It was the summer of 2001: I was working my first real job after college, standing behind a bank teller line counting sacks of money from local businessmen. I worked the same hours every day and wore the same five collar shirts and ties, all I could afford at the time, while the businessmen brought in the same deposits every day. I would go home, watch my hometown Mariners trot out the same five starters week after week, and play Sammy Sosa High Heat 2001 (it was so real!) on franchise mode.
I remember two main things about that game, playing it throughout the summer. First, most franchise modes are unrealistic, because as you become good at the game you win far more often than any team should. High Heat was good in this respect – the pitcher/batter duel was done well – but after a slow April my Mariners were on pace to win more than a hundred games. But then, running parallel to my fictional success, so were the real Mariners.
The second thing I remember about the game was Ichiro, because he wasn’t in it. Ichiro hadn’t joined the Player’s Union by the time the game shipped, apparently, because he was absent from the team’s roster. Instead, tucked away in the AAA club was a guy named “David Taguchi”. His stats were terrible, and it’s hard to blame them, because nobody knew how this Ichiro was going to adjust to the majors. I edited his stats, perhaps being a little too kind, although it turned out that even I had underestimated him. I don’t remember what Ichiro hit in my game, but it wasn’t as good as what he did in real life that summer.
It’s twelve years later. I listened to the press conference on the way to the game, sitting in traffic on the interstate. The ownership thanked Ichiro for his service, Ichiro thanked the ownership and the fans for their loyalty, and that was it. Luckily, I found a parking spot by the time the calls started pouring in. “He couldn’ even speak English when he was sayin’ goodbye,” one man complained in a thick accent. “So I say, so long, man.”
It’s not an uncommon reaction to Ichiro. The beat writers found him distant, knowing his knowledge of English and refusal to use it for fear of a verbal gaffe. That distance was spread to the fans through the commentary in the newspapers and on the radio. He didn’t dive often or throw himself into walls, something that allowed him to play every day but failed to meet expectations of grit and heart. The batting practice home runs he hit created resentment that he didn’t swing for power in the games, instead displaying that maddening consistency that grew more frustrating as the teams grew worse and worse. As he grew older, and as his contracts increased, the expectations grew heavier.
SafecoField’s gates were open by the time I arrived. I go to a game a month. It’s a ritual in itself: the same messages are broadcast over the public address system before the game, the same music plays, the same people care about the same hydro race on the big screen. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” gets followed by the same three chords of “Louie, Louie” every time. The camera pans the crowd and finds the same surprised reaction every time. Every once in a while, the team wins just to add some variety to the spectacle.
In the bottom of the first there he was, standing in his usual spot in his usual road grays, but with a different tens digit on the back. He had gone from failed savior and flawed superstar to a low-risk, two million dollar rent-a-player on a team full of stars. The fans at Safeco, who were mostly New York transplants anyway, didn’t know how to react. They cheered for 29,911 different reasons. They shook their heads and smiled.
It was something that had to be done, the few Mariners fans agreed; it was good for him, it was good for the Yankees, it was good for us. Our team didn’t need him anymore, had no room for him, and we’d certainly never give him a chance at a ring. He was the past. And yet starting in right field opposite him last night was Carlos Peguero, a younger player but one who is more likely than Ichiro to be playing in Japan this time next year.
As for me, I shook my head and smiled. We Mariners fans have gone through this a lot. We have to say goodbye to our heroes, but we also have to say goodbye to the unfulfilled hopes they brought us. Some, like Griffey, overstay their welcome; others, like Randy Johnson, we dismiss too soon. But we always say goodbye. I understand that trading Ichiro was the “right” move, right because it adds an infinitesimal probability of winning a championship somewhere down the line. But it’s hard to always care about winning with a team that doesn’t win. The Mariners organization has been rightly accused of playing to nostalgia too much, replaying the clips from 1995 as if the team had saved the world from aliens. But maybe there are times for nostalgia; not all of life has to be spent looking forward.
Ichiro came to the plate in the top of the third. For the most part, there was applause, but there were also people who booed. I wanted to turn around and grab one of them by the collar, ask them what exactly would make them do that. Maybe they were upset with the trade, maybe they wanted more than a couple of B-level prospects; maybe they wanted to lash out at the aging process itself. Maybe they just wanted to boo.
He went through his usual motions, picking the sleeve of his jersey with his other hand, holding the bat straight up. Like always. Three pitches later, he took a slow swing: the swing that had been so sharp and sudden twelve years ago, before slowing to its present crawl. The ball lifted over Dustin Ackley and settled into center field.
After the game, my friends and I milled on the concourse after another predictable loss. The field was empty, the fans, working on east coast time, had all left. In right field, the seagulls swirled around the upper deck like vultures.
The digital banners around the stadium showed the same message that they did every game. “Thanks for attending,” they read.