Hanks once said, “There’s no crying in baseball!” To that I say, it was a good god damn thing I was not playing in a baseball game when that happened. Because with two bows, it was all back. It was all there again. There was the time he robbed Garrett Anderson of a home run in 2005. There was the inside-the-park home run he hit in the 2007 All-Star Game. His 1000th, and 2000th career base hits. There was his ten consecutive years of 200 or more base hits. There was that time he hit a walk off home run against Mariano Rivera in 2009 (that was a special moment in a special season, I will list it twice if I damn well please thank you). Every perfect bunt, every pitcher he made nervous just by being on base, every single, double, triple, and home run he ever hit. Every autograph he signed. Every time he swung his bat up in front of face before settling into his batting stance. Everything was back, and my god did it make me feel foolish. If I could’ve gone back in time a couple hours and told myself what I felt in that moment when he bowed to the crowd, the two me’s would have been balled up together on the floor crying while staring at the three Ichiro posters we had on our bedroom walls.
The mental image of two identical 17 year-old boys cradling each other in remorse while completely ignoring the time travel paradox that it creates begs a question. How did he do it? What was it about Ichiro’s career that makes a grown man cry just thinking about all the times he cried watching Ichiro? The simple answer is, he was just that good. How many baseball players can you name played from the age of 18 to 45 in 2 different professional baseball leagues accruing 3,602 games played, 4,367 hits, including 235 home runs, 573 doubles, and 119 triples, while also stealing 708 bases while only hitting into 151 double plays in 13,548 at-bats. You think about it, I’m gonna watch this video while you do that.
Now is the time when I say if you do not think Ichiro’s numbers from the Nippon League and the Major Leagues should be combined, that you are wrong, and you should reevaluate all of your worldly beliefs as a result. No one has ever achieved anything like what Ichiro did in his 27 years playing professional baseball. Sure there are players in history with more doubles, more triples, more home runs, more steals, higher career averages, etc. But a shockingly large number of the players that beat him in those categories played baseball before he was even born. Therein lies one of the more complicated responses to my previous question. How did he do it? He did it when no one else was doing it. Ichiro is the hallmark of an era long dead in Major League Baseball. It was dead before he even got to the United States. By the time Ichiro arrived in the MLB, McGwire and Sosa had already had their home run chase of 1998, and the Steroid Era was fully underway. The pitcher’s duel and the bunt did not sell tickets in the United States anymore (although a bunt did send the Mariners to the ALCS in 2000). Yet when Ichiro arrived, it took only eight games before everyone knew that there was something worth paying attention to in Seattle. Everyone had been curious about whether a skinny singles hitter could really compete with the rest of the MLB. Then he murdered Terrence Long’s entire base running career with a single throw and that was it. The question was no longer can he compete, it was can anyone else compete with him? Well in 2001 he won the American League Most Valuable Player Award as a rookie, so for all intents and purposes, no, no one could. In 2004, he had 262 base-hits, breaking the single season hits record. Think about it like this, he had a base hit every single day of that season, and then he had 100 more. The next closest that year was Juan Pierre, who had a hit every day of the season, and then a trifling 59 more. The average Major League player had 141 hits that year, not even a hit a day. Amateurs.
All of Ichiro’s accomplishments are impressive, there is no questioning that. The longevity, and the consistency over such a long period, the drive and dedication to greatness. But remember something key, no Japanese born position player had ever played in the Major Leagues before. This was uncharted waters. This was not some regular, everyday foreign player coming to the Major Leagues. This was hanging the collective ass of all future Japanese born position players out over the ragged edge. Here is the other long answer to the earlier question. How did he do it? He did it first. It could well have been that when Ichiro arrived it would have been akin to the first person to eat American cheese, in the sense that it is technically an accomplishment, but not really a big one. When Ichiro arrived and started lighting up the entire league it was clear it was more like he was landing on the moon. It is putting it rather lightly to say that Japan is a baseball country. The people of Japan could not have been more excited to see one of their proudest sons go on to compete with players from the rest of the world. Ichiro represented Japan so well in his time. A quiet and stoic demeanor could give way to an excellent sense of humor and kinship at any moment. While Ichiro’s individual accomplishments were important to him, they were also viewed in the grand scheme of how those accomplishments were helping the team around him to be better. Not everyone understood during his career what kind of teammate Ichiro was, despite how many times other players have stated publicly what a treat it is to share a locker room with him. When it was discovered that before every All-Star Game, Ichiro would go on an expletive filled tirade to amp-up the other American League All-Stars, many just conveniently ignored the fact that this was wholly emblematic of Ichiro’s constant locker room presence. The All-Star Game story made it to the news because it was a once-a-year privilege for only the best in the American League to witness. But a few Mariners got years of Ichiro as a teammate. Felix Hernandez got more than 8 full seasons of Ichiro as a teammate, and I think his face during the retirement ceremony in Tokyo says more about Ichiro as a teammate than my words can.
Ichiro was more than just a pleasure for fans to watch, he was a player’s player. Felix loved him, Derek Jeter loved him, Ken Griffey Jr. glued him to a chair, but he did it out of love so it is fine. The outpouring of tweets from current and former Major League players since he announced his retirement is all that needs to be seen to know that Ichiro had the respect of an entire league. So to answer my earlier question in full. How did he do it? He was good in a way no one else was in a period of time no one else wanted to be, and paved the way forward for other Japanese players to come and do it too. Every fan loved to watch it, and every player was glad to have witnessed it. He was the pride of a city, a nation, and now the world watches him go, just glad they were alive to see it.
Maybe one day in the extremely distant future, a technology will be created that allows us to recreate and understand the thoughts of all humans alive or dead, and when this technology is created a wonderful soul will use it to painstakingly go through, and calculate how many people throughout history found their deep love of baseball rooted in, or strengthened by watching Ichiro play baseball. While the lore of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays captured the adoration of a single country, Ichiro captured the admiration and respect of the entire baseball world. He enraptured me so tightly, that when it felt like I lost him I tried to shun him. But seven years later, I shudder to imagine where I would be without him. Maybe one day that hypothetical wonderful soul will tell us how many others spent the first couple days of the 2019 season thanking Ichiro for doing nothing but the one thing he wanted to do most; play baseball.