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Endings, Beginnings, and the Ichiro In Between

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Thoughts on aging and the retirement of the player who saved baseball for me

Ichiro Suzuki #51
Like you imagined when you were young

I turned a year older today, a couple hours before I woke up at 2:30 AM to watch a baseball game. Although we’re conditioned to see turning a year older as bad, and certainly mortality creeping closer can be disconcerting, I like this new higher number next to my age. I promised myself I wouldn’t freak out over birthdays anymore the year I turned 30. My dad had died a few months earlier and things like that will make you realize what a gift it is to see that rising number.

I often wonder if I’d be a baseball fan without my dad’s influence. He loved the game more than anyone I’ve ever known, with a romanticism I seem to have inherited. The first Opening Day I watched after my dad died, the Mariners also played in Japan. I woke up early to watch both of those games too, appreciating the differentness from the typical season opening that eased the hurdle over a difficult milestone.

Growing older is a privilege, but sometimes it’s a tough transition. I’m fine with the growing number. I kind of like the lines that are etching themselves next to my eyes. I have enjoyed discovering truths and small wisdoms that come with age, although I often wish I had discovered them sooner.

For my birthday, the Mariners gave me a beautiful gift. This is the first time they’ve played a regular season game on my birthday. Playing in the middle of the night gave me the chance to watch two entire games uninterrupted by my children (who, blessedly, generally sleep through the night now) or the little things I always feel like I should be accomplishing during the day. I got to see Yusei Kikuchi make his first start in Japan. Braden Bishop, a player I watched at the University of Washington, made his major league debut, adding another fun player to look back on in my trove of college and minor league game score sheets.

I suspected (along with everyone else, I can’t take credit) that it would also be Ichiro’s last game and the chance to say goodbye to a player who has meant so much to me.

I was a freshman at the University of Massachusetts when Ichiro debuted for the Mariners. Alex Rodriguez had signed with the Texas Rangers, leaving me to fend off barbs from the Red Sox fans surrounding me. I kept telling them A-Rod was no big loss. Ichiro Suzuki would make us forget all about him. I missed the first couple months of Ichiro’s tenure while I was away at school because we didn’t have things like mlb.tv in those days. In fact, my dorm didn’t even have high speed internet.

I got a job that summer at Safeco Field where I was lucky enough to closely watch Ichiro for the rest of the season. His intricate stretching routines out there in the field were enthralling. He was always planning, always preparing. The way he approached batting was like listening to a fresh interpretation of an old song. He was a revelation.

I’ve often been emotionally reticent, but baseball was the one thing where I wasn’t afraid to let myself feel. I’ve been a nostalgic baseball romantic since before I was old enough to have any real sense of nostalgia. So when the steroids scandal started to break, I felt betrayed by the thing I loved with as pure a love as I’ve ever felt.

I was angry at baseball, angry at the players and the coaches and Bud Selig for letting it all happen. I felt like my nostalgic childhood baseball had been nothing but fiction. The prodigious power hitting Mariners teams? Simply a Disney movie. The epic 1998 home run race? An epic sham.

Of course, as we grow up we realize that things aren’t the way we thought they were in the innocence of childhood. The nostalgic baseball past I so revered was rife with racism. The nostalgia of the good old days of player loyalty was built on the backs of players who could not leave their teams.

What I salvaged from the steroids scandal was a slap hitting singles hitter who played a brand of baseball that was the opposite of the steroids players. He was my respite. There aren’t many betrayals and truths that we can ethically hide from, but I could safely find refuge in Ichiro. I distanced myself from baseball in those years, but Ichiro kept me tethered. I would have found my way back without him, but he kept the flame of romance alive. I don’t know what baseball would be to me without him.

Ichiro’s baseball career is over. I don’t need him to anchor me to baseball or the Mariners anymore. With age has come the realization that nearly everything I thought about the world was wrong. I’ve realized how important it is to correct those wrongs, and to also hold on tight to the things that are good.

In the mirror this morning I see a face that looks different than it did all those years ago, watching Ichiro in right field. The lines around my eyes have become slowly more pronounced and I idly wonder if I should invest in some magic potion or other to fix that.

Sometimes I feel like I could go out to a bar in Pioneer Square, do a couple shots, and dance on the bar like I used to the year I turned 21. Then, I never understood people in their 40s or 50s saying they felt like they were still 25. Now, I get it. The way you look changes, and along with it the way the world perceives you changes. But your perception of yourself changes more slowly. Your whole life you’re young until suddenly you aren’t. It takes a little getting used to.

I understand better now the athletes who can’t seem to let go. Your whole life you’re a super star athlete until suddenly you aren’t. If I were to go out and dance on a bar, it’d be as awkward as Bret Favre trying to throw a football to a receiver again.

Ichiro wanted to play until he was 50. But those tiny insidious changes that come with age crept up on him. If anyone could have defeated them, it was him. But Father Time comes for us all.

So this morning we said goodbye. For many of us, we were releasing a piece of our youth. We reckoned with the passing of time and the creep of age. We reached the last page in a book, reading the final words, The End.

We also saw that time still marches, that new youth is ready and waiting. The major league debuts of Yusei Kikuchi, Braden Bishop, and Brandon Brennan reminded us that there is a new start. These firsts and lasts are the milestones with which we mark the passing of time. The firsts because of the hope; the lasts because of that hope fulfilled. It is everything in between that gives those milestones meaning. Those long seasons where Ichiro came up to the plate every nine batters. The way he dedicated himself every single day. The paint strokes he added to the art of his baseball career happened slowly, collecting themselves over all those seasons.

It has been eight Opening Days now since I lost my dad. Since then, I have myself gotten married and had kids. We bought a house. Endings and beginnings, all of them, and in between I’ve changed profoundly as a person. On these days players have played their last Opening Day, and made their first start. The mass of players sometimes becomes indistinguishable. To stand out and be remembered is a special accomplishment that happens between the bookends. It’s all the time in between the endings and beginnings that matter.

Ichiro is a player who will live on through time, and when we look back on him with nostalgia we will see a player worth every bit of the emotion and the love and the rosy haze through which we’ll remember him.

Woven into the excitement of Opening Day are also waves of sadness. I miss my dad the most when baseball begins, and it’s tough to be reminded year after year that grief is perpetually unfinished business. Amidst my sadness I remember watching baseball with him, and even now after he’s been gone for so long, I never watch a game without thinking of him.

This season starts with a strong dose of melancholy and sadness, but also with hope. New players, a new season, a new year.

For me, a reminder that even when it ends, it’s never really over. The joy of growing older means having the wisdom to contextualize and cherish all that is good.

Ichiro. Forever.