Ichiro and a Day When Baseball Was Perfect

I remember it happening in slow motion.

I don’t know if it felt like that as it happened, but in the countless times I’ve replayed it in my head it feels slow. There was a loud crack, the kind that sounds exactly the way it should. Then, silence and a baseball flying slowly away from the bat out toward right field. Surely just a long fly ball. It sails and spins further and further toward the outfield wall until it slips cleanly over the fence.

The sound comes back to my ears as I hear myself cheering. As the ball had sailed and spun I had risen to my feet, holding my daughter so she could watch him circle the bases. We yelled and clapped along with everyone else at Safeco Field who had been lucky enough to experience a perfect baseball moment on a cold April afternoon.

*****

It’s easy to romanticize baseball and imbue it with a meaning that doesn’t exist. I’ve been guilty of placing baseball in a position where it cannot possibly live up to the expectations I have for it. Coming into last season I had so many expectations of baseball. I felt sure that this was the season my team would rediscover playoff magic. I placed upon the team and baseball the job of inspiring me to write.

The Mariners started the season against the eventual World Champion Astros (which should maybe make us feel a little better about it in hindsight). They sucked. It was awful and unfun and horrible. I clung to a wholly unfamiliar to me tendency to look for the bright spot. I needed baseball to give me a bright spot.

For reasons unrelated to baseball, I felt all the wrong gears clicking in my brain. I felt the serotonin being sucked right out of there. In my mind’s eye I saw the picture my bio psychology teacher drew on the white board to illustrate the physical things that happen in your brain when you’re depressed.

Oh yes, I thought to myself, as I could swear I felt the serotonin sliding into those receptors and disappearing, this again. Hello, depression, my old friend.

This is when I task baseball with a job it is wholly unqualified to do and lay the heaviest expectations at its feet: to make me feel better.

But, you see, baseball is not a therapist or a general practitioner or a drug. It doesn’t care how we feel or what we want. It isn’t concerned with the balance of our brain chemistry.

There is a period, usually only a day or two, sometimes three days long, where the tears flow easily. There is no reason for them other than the heaviness of a dark melancholy. It is heavy, it hurts, and my body aches under its weight. Once these intense days pass there is a longer period of nothingness. It’s a relief at first, until it feels like being trapped in a tiny windowless room. I can’t break out on my own so I demand that baseball save me.

But baseball doesn’t heal. It is not a drug. It is not even concerned with the chemistry of my brain.

I’m in this state of mind when I decide to try taking my 19-month-old daughter to an afternoon Mariners game against the Marlins, probably the last time Ichiro will play baseball in Seattle. I can commit only to trying because I don’t know how I will feel when I drag myself out of bed to make her breakfast.

I don’t feel great, but I try because I’m lucky that my life is flexible enough that I can run off to an afternoon game in the middle of the week. I try because I want to go to a game just her and me. I try a little harder because I know I can’t miss this chance to watch Ichiro one last time.

I was away for my freshman year of college when Alex Rodriguez signed with the Rangers, the latest in a series of Mariners superstars to put on a new uniform. I lamented the loss on my Angelfire website and expressed the hope that maybe this new outfielder from Japan would dry our tears and give us someone new and worthy to love. I didn’t get to see Ichiro live until midway through the season when I got a job at Safeco Field to fill my summer break. I watched him out there in right field, always stretching, always nimbly chasing down those fly balls. He’d slap the ball in the infield and fly down the line. It was baseball played in a way I’d never seen before and I was enthralled with it, having become bored with the swagger of sluggers and the ennui of offenses built only for power. He was fun and exciting and I remember well the blissful innocence and excitement of that summer of 2001.

******

There are always voices. You hear them whether you want to or not. Ichiro is selfish. He only wants hits. He’s not a leader. And maybe the silliest of all: Ichiro can hit home runs whenever he wants to. Yeah, eye roll, okay. To all of that.

Those voices. You need to take anti-depressants; that’s the only thing that will help. How can you consider taking anti-depressants? Why would you try to get pregnant when you’re dealing with this? You have to do something, think of your kid! And worst of all: Just stop whining and change whatever is making you depressed.

Who says these things? I’m never really sure. But I hear them. The drumbeat of “You’re selfish, you’re selfish, you’re selfish.”

Baseball isn’t a drug. Baseball isn’t a healer.

Sometimes though, baseball soothes. Sometimes it’s a balm for the pain and a quiet voice that tells you it’s going to be okay.

Sometimes baseball is meeting people you’ve only talked to on Twitter, making you realize how isolated you’ve made yourself while trying to cope. Sometimes baseball is breaking your “real food” rule and sharing garlic fries with your toddler. It’s the joy of watching her point excitedly at her first glance of the field and yell, “Baba!”

It’s talking to a gentleman sitting down the row from you, taking in the game by himself and keeping score. He’ll reminisce about taking his sons to games when they were small and the scorecards he’d saved from those games.

It’s the family with two older kids who will sit in front of you, their 5-year-old gently playing catch with your daughter.

It’s watching a player you deeply love step up to the plate, most likely for the last time in the place you first met him. This player who did everything different, who heard those voices and kept on keeping on. He put his head down and ran down the first base line harder. It was how he played; it’s what worked for him.

He reminds you that you are dealing with this, even if it’s not the way the voices think you should. You know you’re not selfish because you feel yourself putting your head down and running harder down the line to make sure your brain imbalance doesn’t affect your kids.

You look out in right field at Mitch Haniger, with all his hype and expectations. He’s a new kind of player: the one who makes adjustments and becomes a star. At the plate is Ichiro, once the new outfielder from Japan who used to roam that same outfield, Area 51, as Dave Niehaus used to call it. The new guard in place of the old guard.

At the plate a perfect swing meets the right kind of pitch. The balls flies and takes its time to just reach beyond the new guy’s glove.

It feels….it feels like you can feel the rush of serotonin flood your brain. It may be temporary, but it’s a moment where everything feels right again.

*****

Baseball doesn’t fix. It doesn’t heal. It doesn’t solve problems. It scoffs at your romanticizing of a game that doesn’t care a lick about you.

But baseball does soothe. It comforts. It reminds you of magic and innocence and the belief that you will be okay.

And sometimes it gives you a perfect moment when you most need it.

*****

Welcome home, Ichiro. That is just one example of what you mean to me. I could write a book about all the ways you have saved baseball for me and maybe I will someday. Whether you play until you’re 50 or not, you’ll always have a place in the starting lineup in my heart.

P.S. People like to make fun of how you dress, but I genuinely love your style.

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