Dispatch #4: Gradually, and then all of a sudden
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.
For all its avowed fondness for the unexpected, for twist endings and spontaneous celebration, baseball loves its staged moments. In this way does it most effusively congratulate itself; banners unfurling, speeches rehearsed, fabric draped over statuary, a microphone placed on the pitcher’s mound for the pre- or in-game ceremony. But sometimes we don’t know with certainty that we’re witnessing history, or its end. Sometimes we’re not told, and it just happens, and only later is something confirmed, via press release, or word leaking out, a comment to a seasoned beat reporter, a player going off-script. And then we fans go back and review the moment, and, yup, that was it. That was history.
Ichiro Suzuki’s final at bat came with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning of a Wednesday night game at home against the Oakland Athletics, with runners on first and second, trailing 3-2. Imagine the sound inside Safeco Field had the assembled known it was his last showing. But the news hadn’t come yet. This is not to say that there was no inkling that Ichiro was nearing the end – indeed, the feeling was in the air that he was very nearly done – only that nothing had been officially proclaimed.
Ichiro struck out. The next hitter, Dee Gordon, singled to load the bases before Jean Segura grounded out to end the game.
There’s no terrific shame in striking out. Ichiro did it 1,079 times in his major league career. But as with most things, the timing’s what’s important. You couldn’t help but feel that the old Ichiro would have slapped a base hit in that situation, or laid down a perfect bunt. And imagine he had; a seeing-eye single to score a run, possibly two. What an ending that would have been, even if we hadn’t known, in the moment, that it was the ending.
If we are fortunate, we organize our lives to accommodate both love and constancy, though the latter is nearly impossible to find. Ichiro made it seem tantalizingly proximate. He was already 28 years old when he debuted with the Mariners, having played nine seasons in Japan; he’s played in 18 seasons since then. He’s operating on a time scale different from that of most players, or mortals. But even still, time won’t be denied forever.
What made the prospect of him continuing to play so alluring an idea for me was not simply the pure aesthetic joy of watching him toil in a fashion so idiosyncratic and stylistically anomalous that it seemed he was playing a different game altogether, but that his familiar presence put me in touch with the person I was a long time ago, a time and a person from which and from whom I am otherwise exceptionally distant. He hit a ground ball base hit off Blue Jays closer Billy Koch in the ninth inning of a game on August 9th, 2001; my future wife and I were sitting down the third base line at Safeco, at about the midway point of a road trip that would take us from Ottawa to Victoria, BC, and back again, through the American Great Plains, transecting the Rockies, to the Pacific, and back across the Canadian Prairies. We were in our mid-twenties, childless, without even an apartment back home in Ottawa, the sum total of our material possessions stowed in her parents’ garage. We had a two-man tent and a pair of sleeping bags in the trunk. We listened to cassettes as we drove, navigated via the use of maps – actual maps – and kept our minds busy with a stack of cards from an old copy of Trivial Pursuit. We saw Rush Hour 2 in Fargo, North Dakota. We took photos, using up many, many rolls of film.
Ichiro was already an All-Star, already well on his way to the 242 hits he would collect that year. He was already the player he was to be for all the seasons to follow, established in his routines, faithful to his ritualistic methods of preparation and concentration. In the ninth inning on that night in August he arched his back to both sides, crouched to the ground, then stood in the batter’s box and held his right arm out toward the pitcher, the bat in his right hand perfectly still, perpendicular to the earth, brought his left hand across his chest and gave a small tug to his right sleeve near the shoulder before swinging the bat around and back behind his left ear. He took a ball, then repeated the above. The second pitch he lashed at and drove into shallow right field, advancing Stan Javier to second. The next hitter singled behind Ichiro, and then Edgar Martinez singled to score both Javier and Ichiro. The rally died thereafter when John Olerud grounded out, and the Mariners went down to the Blue Jays, one of just 46 losses they’d suffer that year, against 116 wins.
Listen to Andrew read the essay in the fourth episode of our limited-run baseball podcast, Caught Looking.
That ponderous at-bat ritual – thousands and thousands of instances of it, before every swing, in each game, for nine seasons in the NPB, and eighteen campaigns split between the Mariners, Yankees, and Marlins – is as much a timing device as it is a philosophical expression, a willful slowing of time, a location of stillness regardless of the action around him. That he’s been doing it so identically for so long, though the world has continued to spin and degrade and howl its change around him, has been enormously reassuring, and has provided me a bridge, amid personal chaos and evolution, home ownership and marriage, the births of children, losses, errors, successes, projects failed and abandoned, hopes achieved, from the twenty-five year old me to the middle-aged version, and though so much appears to have changed, Ichiro’s continued presence, and the bankable sameness of that routine, has suggested to me that some things can be constant.
But here, then, is the end, and it’s an ending every bit as inscrutable as the man himself. He has stepped aside, making room for younger and, indeed, now more capable outfielders, and accepted the role of special advisor to the chairman, a position created specifically for Ichiro, apparently using a roll of Scotch tape and all the business-y words they could find. In substance the job looks exactly like his playing days, minus the playing; he travels with the team, dresses in uniform, takes batting and fielding practice, and when the game begins he ducks into the clubhouse where he continues to stretch and exercise.
Note, however, that the language is vague, and steers purposefully away from the use of the term “retirement.” Ichiro hasn’t filed those particular papers yet, which means two things: first, that the five-year clock on his Hall of Fame eligibility has not yet begun; and second, that he maintains the freedom to return to the game, should the opportunity arise.
The opportunity, if you’re wondering, will likely arise next year, when the Mariners open the regular season with two games against Oakland – in Tokyo. It seems likely that though the announcement of the approximate end of Ichiro’s major league playing career was quiet and understated, it was in essence deferred to a later date, when it could be done in his home country.
I saw him again last week, for what was likely the final time, at least in person. I’d made plans to see the Mariners in Toronto with a friend, and we’d bought tickets at field level down the left field line in the hopes that Ichiro would be playing. When the announcement was made, just days before the game, our focus shifted: we had to see if he was actually there, actually taking batting practice. So we arrived before the gates opened, and we rushed inside the cavernous Rogers Centre and there, in right field, beneath the sun which streamed down through the open roof, stood Ichiro, talking to teammates, shagging flies, laughing, joking, stretching. He seemed – if I’m not reading his posture and carriage too closely – lighter, lifted, relaxed. After a while he sprinted into the dugout, where he began the familiar stretching routine. Then he strode out, across the turf, and into the cage, where he proceeded to spray balls all over the field, and some into the second deck. He stepped out to allow another player his pitches, and then back in, hitting more home runs, more sharp liners, balls hitting the fence on one hop, balls stung and lashed and pounded; an artform enacted not for audience, but for the pure aesthetic exercise of it – hitting for hitting’s sake. For his own sake.
And so has Ichiro found some strange kind of baseball afterlife – or is it a purgatory? If the latter, it seems unusually blissful. He remains a hero, or in a way heroic, enjoying the kind of chance to remain in touch with the person he used to be at which we’d all leap, if only we were able, while also wearing a smile which suggests to the rest of us that there might be life yet, after the demise of the things we believed gave us life, at least when we were young.
header image: keith allison / wikimedia commons