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40 in 40: Hisashi Iwakuma

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Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Hisashi Iwakuma was not supposed to pitch for the Seattle Mariners.

This is because Hisashi Iwakuma was going to play for the Oakland Athletics. They even paid a whole bunch of money–more than you're ever probably going to make in your life!–just for the right to snatch him up from the Rakuten Golden Eagles, to lure him to one of the best young rotations in the American League. But then the A's did what they always do and they freaked out about their balance sheet, and before you knew it Kuma was headed back to Japan to pick right up where he left off.

One year later, Hisashi Iwakuma signed a one year, $1.5 million dollar baseline deal with the Seattle Mariners, a mere fraction of what he had reportedly been offered by the Athletics. He said the money didn't bother him, that he just wanted to have a good relationship with the team, and that he liked Seattle and yada yada yada. In any case, Eric Wedge wouldn't start him until July, because he just had to throw Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi out there instead.

Hisashi Iwakuma was not supposed to be a starting pitcher for the Seattle Mariners.

Fast forward four years and you'll arrive at the other end of hundreds of moves, some good and some bad, but ultimately the weird thing is that first sentence up there is still applicable to this very moment, unedited, unaltered. Hisashi Iwakuma was not supposed to be a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners, because Hisashi Iwakuma was going to get $45 million dollars from a television corporation down in Los Angeles. The Mariners took one look at their 34-year old former All Star's oft-injured arm and realized a multi-year deal was too risky, and instead offered a reasonable plate of pan-seared chicken topped with that cheap salt that comes in a little paper packet at the edge of the diner table. The Dodgers, on the other hand, spoke with their appetite before their brain. But the good news was that as soon as the synapses fired, the heart wound up winning the whole thing. And we probably never deserved any of it in the first place.

Hisashi Iwakuma is a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners.

It's tough to say exactly what the Mariners are going to get out of Hisashi Iwakuma in 2016, which frankly is exactly what you could say about the whole season when you get right down to it. He's entering his 35th year of life after nearly a decade of nagging arm trouble. He's probably going to notch some strikeouts, perhaps give up a few too many dingers. He will throw one single pitch that scorches the radar gun at 93 MPH, and then he'll throw about 178 others that sit around 89. He'll get pulled in the eighth with two on now and then, and he might miss a month after his split grip claims another fingernail. Or something.

Hisashi Iwakuma isn't going to stare down Mike Trout and refuse to settle for a flyout, throwing four more pitches than he needs to down in the dirt just to prove he's better before leaping off the mound and roaring into his glove, slamming his fist onto an invisible table while pointing to his catcher. He's not going to wear flashy socks and surprise prospect writers, and he's not going to give a quotable post-game interview that can be shared on Twitter while you patiently wait for the recap. There won't be any silly cut-aways to the dugout during an interleague game where he shows off his killer moves with a bat, and he's not going to be the guy who shows all the kids in camp what it means to play in the big leagues.

These are some of the qualities we look for in our sports stars, and I'd be lying if I said none of them described my favorite players who have come and gone from this stupid baseball team that we've all been subjected to for too many years out of our already too-short lives. But none of them describe Hisashi Iwakuma, who despite it all, somehow, remains my favorite player on the Seattle Mariners.

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(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

In a way, I cannot think of a player that more perfectly embodies the last decade of what this franchise, and its beleaguered fans, has gone through. He will run out a near-four win season, tiptoeing into the spotlight of the nation's most populous media market. Then he'll disappear after getting his finger stuck in a net in February, throwing it all to hell. He'll be one out away from a complete-game shutout before giving up a two-run dinger on one bad pitch, and then get pulled for fucking Yoervis Medina. He'll give up six earned runs with piss-poor pitch movement, and throw a no-hitter a few weeks later.

And despite it all, despite having just about every possible mechanism in place to keep him from even being on the team, he somehow is just there, ever-present, like the conscience we always knew this team had but never wanted to own up to in the first place. He's in the dugout with that goofy smile, he's there lightly slapping his glove after inducing an inning-ending groundout to third. He's just kind of there, and even though the universe has done everything in its power to keep him from us–from injury to free agency to posting rights–his absence only confirms his presence more.

I don't know if Hisashi Iwakuma is going to have a great season. Although he's shown a remarkable ability to adapt to his circumstances, the track record for aging pitchers with iffy shoulders isn't encouraging. And yet despite the fanfare we're gonna throw at Felix in a few months, despite the King's Court and Taijuan's awakening and James Paxton's chance to prove he can finally stay healthy for an entire season, it is Hisashi Iwakuma that will represent the best, or the worst, of the Mariners through thick and thin, win or lose.

Hisashi Iwakuma was never supposed to be on the Seattle Mariners. And to both ends of that statement, I can assuredly say, we deserve it.