The Gift of Ichiro

We have not shared many baseball memories. It’s no big deal. Elizabeth and I, we’ve had plenty of those father-daughter moments like when we went to see Hamilton, or when we watched the Godfather movies, or the countless times that we mumble Milton lines at each other from “Office Space.”

“Thats’s not, no, not, notinmyjobdescription …”

Baseball … well, Elizabeth likes baseball fine. Well, she likes the aesthetics of baseball, you know, the greenness of the field, she loves ballpark food (it’s really her best chance to eat cotton candy), she appreciates the atmosphere. She has been bringing books to baseball games since she was 4 or 5, and I would say that ballparks might be her favorite place to read. She has read everything from the classics to Hunger Games at ballparks across this great land.

It’s a funny thing to watch. Every now and again, the crowd will roar and she will look up from her book to ask, “What happened?” When told that someone homered or there was a double play or that an outfielder had just made a dazzling catch, she will nod knowingly and — not unlike the bank examiner from “It’s A Wonderful Life” when told about George’s brother getting the Congressional Medal of Honor — she will say: “Well, I guess they do those things.”

Elizabeth does know the rules of baseball; she picked them up innately, I suppose. When she was very young, 3 or 4, she was having a conversation with a boy she grew up with who lived for baseball.

“What position do you play?” she asked him. He told her he was a pitcher.

“Are you a starter or a closer?” she asked, at which point she gave an advanced explanation of the different pitching roles, an explanation which baffled the boy … and us. We still do not know where it came from. Elizabeth is now a few days from her 16th birthday, and I’m almost entirely certain that she could not explain the difference between a starter and a closer. But it’s in there, somewhere.

Wednesday night, we joined some great friends at the Washington Nationals game. They have world-class seats next to the Nationals dugout, the best seats Elizabeth has ever had for a game. She prepared for this bounty by reading up on the Nationals and Marlins, looking at a few old box scores, doing a quick excel spreadsheet on the quirky season of Ryan Zimmerman … no, ha ha, she packed her jacket and the book she is reading on Mata Hari.

The game wasn’t much. The Nationals scored 10 runs for the nineteenth time this season, most in baseball, and Ryan Zimmerman crunched the ball (two homers, a double and a single — good thing SOMEONE in this family did an excel spreadsheet on him before the game), and Elizabeth mostly read her book, though she did find time to wolf down an entire cone of cotton candy in about 14 seconds.

“Are my lips blue?” she asked after that, and of course they were, and she giggled happily because even though she is just about 16 and is driving a car provisionally and taking complex classes and reading advanced stuff, cotton candy still turns her into a 4-year-old.

I try to think now of a real baseball memory we have shared. I once got to introduce her to Dale Murphy, which was fun, and she asked him if he thought there would be a woman in the Major Leagues anytime soon. We once saw a minor-league game in Toledo and spent quite a bit of time talking about the players’ “interests” that were listed in the program. We once went to a batting cage during a brief spell when Elizabeth decided (after a successful gym class hitting display) that she was a naturally gifted hitter. She probably is a naturally gifted hitter in that she has pretty good hand-eye coordination but let’s just say she might lack the George Brett “hit until your hands bleed” commitment. For her it was more like, “Hit until the miniature golf course opened up.”

So this was going to be another Elizabeth night at the ballpark except that at some point during Wednesday’s game, Ichiro Suzuki came up.

“Oh, you should watch this Elizabeth,” I said. “This is Ichiro.”

She looked up blurrily and said, “Ichiro?” She had never heard of him. It’s strange what does and does not get into the stratosphere of a teenage daughter. I suppose it depends on what YouTube stars Smosh mention. I guess Smosh does not talk much about baseball. Elizabeth was aware of Max Scherzer (“the guy with two different colored eyes, right?”) and Giancarlo Stanton and she might or might not have heard of Bryce Harper. She definitely knows Babe Ruth. Ichiro drew a complete blank.

So I told her a little bit about Ichiro. I told her that when he came over from Japan in 2001, the overriding American view of Japanese ballplayers could probably be summed up as “generally unimpressed.” Before Ichiro, the greatest Japanese hitter in the Major Leagues had been NOBODY … or it was Dave Roberts, who was born in Japan because his father was in the Marines.

So even though Ichiro had been this enormous star in Japan, a godlike figure there, the sense most seemed to have is that it would be different when he faced Major Leaguers. And it was different. He was BETTER.

That first year, right from the start, Ichiro was unlike anyone we had ever seen. He hit .350. He stole 56 bases. He scored 127 runs. He played impossibly awesome defense, He had this right field arm like Clemente. And he did it all in ways that were new to us — the way he danced around in the box, the way he could poke the ball the other way while running to first, all of it. The bat in his hand was a magic wand. He was a little bit of Carew, a little bit of Cobb, a little bit of Rose, and a little bit of Japanese samurai.

Funny, when thinking back to the 2001 Mariners team that won 116 games — the Hall of Fame type Mariners of the 1990s were almost all gone. Griffey was gone,. A-Rod was gone. Big Unit was gone. The only one left was Edgar Martinez, the rest were good but not great players. That team won 116 games behind the sheer energy and blinding brilliance of a 27-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, who had just come over from Japan. It was remarkable.

And he never stopped being remarkable. The thing with Ichiro is that he is what he is. He was never a home run hitter. He never walked enough to push his on-base percentage into the stratosphere. But at the heart of the game — one batter against one pitcher and eight fielders — no one was more fun or more brilliant. He lashed out hit after hit after hit after hit, pulling the ball, pushing the ball, blooping the ball, lining the ball, whatever it took.

Elizabeth seemed surprisingly interested.

And then I told her the Buck O’Neil story.

Elizabeth met Buck many times when she was little. He died when she was 6, but she still remembers him, remembers his embrace, remembers how he would tell her, “You are so special.” It’s something she holds pretty deeply, I think.

When Buck died, Negro Leagues president Bob Kendrick came to the office the next day. And there was a huge wreath there. It was sent by Ichiro. Bob did not even know that Ichiro and Buck had ever met. The next year, Ichiro came to the museum and he explained that he had been around Buck a few times at the ballpark, and that he saw that Buck was a man of honor. Ichiro deeply admired and loved Buck simply from being around him and sensing his greatness. Ichiro then wrote a giant check to the museum, the largest check any player had ever written.

Elizabeth was engrossed. She turned to the field to watch Ichiro hit. He’s 43 now, almost 44, and it has been years since he was a great player. He continues to play as a part-timer because he so dearly loves the game, the way Buck loved the game. He stepped in and did his familiar winding of the bat, the artful stretching he does before every pitch. He stepped away as the first two pitches came to the plate; it’s staggering how much he moves in the batter’s box while the pitch is in motion.

On the third pitch of Gio Gonzalez, Ichiro again fell back but he slashed at the ball and lined a beautiful single to left, scoring a run. Elizabeth and her mother had spent the day in a couple of Washington art galleries.

“That,” I told her, “is art.”

The next time he came up, Elizabeth didn’t even need to be told. She jumped out of her book, and watched as he led off the seventh inning. She watched nervously, hoping he had another hit in him. The score was 8–1 Nationals at the time, the at-bat meant nothing, the Washington crowd was drunk and happy. But Elizabeth watched nervously as Ichiro watched five pitches go by; he jumped away from each of them.

The sixth pitch was a 90-mph fastball that caught too much of the plate; Ichiro turned on it and rifled it to right for another single. And Elizabeth applauded happily to the curiosity of the people around us.

He came up once more, ninth inning, game all but over, and he chopped a little ground ball toward first, easily beat it out, his third hit of the night, the 3,064th hit of his Major League career, the 4,342nd hit of his professional baseball career.

“Ichiro is my favorite player,” Elizabeth announced. “How much longer do you think he will play?”

This was thrilling. Elizabeth had only had one other favorite player, Mike Sweeney, who she got to meet when she was young. For years, she would say, “Mike Sweeney is my favorite player,” and I would have to tell her that Mike retired. She kept forgetting.

In any case, I told her I didn’t know how much longer the Ichiro baseball story goes on. That’s what made Wednesday so great. Part of me thinks he will go on forever. And part of me thinks that one day he will just disappear. Either way, Elizabeth got to see Ichiro hit. We got to see it together. It’s a baseball memory for us to share.

“How about that Ichiro?” I asked her this morning, the day after.

“He was cool,” Elizabeth said. “Are my lips still blue?”


Originally published at joeposnanski.com on August 10, 2017.

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