Now that I’ve had 24 hours to think about this…
I’m not a great sleeper. In general, I can get a decent solid 6 hours in before I just can’t sleep anymore, and my brain wakes me up; especially on work days, when I know I have to be somewhere and the loud, blaring alarm is in my soon-to-be-immediate future. I know it’s coming. I know work is coming, that I will have to get up and take care of my morning exercise, watering my garden, starting my day off with a quart of water and a nice shower…I wake up after six hours of sleep, and my brain goes on, and that’s all she wrote. I try to not look at the clock, and I try to maybe get some more sleep – just a few minutes, just an hour more. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This morning, it didn’t. I woke up about an hour and a half before my alarm clock went off, and the thought came running into my head like a 4 year old in their pajamas who desperately wants to open Christmas presents…
Ichiro Suzuki is gone.
The thought scampered into the bedroom, jumped up onto the bed, and started shaking me by the shoulders.
Ichiro Suzuki is gone.
I tried to shut it out. I pretended to sleep. I put the pillow over my head and tried to think about something peaceful. But the thought would not go play in the living room. It got up very, very close to my face, and in a loud, spittle-y child whisper said…
Ichiro Suzuki is gone!
So I got up, put on my workout clothes, set the radio to ESPN, and headed out of the house. I thought maybe I could come to terms with this by listening to the opinions of others. Maybe it was a good thing. Maybe it was a bad thing. Maybe the non-local hosts of Mike & Mike in the Morning would present me with a way of thinking about it that I hadn’t had before because I’m so close to it. Maybe, if I had some time to ease into the thought, to really think about it and make myself OK with it before I had to come to work this morning, maybe it would make coming to work and dealing with the reality of my day a little easier. But all they talked about was Penn State. I don’t care about Penn State. I care about the Seattle Mariners.
When I got back from my workout, the thought was watching cartoons and had spread its Legos all over the floor. I stepped on one of them. Pesky, irresponsible little thought.
I checked my email and discovered that, like I figured when I went to bed around the 7th inning last night, the Yankees had indeed won yesterday’s game. I had debated staying up to watch the whole game, but things were just too weird, and I had needed to get to sleep as fast as possible. I mean, there was always the possibility that Ichiro was just wearing that Yankees uniform as an elaborate prank. When I got up this morning, I would realize that the whole thing had just been a joke; a Hooter’s outfit in his younger years, some pink tiger-striped bike shorts for Spring Training just a few years ago, and now, a Yankees uniform. Haha, very funny, Ichiro. Always the joker. Time to stop kidding around and get back in your Mariners blues…right? Ichiro Suzuki is gone; the thought threw a toy train at me, then ran into the kitchen to get some cereal.
When I walked into my office, one of the women who works across the cubicle wall from me just said “Ichirooooooo…” in a kind of sad, drawn out tone that told me that she, too, could feel a little bit of the sting. Maybe not like me, but she knew what happened and it was obvious that she also knew I probably wasn’t all that happy about it. She pointed up to where my Ichiro bobblehead sits, on top of our shared cubicle wall. Next to it now sits a Felix Hernandez bobble. She said she found it at a thrift store. The Ichiro centerfold poster from last year’s Mariners calender is still attached to my cubicle wall; a Mariners uniform, the arm outstretched, the left hand forever frozen in just about ready to pull at the sleeve. The bat bolt upright. Like always. Scruff face, pointy, Mr Spock-like sideburns. Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariner.
I’m still not sure whether or not it has hit me. I mean, he’s still here in Seattle, even if he’s now wearing Yankees gray/pinstripes/whatever they’re going to wear over the next two games. Will it hit me after tomorrow’s matinee, when I know that the Yankees are gone? Will it hit me this Friday at the Royals game when Ichiro is not in right field, not DH’ing, not announced by Tom Hutyler. Will it hit me the first time I catch something in the news about his success or lack thereof in New York? Will it ever hit me?
I know, even in spite of my short tenure being a Mariners fan, that Ichiro has not always been universally liked by everyone. People called him aloof. They said he was selfish. A lot of people thought he was only trying to pad his stats by doing things like stealing second at the end of what was often a lost game. Some pointed to his occasional cross-country flights on his own plane, away from the team. And then there was the Ichiro that made everyone scratch their heads or laugh. The Ichiro who gave profanity-laced motivational speeches to his American League teammates before All-Star games. The Ichiro who said that his favorite American phrase had something to do with the state of Kansas and rats having sexual relations in a sock. The Ichiro who was the only player to get thrown out of a game on Don Wakamatsu’s 2009 Mariners roster for drawing a line in the dirt at the umpire. The Ichiro whose off-the-field wardrobe sometimes looked like he was an extra on the set of Kids Inc., or Saved By The Bell. The Ichiro who told us that his dog gave him specific instructions to extend his contract with the Mariners.
Ichiro Suzuki is gone.
Regardless of what you may or may not think about his on or off-field antics, there is one thing that I don’t think anyone can deny; Ichiro Suzuki is a hell of a baseball player. The Orix Blue Wave may have gotten him at his youngest, but I think we got him at his best. He was part of the 2001 AL West winning team. He has broken records, brought in fans, and played the game of baseball like it was meant to be played – pure and straightforward. No off-the-field drama, no drugs, no temper tantrums on the dirt. Just hard work, strict routine, honing a skill that few people have or could ever hope to have. Ichiro plays baseball like I would imagine scientists look for a cure for cancer. Calculated. Studying. Ichiro could be quiet because his actions spoke so loudly. I never needed to know why he made the play he did or why he stole a base, or hit a single, or hit a walk-off home run off Mariano Rivera. That is just Ichiro’s way, and I never wanted to know anything about it. It is what it is, and it requires no explanation. It almost defies it.
There are more number 51 jerseys in Safeco than any other player number. Mr Suzuki is beloved by children and adults alike; serious and casual fans both. At a Boston Sox game last year, Tom and I sat in front of a group of about 40 Asian men and women, all in their late teens and early 20s. When Ichiro came out to his position in right at the top of the first inning, the sound that came out of these fans was one of the loudest cheers I had ever heard in Safeco. Ichiro turned around, and just lightly touched the brim of his cap. More screaming. It was like the Beatles were there. Or Elvis. Or the Stones. And it went on for the entire game. Children come to the lower decks before games in droves, clutching their parents in one hand, and a baseball and Sharpie in the other, their little Ichiro jerseys and shirseys reflecting their adoration for their hero. They crane their necks over the railings to see him at the plate. They start up chants devoted to him with their schoolmates in the upper decks. And I know from more than a few little league coaches that they pull their bats out, stick-straight, and size up the opposing pitcher, even if it doesn’t help them actually hit the ball. Ichiro has inspired books, songs, and careers – and that’s just here in the US! As we saw this last spring in Japan during the Mariners opening games with Oakland, his influence in Japan is even more jaw-dropping.
Ichiro Suzuki is gone. I think I’m going to be stuck taking care of that thought for a really long time. I can only hope it eventually leaves the house and gets out into traffic, because keeping it here and nurturing it is almost more than I can bear, as a baseball fan. I feel like I got to see something truly special in Ichiro, something I may never see again. There will be other players over the years, and my relationship with baseball and writing about baseball will probably fade and brighten, brighten and fade. But I will never forget that I was privileged enough to sit in Safeco Field, and watch the player known only by one name, a player the likes of which we may never ever see again.
Good luck Ichiro, I do hope that you will forgive me, that I don’t have words in my vocabulary to express how much I will miss you. Thank you so very much for helping me become the baseball fan I am today, and for teaching me so much about the game and how it is played. Tonight may be the last time I see you play baseball. I don’t want it to be, but if it is, thank you so much for everything.
Ichiro Suzuki is gone, and I am sending my thought to bed without its dinner. It’ll still be here tomorrow.