This is not going to be a hard-hitting piece on Social Justice issues. And while this will reflect on my childhood, those memories won’t be positioned as a mirror to societies’ ills. No. Today I’m writing about something that makes me feel good, all the way down into my core. Today I’m writing about a subject area I don’t even know much about anymore. Today I’m writing about baseball. But not just about baseball – about a journey that I have followed in different ways for going on 16 years, since I was a bright faced 8 year old sports fanatic who cared more about and knew more about the Seattle Mariners than literally any other organized group in the United States.
If you know baseball, you might already know that I’m talking about the career of Ichiro Suzuki: a Japanese baseball player who made his professional debut before I was born, in the Pacific League of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. Following an unprecedented career in Japan which included being a 7-time All Star, 3-time MVP, 7-time Golden Glove Award winner (the award for fielding), and 7-time Batting Champion among various other awards, all while setting records for single season hits (which held from 1994 to 2010, though the two players who have surpassed it did so with longer schedules), and coming in second and third all time in single season batting average (hitting .385 in 1994 and .387 in 2000).
But of course, it wasn’t until he signed with the MLB’s Seattle Mariners starting with the 2001 season that I began idolizing him. As an aspiring professional baseball player at the time, living in Washington State, already loving the Mariners with my heart and soul, and absolutely living for Little League, Ichiro could not have come onto the scene in a more explosive way or at a more perfect time for me. His trademark batting stance: hitting left-handed as I did, reaching the bat out in front of him with his arm straight and the bat pointing to the sky, almost resebling “The Babe” calling his shot, as he used his left hand to tug at his right-arm jersey before getting into a position I think it’s safe to say no MLB fan or player had seen before: bat high, back behind him, and almost out in front of him, gently wavering in his skilled hands as he planted his left foot but kept his right foot dancing so that he was able to be almost halfway out of the batters’ box by the time he finished swinging. The stance was and is iconic. Unforgettable to the point where even thought I haven’t seen him hit in years I can remember each and every step he went through like I’m still an 8 year old kid in the nosebleeds at SafeCo Field chanting “I-CHI-RO!!! I-CHI-RO!!! I-CHI-RO!!!” along with tens of thousands of electrified fans.
That year I saw something that cemented both that season, and Ichiro himself into my heart and memory forever. In a year that essentially marked the end of the super-team of a young Alex Rodriguez (lost to an infamous free agency deal in ’00 Off-Season), Ken Griffey Jr. (traded in the ’00 Off-Season), and Randy Johnson (traded during the ’98 Season), to name a few, Mariner’s fans were excited about the new prospect from Japan, but not quite sure what to expect from this team. Turns out, had we expected the moon, we would’ve gotten more than we expected (now, this has to take into consideration that as a Mariner fan you never expect a World Series). First off, the team roared off the blocks to tie a record that was not only set in 1906, 2 years before the cubs won their last World Series (as of 7/19/16), but also happened to be set by the Cubs, which was winning a ridiculous 116 games in a 162 game season. My brother and I documented every part of that season: making scrapbooks filled with all the wins, the conjecture, the record, and, of course, Ichiro. In a year with all that crap going on, Ichiro was, by my memory and through my 8 year old perspective, still the biggest story. And that’s not hard to back up. Ichiro not only racked up a rookie-record 242 hits, but also had a batting average of .350 and 56 stolen bases which made him the first person since Jackie Robinson to lead the league in batting average and stolen bases. This, along with this absolutely phenomenal fielding, made him only the second person in baseball history to win the Rookie of the Year award and the MVP in a single season. If you want more proof that his year was absolutely bonkers and unprecedented, he is still the only person in MLB history to have won the MVP, Rookie of the Year award, Gold Glove Award, and Silver Slugger Award, while also starting in the All-Star Game in a single season.
That was the year I was introduced to Ichiro Suzuki. To say that he’s been my favorite player ever since is an understatement. As I said before, I don’t follow baseball very closely anymore, but I do always know who he’s playing for and how many career hits he has. Which gets me a little closer to the main topic of this little love-fest of an article. As I write this, Ichiro Suzuki has 2,994 career hits and is playing in a somewhat limited basis for the Miami Marlins (he’s 42 years old and ages like a person because he’s never taken PEDs and in a world where you can pretty much never say that with certainty about an athlete, I say that with 100% complete certainty, as a fact). If you’re not aware, the numbers 3,000 hits and 500 home runs are kind of golden numbers in baseball. What this means is that they’re incredibly hard to reach, and once a player reaches one, they are considered a shoe-in for the hall of fame. I believe it’s essentially unprecedented for a player (who doesn’t have steroid or HGH or other PED scandals looming over their careers) to reach those numbers and not be inducted into the hall of fame.
With Ichiro starting out his career in Japan and being an MLB rookie at age 27, this has always been a concern of me. I didn’t want them to spurn my favorite player out of what I feel he has earned not just with his hitting but with every facet of his game from his fielding which earned him 10 consecutive Golden Gloves to his longevity to his 10 consecutive All-Star appearances. I also don’t think it’s anything we can brush away that combining his NPB and MLB hits (which the MLB somewhat frustratingly won’t do), he is the all time hits leader, having broken Pete Rose’s record a few days ago. So as early as I can remember I asked my dad (on what was probably an annoying frequency) “Do you think Ichiro will make the hall of fame? I mean he has the single season hits record already.” or “Dad, do you think Ichiro will get to 3,000 hits? And if he doesn’t do you think they’ll give him credit for his hits in Japan?” or a number of questions along those lines. And I did so, well, partially because I already had anxiety problems, but partially because I cared so much about this man making it into the hall of fame, something I don’t even know if he cares about or not, that it had, and has, become essentially a personal journey for me, watching every step of the way.
When he was traded from Seattle I was a little sad, but I was also kind of happy because I thought maybe on the Yankees he could have a shot at a world series (he didn’t), and at least he’s still playing and still getting hits (he is). That’s why at the start of every year in the past few I’ve anxiously checked the rosters of the Yankees and then the Marlins – to make sure it didn’t happen yet, to make sure he didn’t retire before getting to that magic number 3,000.
And in the last few days, it has been my delight to see article after article indicating that not only didn’t that happen, but it likely *knock on wood* never will happen. Ichiro, a childhood hero who never stopped being a hero after my childhood, is just 6 hits away from making it onto that coveted list of players who have hit 3,000 hits. And in my mind, when he does so, he won’t be at the bottom of the list, he’ll be at the top, along with anyone else on that list who made their MLB debut when they were 27. I can’t quite explain why it’s going to be such a vindicating and triumphant moment for me when it happens. I just know that thinking about how long it’s been, and how long I’ve wanted this for him, and how close he is now, that’s exactly the kind of moment it’s going to be. Every hit that gets him closer to that number will be a shade building up to that special moment. Hits happen every day during the baseball season. It’s so rare to have a game where one team doesn’t get a hit that even if the team responsible for that had multiple people pitch, we still celebrate it as a “combined no-hitter.” If you could hear the crack of the bat every single time there was a hit, you’d lose it. They’re likely one of the most common things in baseball along with strikes and balls. But for the next few days, weeks, however long it takes, I really don’t care, there will be one player whose hits will be so far from mundane to me. There will be one player who, for every time the umpire yells “SAFE,” I’ll be eight years old again, watching the 2001 Mariners tear through history books with the best player I’ve ever seen in my lifetime at their helm. Here’s to you Ichiro. Your story, from the Blue Wave to Miami Marlins, has never left my attention. You deserve all the credit you will get when you reach the bag safely on that 6th time from now, that 3,000th time from when I first saw you.