I do not remember the first time I watched Hisashi Iwakuma pitch. It was likely in 2012, as I was preparing for my first year of college and sorting through an ill-fated long-distance relationship, seeking solace at Safeco in a 75-87 Mariners team. Game logs tell me Iwakuma’s first appearance was a relief outing after sitting the better half of April. He’d just signed a one-year deal for merely $1.5 million, and was a 31-year-old MLB rookie with a 90-mph fastball. What I do remember is for over four years, nearly every chance I had to make it to Safeco amidst trips back from school and summer breaks, the veteran from Tokyo was on the mound. The 38-year-old righty, who will return to Japan this offseason to conclude his career after a few minors rehab stints this season, represented consistency in a way the Mariners rarely produced, and even more rarely retained. What I also remember is how the Crafty Righty with the hitch in his giddy-up became my favorite Mariners pitcher.
“Dependable” is how you refer to a beat-up 2002 Camry or an efficient dentist, but it’s often damning with faint praise to refer to a pitcher. But while Hisashi Iwakuma was a great many things, the Old Bear, most of all, was reliable. From 2012-2017, nine pitchers managed over 200 innings for the Mariners. Only King Félix surpasses Kuma in excellence or availability.
The first of those two years for Kuma were rebuilding, part of the back end of a four-year stretch of 4th-place finishes (which meant last place until the Lastros arrived in 2013). Rebuilding teams rarely are afforded a player like Kuma, whose 2013 was one of the greatest performances in Seattle history. It stung every time a Félix masterpiece was ruined by inept offense, but the knowledge that Iwakuma took the ball the next day was a shot at revenge. Kuma’s 2.66 ERA in 2013 was one of just six qualified seasons by a Mariners starter with a sub-3.00 ERA. The only other names on the list are Félix and Randy. Kuma was neither a wunderkind nor a mulleted demon, but at his best his brilliance could seem like witchcraft.
Following that brilliant season he was never an ace, but he remained a steadying hand. There were nights I recall him faltering: Griffey’s retirement, when the inspirational call to #KeepFighting was followed by six shutout innings, then a six-run implosion and a 10-0 loss to the Brewers. Game 161 of 2016, where the M’s turned to the only pitcher who managed to qualify for the ERA title - the one who only had returned after failing a physical for the Dodgers in the winter - with the season on the line, and the A’s knocked him out in the 4th inning. But that game, like nearly every game of Kuma’s eight-year Mariners career, ultimately had no playoff implications. Yet he still made them matter.
Iwakuma’s descent into a reluctant MLB retirement is a conclusion, and therefore feels like a saddening event. But a career that ends only once one has given all they possibly can give is far from a solemn moment. It’s a celebration. A celebration of the joy he brought to the game and to his teammates.
A celebration of high-floors and hard work being rewarded.
Above all, it is a celebration of 136 times we had the chance to head down to the ballpark or turn the game on and realize, “Oh, Kuma’s pitching, they’ve got a shot tonight.” Kuma gave me hope, just for a night, in teams that often did little else to deserve it. That’s a career worth commemorating.