When Right Field Was Home Plate: The Ichiro Suzuki Era

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Ichiro Suzuki, more than any other baseball player, gives the impression that he is capable of doing anything on a baseball field. There are whispered legends about his prodigious batting practice home runs; footage of him throwing gas as a pitcher in a Japanese All-Star Game surfaces like the hump of a white whale, then disappears just as quickly. (One story, probably apocryphal, holds that Ichiro believes that he has only been allotted a finite number of home runs for his career and is careful to dispense them only in crucial moments.)

The perception that Ichiro could do more if he felt like it has been a source of frustration for Mariners fans over the course of his career. For years, sports talk radio in Seattle has been flooded with callers claiming “he only does one thing,” “he’s not a leader,” “he has no power,” “he can’t take a walk,” and other variations on the theme. It’s hard to bat .322, steal a ton of bases, and play flawless defense over most of 12 seasons and still be considered something of a disappointment. That Ichiro has managed to do it is a testament to his peculiar grace and mystery.

Now he is a New York Yankee. His departure, as basically everybody has pointed out, is probably beneficial for the Mariners in the long run. But Ichiro is going to remain present even in his absence. The negative space will linger not because Carlos Peguero and Trayvon Robinson are inadequate (they are), but because Ichiro so  dominated the experience of watching Mariners baseball. At Safeco Field, his was the energy that drew people's attention. Right field was home plate. The experience of watching Ichiro superseded the experience of watching the Mariners.

I would like to reflect on two games I saw Ichiro play at Safeco Field. Both left me with the impression that Ichiro really was capable of conjuring magic; both games occurred, as in much of Ichiro’s career, with the Mariners a long way from contention. The first game was on October 1, 2004. In the first inning, Ichiro hit a single, tying George Sisler’s single-season hits record. In the third inning, he hit another single, breaking it. Fireworks went off. The team mobbed him at first base. He ran over to where George Sisler’s geriatric daughter was sitting and bowed. Then, in the sixth inning, he singled again, just because. There was nothing spectacular about Ichiro’s singles in and of themselves. But you got the sense that he had decided beforehand how and when he would break the record. He simply came up to the plate and performed as Ichiro.

The second game was on September 18, 2009. In the bottom of the ninth inning, the Yankees were up 2-1, and the Mariners looked on the verge of wasting another complete game from Felix Hernandez. Mariano Rivera had struck out the first two hitters he faced before allowing a double to pinch-hitter Mike Sweeney. Ichiro came up to the plate and the people wanted badly what they had a right to expect, even against Rivera: a single that would send the game into extra innings. The night before, Ichiro hit a walk-off single in the 14th inning to lead the Mariners over the White Sox. This being a Friday, and the Yankees, and a Felix start, there was an actual crowd at Safeco, and it was standing. On the first pitch, Ichiro hit a towering no-doubt bomb into the right field seats. He swung as if he was determined to use one from his limited store of home runs, the motion starting almost before Rivera released the ball, the leg kick a little bit higher and more deliberate.

Now Rivera is all but gone. Ichiro is a Yankee, and time has mostly debunked the myth of his simmering, infinite talent. He will play left field on a team that has seen its own mythology dissolve in the last few years. Gone are the glamorous Yankees of Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams and gone are the high-spending, Giambi-loving, Steinbrennerfied teams of the 2000s. The Yankees roster of today, powerful as it may be, is a dislocated one: Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Rafael Soriano. These are wandering mercenaries. I only hope that as he joins their ranks, Ichiro is also able to transcend them.

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