Dispatch #3: The sense of an ending
Baseball season is here, and sinkhole has drafted contributor Andrew Forbes to accompany our readers through it. All season long, Forbes will be following the exploits of Seattle Mariners legend Ichiro Suzuki, and using Ichiro as a lens through which to view the game, both in the US and Japan, its history, and the culture surrounding it.
In Hollywood’s version of The Natural, Roy Hobbs’ final on-field act is a glorious one. In Bernard Malamud’s novel, though, Hobbs bows out in shame. It’s a perfect illustration of the difference between pop culture and literature; this painful, novelistic hewing to the difficult facts of life versus the Hollywood movie’s wishful apotheosis. It’s illustrative, too, of a certain basic truth: The ending we want is seldom the ending we get.
The example of Ken Griffey, Jr. is perhaps an instructive one, or at the very least representative, and germane to the subject of these columns as a fellow member of the Seattle Mariners. Griffey was one of the most talented and electrifying players ever to have played the game. This is not hyperbole. He was Willie Mays for the Nike era, debuting with the Mariners in 1989 when he was 19 years old. He wore his cap rakishly backwards; he made circus catches in the outfield; he hit a home run immediately after his father did; he was a perennial All Star; he had a smile as big as Puget Sound, and as pretty a swing as has ever appeared on a diamond. About halfway through his career he requested and was granted a trade to his hometown Cincinnati Reds, the team with which his father had won two World Series titles.
In 2008, after eight-plus seasons in Cincy, Junior bounced from the Reds to the White Sox, where he failed to prove his continued relevance at age 38. Then came what seemed a fitting denouement: a one-year deal to return to Seattle for a last hurrah. And it was a respectable campaign: 19 home runs, 57 RBI. So he signed for another year, but in 2010, at age 40, Junior’s skills seemed to drop precipitously. It was, frankly, difficult to watch: he was a shadow of his old self, even if that younger man did occasionally pop up. Manager Don Wakamatsu drastically reduced the aging star’s playing time; Junior took up residence on the bench or, as one anecdote had it, took to napping in the clubhouse. By early June, with the Mariners in last place, Junior, who was hitting .184, could ignore the signs no longer. He left Seattle in the middle of the night, driving toward his home in Florida. He sent notice of his retirement from the road.
Junior finished his career with 630 home runs, and is now deservedly enshrined in Cooperstown. As with a lot of the all-time greats, though, the end was messier than the beginning, and less tidy than it might have been. The signs were there for all to see but the man himself, until it was too late for a dignified send-off. That’s all been erased, or at least obscured by the mutual love between Griffey, the Mariners, his fans, and the people of Seattle – his number has been retired, his statue stands outside the gates of Safeco Field. But it’s tempting to wonder how much cleaner it all could have been had The Kid chosen to bow out after his decent 2009 campaign.
Which brings us, uneasily, to Ichiro.
A path exists, however thorny, for the Mariners to follow to the postseason, a destination they haven’t visited since 2001 – Ichiro’s rookie season. Their 17-year absence is currently the longest such streak in North American professional sports. But this Seattle team is constructed from a variety of parts – still-capable veterans, younger players moving into their primes, quality pitching, and a healthy offense – which, if it all breaks right, could quite conceivably conspire to allow them a shot at a Wild Card.
Ichiro was not, to be precise about things, a part of these plans. Injuries to several players in Spring Training made him a temporary solution, but with everyone now healed he is, realistically, the fifth-best outfielder in the organization. It pains me more than you might imagine to state it, but at 44 years of age, and noticeably slower than even just a few seasons ago, he’s not the ball-vacuuming fielder he once was, and he’s not often beating out ground balls for base hits, the way he once routinely did. Notwithstanding some moments of brilliance – his wall-climbing catch in the second game of the season, for instance – the Ichiro of 2018 is not the sort of player apt to propel his team to additional victories. His presence is not compatible with the team’s stated goal of winning baseball games.
There are twenty-five roster spots on a big-league club, and they must be spent wisely. Quite plainly, Guillermo Heredia is the team’s best outfield defender, but he’s been squeezed out for the moment. In a move apparently designed to accommodate Ichiro and his supporters, Heredia was sent down to the minors. Ichiro now fills odd spots, as a late-inning designated hitter or pinch runner, or infrequent left fielder. His numbers aren’t good, and historically, players of his vintage don’t rebound all that dramatically.
But then, who knows. The day Heredia was sent down, Ichiro started in right field – his old position – and had a fine afternoon; he went two for three with a pair of walks in a loss to Texas. Ichiro Suzuki almost certainly isn’t an effective everyday player anymore, but it’s not clear if anyone’s told that to Ichiro Suzuki yet.
The Mariners return to Seattle today after a ten game road trip, and it’s entirely conceivable that the organization’s exit strategy involved waiting until Ichiro – a beloved icon in Seattle, who will in all likelihood have a statue of his own one day – could bow out in front of a home crowd before ushering in the younger players whose hoped-for destiny is to return the Mariners to championship contention. It’s also conceivable that there is no plan.
I don’t know who’s ultimately responsible for these things. Who tells the future Hall of Famer that his time is up? Is it up to the future Hall of Famer to know it himself? That’s what leads, of course, to potentially uncomfortable situations like this one. But maybe there isn’t another way. Maybe that fire which made a player like Ichiro as good as he for so long was is the same heat which prevents such individuals from giving up the fight until they’re forced to do so.
It’s important, in a game as dependent as baseball is on the Sisyphean repetition of small tasks over such an absurdly long season, that every ballplayer believe he’s just one good game away from rediscovering his groove. A three-for-four, a leaping catch against the wall. There comes a time, though, for even the greatest players, when that ceases to be true. In such cases the past is at odds with the present, the two commingling less than comfortably, until finally something must give.
header image: keith allison / wikimedia commons