The Meaning of Ichiro

Sure, he’s won seven straight batting titles in Japan, but it’s telling that, in English, “Ichiro Suzuki” roughly translates to “Can’t hit Pedro.”

– The Utah Chronicle, March 30th, 2001

It is late afternoon in Seattle, and it is the beginning of April, and it is quite cold. The Mariners are going to play the Oakland A’s. Today, the baseball starts counting. Across the infield dirt, just behind second base, a few faint letters mark the time: 2001.

More than 45,000 people are here, the most that have ever crowded into this still-new stadium. There’s less team spirit on display than you might expect. Most of the attendees aren’t flaunting jerseys; they’re bundled up, hands tucked into coats. The fading sunlight falls over the stadium from behind the pale, high clouds, and as a few Mariners take the field, running sprints across the outfield grass, a hearty cheer rises up to greet them. The men in white stretch, pulling arms and bouncing in lunges, before trotting back to the dugout. Not much longer, now. Not much longer.

High up on a view level fence, in front of a kid and their dad, you can see a white posterboard, letters painted in amateurish block text: “WELCOME ICHIRO.”

Many of them know only what the numbers can tell them, the list of achievements that made him worth tens of millions. Seven straight batting titles and a lifetime .353 average. Some may have gone down to spring training, gathering in the Arizona heat, and seen it for themselves: 26 hits, catching batting practice fly balls behind his back, throwing runners out at third with seemingly effortless throws from deep right. The speed — the Mariners said they’d clocked his home-to-first time at 3.7 seconds. (The fastest average home-to-first time among major leaguers in 2018 was 3.86.)

More than anything, though, they would have seen the people. The media — a hundred of them, following his every move. Photographers, reporters, all trying to eke out as much information as they could. And the fans: huddling in right field where he played, claiming their seats right behind home plate early. Reaching out, yelling his name, wiping tears from their eyes. “I will be able to tell my grandchildren one day about this,” one young Peoria pilgrim, a Japanese exchange student, told Gannet News Service. Said another: “This might be the greatest day of my life.”

… major league pitchers are just knocking the bat out of his hands. He can’t hit the inside pitch; he just keeps fouling balls over the third base dugout. He can really run, but right now he’s a little overmatched

– anonymous scout, quoted in Sports Illustrated, March 26th, 2001

Professional baseball has existed in Japan since the 1920s. Until now, though, a Japanese native had never been a position player in the major leagues. You could count the number of Japanese pitchers to make the trans-Pacific transition on your fingers, and they’d only begun to arrive within the last decade. Masanori Murakami pitched for the Giants in 1964 and 1965, sparking a contract war between the Giants and the team in Japan from which he was supposed to be on loan. Thirty years passed until Hideo Nomo found a loophole in the United States-Japanese Player Agreement by retiring, and it was two years after that until Hideki Irabu’s persistence resulted in the creation of the posting system. The presence of Japanese players in the big leagues was still relatively uncharted territory, even if Nomo had already thrown his no-hitters, and Kazuhiro Sasaki had just won Rookie of the Year.

It is hard to find any accounting for Ichiro’s arrival that does not in some way emphasize his foreignness. He was a “high-priced Japanese import,” a notably “diminutive” presence on the field, with a “Fu Manchu mustache.” Much was made of his mononymic name, of how it was pronounced. Anecdotes were shared about how he didn’t understand certain English words. There was his idiosyncratic behavior, the way he interacted with the media, the sunglasses, the meticulously-kept routine. Many jokes were made about what “Ichiro Suzuki” means in Japanese, none of them funny. Headlines spoke alternately of “baseball’s Asian trend,” or the “Far East coming west,” or  the “Japanese invasion.” In a March 25th column, the Arizona Republic’s Paola Boivin noted that the more she watched Ichiro, the more she believed he could hit in the major leagues. Beside that note was a news item about NBA player Jason Williams. He had been screaming anti-Asian slurs during a game.

And for all the people who were convinced when they saw him, for all the former opponents who said that he was as good as Tony Gwynn, for others who there were others who remained unconvinced. He couldn’t catch up to a major-league fastball. He was fast, sure, but overmatched. Broadcaster Rob Dibble made a bet with Lou Piniella, promising to run naked through Times Square if Ichiro won the batting title. It had never been done before — the suggestion underlying that, the whisper just below the spoken words, being: don’t you think there’s a reason it’s never been done before?

The noise rises to greet him as he steps up to the plate. He twists, bounces on his heels. Then he steps into the box. He moves his hands into position — a fluid, circular motion. It’s already familiar for millions watching from across the ocean, where it is the early morning instead of the late afternoon, and a new day has already begun. It is a new day here, too, though. There has never been a player like this in here.

45,000 in Seattle, millions in Japan — they catch their breath in unison as the first pitch flies in. A ball, high and outside. The second pitch is a strike. He tops it, a tapper back to the mound. He flies down the basepath. The ball beats him, just barely. The crowd — the whole of it, spanning an ocean — sighs.

***

To me, he was in some other category, out of reach, out of reality. When I was small and I would watch TV, he was one of the biggest superstars in Japanese baseball. It wasn’t something that I could realistically relate to. But for me, he was always somebody unreachable, like somebody above the clouds.

Masahiro Tanaka, quoted by ESPN, March 19, 2019

The game is scheduled to start at 6:30 local time — early evening, though all times look the same under the dome’s bright lights, shining from under the roof in a circle. More than 45,000 people are packed in here. The last time a major league baseball game was played in this country was seven years ago. It was these same two teams playing, too. And back then, the people who flocked to the game must have had a similar idea in mind as the people here today. They thought, then, that they were seeing Ichiro’s final major league game in Japan.

Yet here he is again, 45 years old. He left the Mariners, but he is back now, wearing that same familiar uniform. It is all behind him now, the numbers so often cited that they have taken on the level of myth. His major-league hit count stands at 3,089; stretched across his career in Japan, nine years before the 19 in the majors, that number becomes 4,367. The scope of that achievement is almost unfathomable. He began his professional career in 1993. Now, in 2019, he catches a ball behind his back in the outfield.

There’s a strange sense in which he almost looks younger now than he did in 2001. He no longer has the beard and the mustache; his uniform no longer fits as tightly as it once did. He has said — and it has been repeated, over and over again — that he wants to play until he is 50, at least. That, post-retirement, he thinks he’ll just die. Last season, the Mariners gave him a chance. That chance ended in May with a .460 OPS. He refused to say that he was done, then, and he wasn’t. He is still in right field, but he no longer bats first. The fans here, holding up their signs of belief in hit 3,090, and the ones struggling to hold their eyes open at 2:30 in the morning, and the ones waking up to specially-set alarms at 5:30 — all of them wait.

His first plate appearance ends on the second pitch with a pop-up, barely out of the infield. In his second, he gets ahead 3-1. Then the battle begins. He fouls off a strike on the inner half, sending the ball ricocheting downwards, the level of effort is almost grotesque — the physical strain written all over his movements, the recoil from the ball’s impact on his foot. On the next pitch, he does it again, and it is even more desperate, the pain from the impact even more apparent. On the third, he pulls it, and a gasp reverberates around the dome. But it’s another foul ball. A full count. He takes ball four.

The Mariners behind him don’t manage to send him home. As they take the field for the top of the fifth, Scott Servais calls Ichiro off the field: an opportunity for the fans to say goodbye. But the idea doesn’t stick at first. There are a few moments of confusion before the ovation begins. It doesn’t feel right. It feels incomplete.

***

Because of Mr. Ichiro, watching his work ethic and how much he practices and works on his craft, and also seeing him perform in the major leagues, I felt, myself as a Japanese player, that if I did the same thing I could make it to that level as well. He made me believe that if I worked as hard I could make it to the major leagues as well.

Yusei Kikuchi, quoted by ESPN, March 19, 2019

Baseball has meaning because we have decided that it is meaningful. There is no value inherent to the physical activity of the game, to its rules and mechanics, beyond what it is in itself. It is not a metaphor for anything. It is not a pursuit more valuable than any other. But we have decided collectively that it is something that brings us joy. We transform it into something that is greater than what it is. People dedicate their lives to the game because of the promise of this joy. There is a mutual exchange between the fans and the players, and the players and the fans, and it is on this exchange that the foundation of the sport rests.

Many bad things could happen to baseball that it could survive. But if, for some reason, we lost the ability to find joy in it, the game would be worthless. There would be no point in working your whole life to make the big leagues if, upon arriving, no one cared. If no one saw and acknowledged the magnitude of what you had done. If there was no moment of recognition. Looking into the stands as a player who has worked your entire life to stand in this spot, or looking onto the field as someone who has never played or used to play or is just beginning to play, and seeing yourself, somehow — the parts of yourself that you want others to see, the possibility of what you could be — reflected back at you.

There are few players in the history of organized baseball who have brought this joy to more people — spanning continents, crossing decades — than Ichiro.

***

It is the eighth inning of the second game of the season, a 4-4 tie, and Ichiro is up to bat with a runner on second and two out. He is 0-for-3 today; 3,090 still hasn’t happened. If there were a moment for it, though, now would be the time. Everyone knows that this is going to be his final plate appearance. The news leaked a few innings ago. A world hangs on every pitch.

He falls behind 1-2. He fouls off a strike, then another, until finally — a fair ball. A chance. He is still so fast, even after all these years, and he flies down the line, a race against the ball, his foot landing on the bag, until the call comes down —

He is out. It is over.

He makes one final trip out to right field. Everyone is ready this time. The phones held up, the jerseys on, the flags waving. He hugs his teammates as the stadium rumbles with the appreciation of people who have been watching him since he began playing, people who grew up watching him, little kids who have been raised on the legend of his greatness. Many of them have tears in their eyes. The people waking up and watching early in the morning on the other side of the world — many of them do, too.

And so does Yusei Kikuchi. Today was his first game in the major leagues. He is 27 years old, the same age Ichiro was in 2001. He pitched well today. He has a bright future ahead of him. Right now, though, he sits on the bench, wiping the tears from his eyes: gratitude for the joy that has been given to him, for all the joy that is to come in the future.

***

The sun has almost completely faded now in Seattle; the temperature has gone from chilly to frigid. The Mariners trail the A’s 4-2 heading into the bottom of the seventh. Ichiro comes to the plate to lead off the inning, 0-for-3. There is a tension in the air, a tension in the crowd. He stays in his routine. The crouch, the stretch, the readying of the bat.

He works the count to 2-1 before slapping a ball straight up the middle. The fans roar. When he crosses home plate a few minutes later, on a single off the bat of Edgar Martinez, the noise is deafening. People are dancing in the aisles, turning around and yelling, gloved hands raised, breath crystallizing in the air — pure celebration. Down in the dugout, Ichiro takes his helmet off, put it on the bench, his back turned to the field, the noise washing over him.

“The feeling I had tonight,” Ichiro says when the game is over, “I will never forget. I want to be here for a long time.”

We hoped you liked reading The Meaning of Ichiro by Rachael McDaniel!

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Rachael is the current dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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R.Dwyer
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R.Dwyer

Wow, a beautifully-written piece