Give not that which is holy unto dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you. – Matthew 7:6
Tonight, The Knucklehead and I have made plans for a Seattle Mariners’ game. Five years ago (almost to this week) Knucks, My Bride, and I enjoyed a game at Safeco Field, the 28th of our 30 Major League ballparks. They hosted our beloved Boston Red Sox, and our team won in extra innings, but that’s not what made the game memorable. What made the game memorable was the opportunity to see Ichiro Suzuki play baseball in his natural habitat.
A year later, I was asked which ballplayer, apart from Red Sox favorites, I would someday tell grandchildren I had the opportunity to watch in action. Keeping in mind that in my lifetime I’ve seen players like Derek Jeter, Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, Mike Schmidt, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and Greg Maddux, my immediate response was “Ichiro Suzuki.”
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Ichiro* is a favorite son of Seattle, having played outfield for the Mariners for most of his American professional career. He came to this country in 2001, after nine seasons in the Nippon Professional Baseball league of Japan, where he amassed 1,278 hits. Since then, he’s hit some more. Ichiro has had 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons in his American career, the longest such streak recorded. in 2004, he set a new single-season hit record of 262 hits, breaking the previous record of 257, which was set by George Sisler back in 1920. As of this writing, Ichiro is 102 hits shy of 3000 MLB hits.
Ichiro Suzuki plays baseball, the most beautiful sport, with grace and reverence. A few years back in a television ad, Ichiro said, “my goal is to play baseball as close to perfection as is humanly possible.” These are not idle words from the man, as is evident in his utter focus to the game at hand, both at the plate and in the field. He brings the same calm, attention, and work ethic to every facet of the game he is involved in, no matter what the circumstance. His last at-bat of a season is identical to his first at-bat of the season. In the outfield (where he has won ten gold gloves), his attention to the game never flags.
In the steroid era, when American baseball lost its way, Ichiro did not lose his. Though he had home run power, he continued to hit to get on base, to move the runner over. To help his team. He dedicated his life to the craft and art of baseball. If he were an actor, he would have been Meryl Streep. If he were a swordsman, he would have been Musashi Miyamoto. If he were a musician, he would have been Miles Davis. And since he is Ichiro, he plays baseball to honor the sport, his teammates, and the fans.
When he came to the Mariners, Ichiro expressed no preference for the number on his uniform. He was given 51; a number recently vacated by departing pitcher Randy Johnson. Ichiro wrote to Johnson, promising he would do his best not to “bring shame” to the uniform.
The people of Seattle loved him for it. In 2012 Ichiro broke the fans’ hearts when he went to the Yankees, reportedly because he felt he was holding the Mariners back from younger players who could fill his shoes. It broke my heart, too, not just because he was going to my hated rivals, but because I knew the Yankees organization and fan base would have no idea what to do with that which they had just received. I was right. In the maelstrom of New York drama, brashness, and excess, the discipline of the master craftsman went largely unappreciated.
And if that weren’t bad enough, the beginning of the 2015 baseball season found Ichiro playing in the gaudy pastels of the Miami Marlins. The team that constructed a garish Xanadu of a ballpark, complete with aquariums, showgirls, and swimming pools, a stadium designed to provide every possible distraction from the game on the field – this team was the gifted with baseball’s humblest artisan! It defied belief. It was like hanging a Rembrandt in a whorehouse. It was like watching Laurence Olivier in Inchon. It was… it was blasphemous.
None of that mattered to Ichiro. He is playing baseball, oblivious to his surroundings. He doesn’t care what south Florida makes of him. He walked into that Circus Maximus of a ballpark and found the only thing that mattered to him: a baseball field. He is grateful to still be playing the game. His swing – the “Pendulum” – is as graceful as ever. He does not care when he takes the outfield that there is a monstrous plexiglass horrorshow of a revolving fish sculpture over his shoulder. He readies himself for the ball that may be hit to him.
And even there, he’s beautiful to see.
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The Knucklehead and I went to Safeco Field tonight to see the Mariners play the Diamondbacks. Ichiro is gone, his merchandise cleaned out of the gift shop, but he is still very much a part of the city’s heart. When you ask the fans about him, they are not bitter that he left, they are grateful that he was there for so long. They smile when they think about him. Ichiro and Seattle were a good match; it seems like the fans knew what they had when they had it.
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As the Mariners did when we saw them play at Safeco five years ago, they came from behind to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth only to lose it in the tenth. It was a great game, an exciting crowd. It was the capstone to a day the Knucklehead and I spent mostly apart; me with my Kindle in Olympic Park, and my son heading out on his own to explore the waterfront. The Knucklehead is talking about finding the art museum tomorrow; me, I don’t know what yet the day will bring.
No wait, I do know. Triple coconut cream pie and a cup of coffee at the Palace Kitchen. A thing like that could lead practically anywhere.
*While in Japan, he was talked into putting his given name on his jersey, as his surname was the second-most popular in Japan – the front office figured this would better mark the up-and-coming star. By the time Ichiro came to America, he was pretty much stuck with it.