Race and Ichiro’s Muddled Mariner Legacy

Did Ichiro ever emerge from the fog in Seattle? (courtesy Rod Mar / rodmarphoto.com)
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.

Ichiro certainly had his moments in Seattle (courtesy Rod Mar / rodmarphoto.com)
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.

6 thoughts on “Race and Ichiro’s Muddled Mariner Legacy

  1. Brian Elsner

    I enjoyed reading your perspective and applaud you for a well written piece. I agree that some people may hold this anti-Japanese sentiment, but I want you to hear why I am essentially anti-Ichiro (probably too strong of language).

    Ichiro is not a good baseball player anymore. He isn’t awful and certainly is ok for the Mariners, but that doesn’t mean he should be back in Seattle next year. He is 38 years old. The M’s need to get younger. To say that they should keep him for attendance is silly in my opinion. It has been proven in this town and across the U.S. (look at Boston), that when you win, people come. The Mariners would have a worse chance at winning with Ichiro the next couple years.

    Great point about us not knowing if the M’s will do anything positive with the $ and roster space now, but we have to hope they do.

    In terms of Ichiro being selfish, I base it purely on my observations of his play. I recognize his not wanting to speak English in public and I respect him for that. What right do we have to ask that of him? I simply saw him as a guy who played baseball for himself first and team second. Whether that is cultural or not, it doesn’t translate to helping a team win in my opinion. That is what frustrated me, especially as his skills diminished. He, like Griffey, could get away with it when he produced at a high level. .260 hitters can’t afford that.

    Lastly, I loved Griffey as a kid. Yet when he was still demanding things in the clubhouse but failing to produce, I was really happy when he drove off in the middle of the night. I don’t believe a winning franchise keeps old, average players around for sentiment. That reeks of losers.

    Thanks for listening. I believe my stance is similar to many educated baseball fans in Seattle.

    -Brian Elsner

  2. Glenn Nelson

    I appreciate your comments, Brian.

    I looked at Ichiro the way I look at the Space Needle. For a lot of people, it’s the way they identified Seattle. I think a lot of people underestimate the impact he had on tourism, especially with the Japanese. It’s almost startling how many Japanese always were at Safeco. His being with the Mariners made Seattle more of a destination for Japanese tourists. I also liked that the rest of the world knew about Seattle because of him. I know fans want to view their teams only through the prism of sports, but professional sports teams are, at their root, businesses.

    It’s hard for me to characterize a baseball player as being “selfish.” I think the game is intrinsically individualized and each team more a collection of players than in the other major sports, football and basketball, which rely more on direct interaction between teammates. As such, I see “selfishness” in baseball in the form of cheating, taking drugs, flaunting rules and not taking care of one’s self.

  3. Jeff

    I’m an Asian-American from the Midwest, for whatever that’s worth to this discussion. I also fall in Brian’s camp of believing that Ichiro played more for himself than he did for his team. There was something Pete Rose-ish about his quest to get as many hits as possible and raise his batting average. Ichiro knew that his biggest claim to fame was the high hit totals and the impressive batting average, so when it came time to do things like draw walks, try to hit for power, or sacrifice outs to get the runner in or over, I never felt like he really was willing to do that. Google “Ichiro” and “selfish” and you’ll get a few interesting hits that suggest some of his teammates didn’t always appreciate Ichiro’s approach at the plate.

    Regarding bringing back Griffey, Griffey’s case seemed a little understandable in the regard that he came back and played for a comparatively modest $2 million/season. I don’t know the context of Buhner’s complaint, but signing Ichiro for anything but a small contract would be a bad baseball move at this point in his career. Ichiro still plays great defense, and he still runs well, but he’s bottom 20 among players who qualify for the batting title in OPS and offensive Wins Above Replacement.

    I do, however, totally agree that there’s a lot of ignorant, anti-Japanese sentiment lingering in this country. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen on internet boards people complain about Jeremy Lin and make references to Pearl Harbor.

  4. Tom

    I see a LOT of similarities between the irrational hatred (and negative media spin) around Jeremy Lin, with Ichiro. There was similar-sounding hating on Yao Ming too a few years ago, or for Daisuke Matsusaka ever since he landed in Boston.

    Ichiro is a 1st ballot hall of famer, one of the best players in the history of the game. The criticisms that he is somehow selfish or not worth the money, sound eerily similar to recent media spin/hate in manufacturing myths that Jeremy Lin is somehow selfish (for shooting) or chases money. Anyone who follows the truth can see how recent media has completely manufactured and spun negative myths about Jeremy Lin, when all the kid is humble, team-first, and basically naive about the vicious haters out there.

    Basically, America is still really racist or prejudiced when it comes to both Asian American and Asian athletes (or icons beyond sports). There is major jealousy and resentment anytime these athletes make notable money; people are quick to jump on how they aren’t worth it, or if they do get paid people are quick to downplay their actual skill and say they were only paid due to being marketing gimmicks. I am firmly convinced that a lot of these superficial criticisms, or excuses about marketing to bring in money, are all related to subtle bigotry and intolerance which still exists toward Asian males in this country.

  5. Look, the issue is an American inability to really enter into his world. My family and I choose not to speak English in public, most of the time. We are more comfortable communicating and interacting in Chinese (although my son and I speak English with each other). For us, the decision was a conscious decision when we were told “If you speak Chinese in public, people won’t like it” by an American family member. We’ve spoken Chinese at home for a quarter century, and see no reason to change our habits in public.

    Ichiro is, in fact, one of the few heroes that my son and I have. His cool handed handling of his job, his consistent efforts, and consistent successes are precisely why he was suck a phenomenal player to watch. Like us, he refused to throw his cultural roots out to pander to a bunch of people who, no matter how carefully you explain the intricacies, will simply never “get it.” There is a certain honor in being able to look at someone who is as likely to grasp the reasons and meanings behind culturally driven behavior as a firefly is likely to grasp the intricacies of a nuclear reaction.

    My son and I each have one, and only one, Mariner’s t-shirt. They are Ichiro #51 shirts, a number that he was initially hesitant to accept because it had been Randy Johnson’s number. He hesitated because he didn’t want to “bring shame” to the uniform. And, as his career begins to fade, he didn’t want to go out in a similar way to Griffey, Jr..

    To us, he is, and will always be, among our favorite Mariners. I thank him deeply for his honorable exit, especially since he may well be able to achieve a personal goal in the process. He is a Seattle icon, a baseball Space Needle. For us, although he is playing for the Yankees, he is still a Mariner, and will always be welcome in our view, whether as a mariner, so a man simply walking down the street.

    As to the issues in Seattle of anti-Asian racism, they are very real. Whether it is the Montessori school who increases teacher requirements to “University Level Writing Skills” when an applicant is Chinese to the mocking of Asian accents and languages, it is very real and very present. However, compared to many other parts of the country, racism here is very manageable..

    If I were to ever see Ichiro in a restaurant, I’d insist on paying his bill. Buhner? Who? Never heard of the guy…

  6. stevo

    Honestly, I was soo happy when ichiro went to the Yankees, because then he can go somewhere where he’s actually appreciated. I was so disappointed hearing so many fans calling him a joke, just a singles hitter, etc. His numbers were unbelievable, and he scored runs, in a place where no one else did consistently. I hope he continues to do well for ny and sticks it to all the haters in Seattle. It’s just like the Hasselbeck haters for seahawks, didn’t matter what they did, people hated them. So f Seattle fans, no wonder the country hate seattle teams. It’s sad, we’re a long way from ever winning a baseball or football championship.

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