Friday, December 21, 2012

Fifinori, Kuma & 42

In the long-forgotten days before Felix Hernandez threw his first perfect game, there was a traditional event scheduled for August 21, 2012. Trusting that the iconic Ichiro would be a face of the franchise all season long, the Mariners set the date and made preparations. The club with the strongest ties to our Pacific neighbors was proud to be hosting another Japan Night. As the day grew near, the team sent out a press release and local organizations got on board. With contagious enthusiasm, Rick Rizzs and Dave Sims promoted "Japanese Baseball Appreciation Night" during their broadcasts.

Sadly, right field would no longer belong to Ichiro. Fans in attendance would not be chanting and beating megaphones in unison. Nor would there be a fired up ouendan with drums and trumpets. Mune wouldn't be digging into the box while the crowd belted out his personal fight song or a chance theme to fit a given situation. Home run sluggers would not be tossing a little stuffed mascot to a kid in the seats. The crowd would be encouraged to cheer, but there would be no happy umbrella dances, no celebratory pogoing, and no colorful jetto fuusen to scream skyward for Lucky 7. The bleachers wouldn't be singing a regional anthem to celebrate a win. It was going to be a special game, but these guys were gonna feel right at home in The 'Pen.

It still seemed like a prime opportunity for Hisashi Iwakuma and Munenori Kawasaki to be part of an M's victory. Maybe one or both of them would do something worthy of a hero interview. It might have seemed like Japanese baseball for a few seconds before John Jaso could sneak up with a whipped cream pie. Of course, it didn't happen that way. With a bit of help from the baseball gods, August 21, 2012 was all about Felix Hernandez. Nobody in the world is complaining about how things worked out. It was absolutely perfect.

Hopefully, fans will long remember that Hisashi Iwakuma picked up where Felix left off and extended the streak of consecutive hitless at bats to 42. Their combined efforts set an all-time franchise record. The Mariners are not sure how many other times it happened in MLB history, but confirmed that it hadn't occurred in the lifetime of Kevin Millwood. The Millwood metric clearly illustrates that Major League Baseball moves at a glacial pace.

On the day Millwood was born, The Sporting News named Lou Brock "Sportsman of the Year" for 1974. In the winter of 1974, there were 22 names on the all-time list of players from Venezuela who had appeared in at least one MLB game. Thirty-five years had passed since the debut of Alejandro Carrasquel.

After a taste of success during the 2004 season, Felix Hernandez celebrated his very first big league Christmas. In the winter of 2004, there were 22 names on the all-time list of players from Japan who had appeared in at least one MLB game. Forty years had passed since the debut of Masanori Murakami.

Maybe somebody will crunch all the relevant historical data and discover that 42 straight batters were retired in the days of the velocipede, parasols and penny arcades. Perhaps the narrative will include a lengthy rhubarb broken up by an umpire with a pistol. If this stellar pitching streak happened before, it's safe to assume that the feat was accomplished when right-handers from Venezuela and Japan weren't considered for MLB rosters.

When Hisashi Iwakuma takes the mound in September of 2013, the franchise can mark twenty straight years of welcoming Japanese players into the extended Mariners family. That represents nearly 56% of a relatively short organizational history. The Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles have welcomed African-Americans into their system for 52% of a much longer period of time. In the context of breaking barriers and cultivating a culture of inclusion, both numbers represent remarkable legacies of progress.

42 consecutive ought to be easy for fans to remember. Records are pretty cool. Change is even cooler. Some sort of "Japanese Baseball Appreciation Night" this year is still a grand idea. Better late than never, right?

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