A better writer than I once wrote that baseball is the story of fathers and sons. It isn’t a difficult assertion to believe, especially if you’re one of the fathers or sons. The ballpark, the leather, the smell of the dirt, the grass, the time together: baseball is, and has been, a generational bridge in America. It has, as Terence Mann says in Field of Dreams, marked the time. And in the early 2000s, it was lost.
Baseball has always, to an extent no other American sport is, been quantifiable. .406. 56. 714. 61. These numbers are evocative in a way no other numbers in sports were or likely will ever be. By the late 1990s, baseball had a problem: Steroids. The 1998 home run race between McGuire and Sosa had reenergized the game, but at a cost. By spring training 2001 the rumors weren’t really rumors anymore. Fans who had perhaps given their titans a pass knew it was all a facade. The game they loved was infected. Baseball required an antidote.
In a way the antidote arrived on April 2, 2001. That was the day Ichiro Suzuki made his Major League Baseball debut with the Seattle Mariners. He was already a legend in Japan, and the rumors of his abilities and past numbers were the stuff of legend. But baseball, for all its egalitarianism, can be insular. Ichiro was a breath of fresh air. Here was a player who wasn’t just a second rate grab by a West Coast team, but was an actual star. He landed with expectations.
And he met them all. He was the reincarnation of that ghost our grandfathers spoke of in hushed tones. The speed. The arm. The glove. The bat, to all fields, in all situations. He was Joe Jackson reincarnate in the body of a Japanese man at the turn of the 21st century. And the legend grew. Those old pros once known as “baseball men” still whisper to each other about Ichiro taking BP: “I saw him hit one over the fountains in KC one day in batting practice. That guy could average 35 home runs per year if he really wanted to.” Probably ridiculous old guy talk. Probably.
Ichiro was 27 when he debuted with the Mariners. As of this writing he is still playing, in Miami, sitting at 2998 hits in MLB. His career numbers sit at .314 114 742, with 350 doubles, 92 triples, with 507 stolen bases (in which he leads all active players). He is a 10-time All-Star, a 10-time Gold Glove recipient, and a first ballot Hall of Famer. Those numbers will only matter to some in the long run. But they’ll be recorded. And remembered. And one day in the future when my nephews or sons ask me about who was great back when, I might just show them this. And only the baseball men will understand.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.