Baseball players come and go. Ichiro was different

There were American players in Japan – tellingly called gaijinor foreigners – who told me stories of Japanese people wanting them to do well, but not too much Good. They couldn’t touch Oh, for example. If any of them approached their hallowed home run records, they would go long stretches without being pitched. This tactic was on full display a few years later, in 1985. Heading into the final game of the season, an American, Randy Bass, was one homer away from Oh’s single-season record of 55. Against the Giants managed by Oh, Bass was intentionally walked four times, each time four straight lengths.

Baseball may have been the “national pastime” in the United States, but the Japanese had their unique mark on the game. And they worked to preserve it. They trained harder. They clapped louder. They played more for the collective achievement. In his classic 1977 book, The Chrysanthemum and the BatAmerican Robert Whiting wrote, “The Japanese view of life, emphasizing group identity, cooperation, hard work, respect for age, seniority, and ‘face’, has permeated almost every aspect of the sport.

Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki (L) and Yusei Kikuchi celebrate after the fourth round of the game against the Oakland Athletics at the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo on March 21, 2019. Ichiro later announced his retirement. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)

As such, respect for Oh always came with a caveat of sorts – he was half-Chinese. In a homogeneous society like that of Japan, that meant something. The purity represented by Ichiro also matters a lot. At 5-foot-11 and a lean 175 pounds, he’s usually snappy for the Japanese. His zen approach to the game was familiar in his homeland. The breakthrough of a player like this was celebrated in a way that I think wouldn’t have been the same if, say, a physical specimen like California Angels two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani was came first.

Ichiro’s overt Japanese character came at a cost in the United States. His status as a “legit” star was debated throughout his Mariner career, during which there were rumors that he was a selfish gambler. For some, he didn’t take enough outs to get his teammates going, or hit with the kind of power everyone thought he had. He was too committed to the first batter but didn’t walk or steal enough bases to justify it. Although his teammates celebrated his sense of humor, part of the audience lamented Ichiro for being too aloof and too rarely stepping away from the language barrier. Fans and members of the media have complained that they don’t “know” Ichiro.

I don’t know Ichiro either, not personally, but I do know him for the traits I recognize from a culture that sprouted in a small isolated island nation: work ethic, conformity, sticking to a successful routine, maximizing resources and obsessing over not wanting to offend, even to the point of not saying anything. I forgave Ichiro his translators, remembering how my mother used to speak badly in her second language (English) and endure ridicule for it.

Ichiro succeeded by staying so true to his societal roots that his baseball rituals became instantly recognizable memes. That stretch that many of us Asian Americans recognize as the “rice paddy squat.” The slight dip in his back after stepping into the box, followed by the extension of his bat, as if it were a samurai sword. We remember it because it gave us unprecedented achievements, with or without consideration of race or national origin.

He didn’t do it all, but Ichiro hit and lined up at unprecedented levels. He holds MLB records for hits in a season (262) and consecutive seasons with at least 200 hits (10 straight). He won 10 Gold Gloves and 10 All-Star spots. He was named Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player after leading the Mariners to an MLB-record 116 wins and a playoff berth they haven’t duplicated since. He twice led the American League in batting average. He has as open and closed a case for Hall of Fame status as any athlete who played in Seattle, including former Mariners teammate Ken Griffey Jr.

Unlike Griffey, who played with his cap backwards and a smile on his face, Ichiro remained mostly stoically Japanese and therefore an enigma to many. This fact largely explains why I shared tears with Yusei Kikuchi earlier on Thursday. This country remains slow to embrace differences, doesn’t take the time to acknowledge the obstacles others endure, and therefore doesn’t truly understand the extraordinary nature of witnessing a career like Ichiro’s through eyes like mine.

It’s a miracle that I never wanted to keep to myself.

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