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April 15, 2009: Moving the Fences In

So today was the day that MLB honored Jackie Robinson, an annual event on April 15th that has been growing bigger every year since the retirement of Robinson’s #42 throughout all of baseball (except for those players who were still wearing it, like Mariano Rivera). Today every player in the majors (and even the umpires) wore #42, “making every scorecard useless,” joked Dave Niehaus on the Mariners radio broadcast.

I heard the M’s game while driving from Boston to New York to be here in time for the inauguration of the new Yankee Stadium. While deciding which game to listen to on our XM radio, corwin opted for the chance to hear Niehaus have one of his trademark near-aneurysms.

It felt fitting to me that on a broadcast where Jackie Robinson was mentioned frequently, I would learn of baseball’s first Asian-American manager. Don Wakamatsu is, right now, in his first season as manager to the Mariners. Is it hard to believe that it’s taken this long to have an Asian-American manager?

Not really, when you consider there have never been very many players of Asian descent in American baseball, not when compared to hispanic or African-American players. And nowadays you find Asian players from Taiwan, Korea, Japan… but not very many who were born here. (Johnny Damon is part Thai, does he count?)

I do wonder if with role models like Ichiro, a generation of Asian-American boys might see themselves and their dreams differently? At least in the Pacific Northwest, where the Mariners have had Japanese players on their roster for such a long time? Remember when Sasaki was their closer? And now they also have catcher Kenji Johjima? And are owned by a Japanese video game mogul, so I should not be surprised, but it is nice that this means Don Wakamatsu, while he might represent a big step forward, also does NOT have to suffer through the kind of isolation that Jackie Robinson faced in his debut year in the majors.

Wakamatsu had a cup of coffee with the White Sox in 1991, mostly to catch knuckleballer Charlie Hough, and otherwise has done it all, playing minor league ball for years, coaching, managing, and being a bench coach at all levels of the game including with many major league organizations. His father was born in a Japanese internment camp. How’s that for a wake-up call on how different race relations in the USA is now versus the previous century?

It was a nice, tightly played ballgame, very enjoyable to listen to while driving. The Mariners managed their first run on a rare Torii Hunter error where he lost a ball in the lights, but then Hunter redeemed himself with a two-run home run. The Angels ultimately couldn’t stop either Rob Johnson (who came in to run for Johjima) who scored on a safety squeeze, nor history, in the form of two major milestones reached in the course of the game.

Ken Griffey, Jr.–once “the kid” and now an elder statesman on what could be his last tour of duty–is now back with the team where he made his name. The announcers were not shy to point out as he came to bat in the third inning that if he hit just one more home run, it would be his 400th as a Mariner, and he would become the first player to hit 400 homers with one team and 200 with another.

He struck out. But the possibility was still a nice addition.

Then Ichiro got a hit, bringing him to within one hit of a tie with the all-time Japanese hit leader, Isao Harimoto, who was in the stands. Harimoto-san has been waiting for Ichiro to come off the disabled list to pursue the record of 3,085 hits. If you couldn’t tell, I eat this kind of thing up with a spoon.

The score was still 2-1 Angels when little Endy Chavez came to the plate and hit a homer, only the 18th of his career, to tie the game. And then up stepped Griffey. The moment the ball touched his bat, Dave Niehaus’s vocal cords went into overdrive, as the deep drive was a no-doubter. The crowd went so wild and was so loud that Niehaus nearly described the Kingdome instead of Safeco Field, and then said that was why. Griffey tipped his cap to the crowd and got a hug from his son Trey in the dugout. 3-2 Mariners.

Much later in the game, we had arrived at our destination in New York, and the M’s had taken a much bigger lead, 7-3, but as we parked the car in the Bronx, Ichiro came to the plate with the bases loaded. We turned off the lights and the engine and sat and listened to see if maybe this time he could do it, tie the record. Ichiro isn’t known for being a power hitter, so I wasn’t even thinking grand slam, but he does have a flair for the dramatic.

Long high, drive… goodbye baseball!! We erupted into clapping and cheering in the car even before the call was over. A grand slam after all! And 11-3 Mariners. And some lucky fan won $7,000 because they scored seven runs in the seventh inning.

All in all, a wonderful night of baseball, brought to me by the magic of satellite radio, just one of the things that makes this world a smaller place, and people who once seemed so far away, or different from “us,” not so far or different after all.

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