He arrived in 2001, when the world seemed to stretch on forever in front of me. I was 17, and I spent that summer touring the East Coast looking at colleges while he played the sport in a way I’d never seen, for a team that won games at a rate that few alive had witnessed. For a brief moment, everything in baseball and in my life seemed limitless and unending. Now I’m 28, the Mariners stink, Ichiro is a Yankee, and life feels quite a bit smaller.
From the moment he arrived, there have been detractors. Too small, too little power, too strange, and most of all too Japanese. His disinterest in pandering to the segment of the local fanbase that demands that any and all imported superstars speak English and Americanize made him into a polarizing figure in Seattle, even when the team was winning or he was having seasons for the ages. For some, the discussion always started with what Ichiro couldn’t do, and that blinded them to all that he did.
The three-hopper to shortstop that turned into a base hit. The flare to left field that somehow found a spot between three defenders. The doubles to the gap that became triples. The catches. The throws. The Throw. Sure, everyone appreciated the big things, the MVP year, the hits record, the gaudy batting averages, but Ichiro was never a player of the big things.
To shamelessly steal from my favorite piece of baseball writing, John Updike’s Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, “For me, [he] is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance—since the reference point of most individual games is remote and statistical—always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art.”
No player has more perfectly trod the line between art and craft than Ichiro. Behind every well-placed single or great defensive play were the hours of pre-game preparation, the endless stretching, and a dedication to his craft that no player in the game can approach. As a Mariners fan, Ken Griffey Jr. taught me how to love the game, and by extension how to love life, to play with abandon and zeal and lust. Ichiro, on the other hand, taught me that anything worth having requires work, and preparation, and constant effort. An adolescent-turned-young-adult couldn’t have had a better role model in that regard.
So now he’s off to New York in search of something he found so rarely here in Seattle: postseason baseball. The Mariners and I will go forward, trying to find some semblance of hope in another season full of losing baseball and disappointing young players. I know there are those who will say that Ichiro has held this team back, that his contract and his spot in the lineup have kept the team from moving forward, but I also wonder if those people understand that being a baseball fan can be about more than just winning. It can be about appreciating greatness, and it may well be a long time before a player as great as Ichiro calls Seattle home.