Friday, December 28, 2012

Go Go Godzilla

Out of the blue, a sad and surprising season can abruptly signal the end of an era. Like any other spring, the campaign starts with promise and possibility. Teams break camp with healthy rosters and plans for the future. All goes well for a while, but it's a short ride on a soap bubble. Soon enough, a couple of longtime stars are lost in the wilderness chasing deteriorating tools. Before long, age and injuries catch up with a few more once dominant players. Setbacks mount as the weeks go by. The press taunts fans with sentimental shreds of hope and terse medical updates. As reality sets in and the schedule winds down, memories and tributes pour into the mail rooms and over the airwaves. After a handful of chilly autumn nights, the final out is in the books, speeches are made, and the scoreboard flashes decades of brilliance in a handful of minutes. Celebrated careers end with the sound of applause, tear-stained cheeks, and overflowing armloads of flowers. The last light in the stadium winks out for the winter. The face of the game changes forever. 2012 was one of those years.

Imagine a snapshot from a short decade ago. A happy quartet of youthful veterans are balanced on the cusp of an epic 2003 season. Surrounded by throngs of excited fans, they smile and ham it up for the camera. It's been a November and December to remember. Tomoaki Kanemoto has just bid farewell to the Hiroshima Carp and is joining the retooled Hanshin Tigers. Kenji Johjima and Hiroki Kokubo are getting ready to lead a dangerous Daiei Hawks. Hideki Matsui is saying goodbye to the Yomiuri Giants for a new chapter of greatness with the New York Yankees. Fans in the Big Apple, Kansai, Kyushu, and all around the world are counting down the minutes to opening day. It was a watershed time for baseball. Looking at that mental picture, it doesn't seem so long ago. When this past season began, not one of those stars was expecting to retire. Yesterday, the last of that foursome hung up his spikes.

As a Mariners fan still digesting the historic moments and bitter disappointment of 2002, it was natural to let preconceptions and early impressions grow into negative feelings for Hideki Matsui. He was utterly dominant with the Tokyo Giants. Even a neophyte observer of the Japanese game knew the closest parallel to the Giants was the Yankees. So, when Matsui went to New York, it was easy to believe he was nothing more than a globe-hopping mercenary for evil empires. It didn't help that a widely circulating rumor claimed that Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui were not friendly toward one another. The M's faithful were growing accustomed to seeing number 51 on the front page. In no time at all, it seemed like more folks were paying attention to number 55. This Godzilla character was spoiling a good thing.

Hideki Matsui got along splendidly with the press in New York. He was a consistently friendly face in a tense and aloof clubhouse. He had a familiar swing and results that made sense to Americans. After a decade and a half of witnessing superhuman performances from big stars, the average baseball fan was conditioned to "dig the long ball" and not give much thought to anything else. Ichiro carefully crafted record setting collections of hits that were squandered by his club with increasing regularity, but was quite valuable as a player in a host of other quantifiable ways that remained difficult to explain to the average fan. Matsui murdered the cowhide with less frequency, but it was an easily marketable brand of violence that fit a simple winning narrative. Once Matsui abused M's pitching, his fate was sealed, and more than a few of us decided to dislike him forever. Or, at least for a good long while.

It all changed for me on May 11, 2006. We'd just sat down on the couch to witness the Red Sox and Bombers in old Yankee Stadium. Youk led off and worked a 3-2 count before hitting one to the Captain that he couldn't handle. When that "1" appeared under the big "E" on the scoreboard, it felt like the proverbial bad luck monkey was running loose in the ballpark. Chacon got a strike, then delivered an 0-1 pitch to Loretta that he lifted into left field. Hideki charged in at top speed and the ball reached the pocket of his glove as the leather fingertips hit the grass. It looked like a sure out, but the mitt seemed caught in a bear trap. His hand whipped backward, the glove came off, and the ball popped loose. He tracked it quickly, threw to the infield, and grabbed his wrist. In a split second, I felt like a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person for ever disliking Hideki Matsui.

At that awful moment, this was the combined top five list for consecutive games played in MLB and NPB:
  1. 2,632 - Cal Ripken, Jr.
  2. 2,215 - Sachio Kinugasa
  3. 2,130 - Lou Gehrig
  4. 1,768 - Hideki Matsui
  5. 1,307 - Everett Scott
On the 8th of April, Tomoaki Kanemoto had tied Ripken's mark of 903 consecutive games without missing an inning. A short month later, Kanemoto was chasing history alone. He would eventually join the all-time top five and extend his record streak to 1,492 contests without missing a frame.

When the totals were finally added up, Hideki Matsui had been part of an incredible run of 8,381 games put together by the iron men of baseball. In consecutive contests played between October 19, 1970 and April 15, 2011 at least one of these five names was written on a lineup card and handed to the umpire at the dish:
  1. 2,632 - Cal Ripken, Jr. (May 30, 1982 to September 19, 1998)
  2. 2,215 - Sachio Kinugasa (October 19, 1970 to October 22, 1987)
  3. 2,130 - Lou Gehrig (June 1, 1925 to April 30, 1939)
  4. 1,768 - Hideki Matsui (May 1, 1993 to May 11, 2006)
  5. 1,766 - Tomoaki Kanemoto (July 21, 1999 to April 15, 2011)
In the coming weeks and months of the 2006 season, I found myself routinely looking for news on Matsui's injury. It was a relief to hear that he would definitely be returning in the coming year. One of my favorite Mariners, Kenji Johjima, summed it up for every fan in a chat with ESPN on February 26, 2007:
"I just wish to say [on behalf of] all the Japanese players, we don't have to be your favorites, but please support us."
It took a good long while, but I came to the realization that my biggest problem with Hideki Matsui wasn't Hideki Matsui at all. It was wistfulness. It was sour grapes. It was the disheartening feeling that somebody in the upper echelons of Mariners management didn't have enough faith in Japanese talent to take huge calculated gambles. The Matsui signing didn't represent everything that was wrong with the Yankees nearly as much as it exposed a certain timidness in the M's. Ichiro, Cammy and Godzilla roaming the outfield in 2003 was a very happy daydream. It brought warm fuzzy feelings imagining a triumphant Edgar Martinez bidding farewell at the end of 2004 while a dominating DH waited in the wings. Tad Iguchi arriving in 2005 to replace Bret Boone, being joined by his former teammate Kenji Johjima in 2006 to replace Dan Wilson, and a healthy rotation featuring Dice-K and Felix starting in 2007 made for a very pleasant fantasy. Somewhere in there were World Series championships with huge champagne celebrations that awed veteran reporters and rendered them practically speechless. Japanese talent arrived in a big way over the course of those years, but one couldn't help wondering about what might have been in Seattle. A lot of money was spent on shiny things.

After enduring the misery of those seasons, the arrival of GM Jack Zduriencik brought a glimmer of hope. Hideki Matsui seemed like a nice fit for a team trying to follow up the feelgood story of 2009. In the soft glow of Christmas lights, dazed fans wandered around the cold streets with eyes turned heavenward muttering, "Oh my Lord, did we really just get Cliff Lee in a trade?" Acquiring both World Series heroes had the potential to make 2010 a whole lot more fun to watch. Ever the optimist, I initially imagined a conversation after the Fall Classic that went something like, "It sure was terrific that Ken Griffey had a nice sendoff from his teammates. Now, if the Yankees are going to show that kind of ingratitude to their MVP, we ought to pick him up. He's durable enough, there certainly is a need, and he won't be any more than a year at 8 or 9 million with incentives. Let's make a run at him."

Unfortunately, the conversation seemed to be more like, "Golly, they sure do like that Ken Griffey. Maybe Junior can ride the guys' shoulders around the stadium like that for a few more years. Hitting? Well, he plays golf a lot. It has to help, right?" It was sad for longtime fans to watch Junior play when he was obviously hurting, but nobody was going to make the decision for him. When Kenji Johjima left money on the table to sign with the Hanshin Tigers, the writing was on the wall. Instead of Ichiro and Hideki uniting for a season and giving an instant popularity boost to a rebuilding team, they left the future up to Junior. Instead of bringing some harmony and happiness into the clubhouse, the coming campaign would be divisive and spill over into open confrontations. At a time in his career when he wanted a steady veteran teammate to help set an example, Ichiro had a disgruntled part time tickler who disappeared one day like a lost sock. The Mariners went to hell. Godzilla went to the Angels.

In fairness to Jack Zduriencik, he has been constrained by a pretty tight budget during much of his tenure while the team has paid dearly for old messes. Out of all the incumbent players, it could be argued that only Ichiro and Felix earned their contracts after his arrival. The farm system had to be rebuilt from scratch too. Spending money for any free agent talent has been scarce. Given a second chance to add the M's to the resume of one of the all-time greats, the franchise once again passed on Hideki Matsui, and signed Jack Cust for the 2011 season. He was a total disaster and gone by the first week of August. To make the pill more bitter, Matsui had a good campaign with Oakland. Two straight years of steady production against the Mariners wasn't hurting his numbers.

It was a bit of a surprise to learn Hideki Matsui was spending time in the minor leagues this year, but it was shocking to watch him batting against the Mariners in St. Petersburg. Seeing a player that once dominated the game with nothing left except unyielding will and determination filled me with a familiar sadness. The longtime fan sometimes knows when the end is coming. The day hangs in the air like an unanswered question. It seemed totally plausible at the beginning of the year, but it soon became clear that he wasn't going to Japan for a final season with the Tigers, nor would there be a farewell tour as a DH in the Pacific League. All he had to give was left on the field at the Trop. When the announcement came on Thursday, my heart sank as it had three other times over the last part of the season. I wondered if he really knew how much he had meant to baseball. The sleet made a steady din on the bleachers and memories flooded across a muddy diamond. It's the first winter before the first spring without four of our favorite players. The stadium lights have been out for months. The face of the game has changed forever. 2012 was one of those years.

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?