If I were slightly more paranoid and were a bit more inclined to carry the race card more easily positioned to play, I’d swear that, when Jay Buhner told Seattle radio station ESPN 710 that he would “vomit” if his former team, the Mariners, re-signed his former teammate, Ichiro, to a fat, multiyear contract extension, I heard faint echoes of people calling my mother a “dirty Jap” during my childhood.
Buhner’s comment made me want to upchuck, quite honestly, because it reflected a rising sentiment among fans in what remains a nascent baseball town. That in turn prompted me, and others like me, to confront an uneasy topic: That some Americans still see the Japanese in an unflattering light because of a war fought more than 60 years ago (a war, by the way, also fought against Germans and Italians, neither of whom conjure even a micron of the bile aimed at Japanese).
Throughout Ichiro’s Mariner career, which ended Monday with his trade to the Yankees, there have been whispers that he was selfish, not a good teammate and in some ways unworthy of his star status. That he didn’t steal enough bases, take enough outs to advance enough base runners, or try hard enough to hit with more power. That he was too wedded to batting leadoff. And that he was too aloof and never stepped from behind the language barrier to reach out enough to the Seattle community, much less his teammates. Fans and media members alike complained that they did not “know” Ichiro.
I don’t know Ichiro, either, not personally, but I do know him from the traits I recognize from a culture germinated in a tiny, isolated island nation: work ethic, conformity, finding and sticking to routine that led to success, maximizing resources, and being obsessive about not wanting to offend (yes, to the point of saying nothing). I forgave Ichiro his translators, remembering the way my mother used to misstate in her second language (English) and endure ridicule for it. His not saying much also meant he never lashed back at his detractors.
Moreover, Ichiro’s silent grind felt familiar. Once a high-ranking editor at The Seattle Times told me, “You are the kind of person who thinks it’s enough to work hard and produce good work.” He had some tips as to what else was required, but I never heard them because my inner voice kept roaring, “What else is there?”
All Ichiro did was hit and field — at unprecedented levels. The first Japanese-born position player (non-pitcher) in Major League Baseball, he owns MLB records for hits in a season (262) and consecutive seasons with at least 200 hits (10 straight). He earned 10 Gold Gloves and 10 All-Star berths, and was named Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player after leading the Mariners to an MLB record 116 victories. He twice led the American League in batting average. He has as open-and-shut a case for Hall of Fame induction as any athlete who has played in Seattle.
How could anyone blame Ichiro for also wondering, “What else is there?” He stood out, and got hammered for it, just as promised by the well-known Japanese proverb about conformity (“the nail that sticks out, gets hammered down”).
In recent weeks, during the countdown to the MLB trade deadline, the debate over Ichiro’s future with the Mariners took on a vicious tone in some quarters. Fans called talk shows vowing to boo him, even after he was traded. It was argued that Ichiro could have been a barrier in what was assumed to be a zero-sum game in the latest Mariner rebuilding effort. That every inning he played — and not all that well — was an inning some younger, developing player could not. Also, that every dollar the Mariners spent on him was a dollar that could not be spent on another player.
The point about playing time has some merit, but only if one believes the Mariners finally know what they’re doing. But there’s no guarantee that the Mariners are going to take Ichiro’s $17-plus million, or whatever he might have earned in a new contract, and sprinkle it on other acquisitions. Mariner executives said Monday that they’d approached Ichiro earlier in the season about the kind of contract extension that presumably would have caused Jay Buhner to toss his cookies. Ichiro’s future with the franchise therefore was not being debated by the franchise itself. What if the Japanese majority ownership simply was going to do what Japanese companies tend to do, and reward a valued employee as his sun began to set? Why all the hand wringing about a fading star continuing to take the field for a team that has been terrible for long? So what? At least the Mariners’ iconic right fielder continued to attract adoring Japanese tourists to a gleaming ballpark whose attendance figures otherwise were dwindling at least as quickly as Ichiro’s on-base percentage.
Many likely will see Ichiro’s request for Monday’s trade as his final act of selfishness, as though he decided to abandon a sinking ship. I see it as very Japanese, on the other hand, to request a trade because he felt he might hinder the Mariners’ rebuilding effort, as Ichiro claims. His welling tears during the farewell press conference seemed to betray the sincerity of that claim.
Part of me suspects that majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, who famously has never seen his own team play in person, is the real boogeyman and Ichiro only was his proxy for the fans’ resentment. I think some envisioned Yamauchi manipulating the puppet strings, Hirohito-like, as his minions mandated Ichiro’s large salary, playing time and fixture in the Mariner batting order — even granting his wish to be dealt to a winning team.
I have struggled to understand what so much of Seattle (or any of it) had against Ichiro. I haven’t wanted to believe that it was because he is Japanese. But even Geoff Baker, the Times’ crack beat writer, recently addressed the subject in his blog for the newspaper:
“Did Ichiro being Japanese have something to do with it? It would be almost naive to think otherwise. Being Canadian, I never really understood the depth of the lingering resentment some Americans have towards Japanese people until a couple of winters ago when I read Laura Hillenbrand’s outstanding Unbroken book about World War II air force bombadier Louis Zamperini’s experiences in a Japanese POW camp.
“After reading the book, it all became clear to me. It doesn’t in any way justify treating new Japanese generations in a hateful manner because of the sins of their elders but it gave me a new perspective on anti-Japanese sentiment in this country.
“And yeah, I do believe that some people carry that sentiment over — even subconsciously — when looking at Ichiro.”
This viewpoint will be pooh-poohed by the same people who argued vociferously that “chink,” which appeared in a Jeremy Lin-inspired, ESPN.com headline, is not derogatory to Chinese. But if you are of Japanese descent, you can’t help but feel queasy about it all, can you?
After all, just a couple years ago, Seattle abided the return of Ken Griffey Jr., a star even more in decline than Ichiro. It was reported that Griffey fell asleep in the clubhouse during a game and, after he was benched for lack of productivity in June, 2010, he abruptly retired, not even in person, and just started driving east. Even so, Griffey has been hired by the Mariners as a consultant and continues to be embraced by fans who forget how prickly he could be during the height of his first tenure in Seattle.
Maybe people just cannot extricate Griffey from that boyish smile emanating from a pile of Mariners celebrating the run that saved the team’s future in Seattle, ironically against the Yankees, in a decisive Game 5 for the ages back in 1995. Ichiro had his moments, but nothing close to that one, and he remained stoically Japanese to a fault and therefore an enigma to most.
Ichiro’s Mariner career ended with a great measure of surprise the day after Bon Odori was celebrated in Seattle. The traditional Japanese summer festival honors the spirits of ancestors. Lanterns are lit at night to help those spirits find their way back home. It is a Buddhist custom with little to do with enlightenment.
Enlightenment can be reserved for more unexpected sources. A week earlier, after a street festival in Seattle’s International District, I was having dinner in a well-regarded Vietnamese restaurant, sitting near a white family of six, each wearing a shirt with “Ichiro” etched on the back. I know that today they all must be feeling a little melancholy and, in an odd way, that feels comforting to me.