ESPN reflects on the life of professional baseball player, Ichiro Suzuki; and how his time in the big leagues has come to define more than his legacy as an athlete; it has become an escape that may soon fade away.
Last week, I spent some time dragging on a good cigar outside a small establishment where there were an number of people striding up and down the street looking for a burger, beer, and a NCAA tournament game to celebrate the end of a good day.
As one might expect in a big city, the street was full of unique characters, one pushing a bicycle attached to a trailer loaded with his belongings, wrapped in plastic and folded neatly in bundles. A second was screaming obscenities at a guy that brushed her has he passed by, and a third was having a spirited conversation, without the benefit of another person or a phone.
Somewhere sandwiched between the street scenes, a call home, and my Facebook page, I decided to check the scores on ESPN. In doing so, I ran across an article written by Wright Thompson, featuring Ichiro Suzuki, formally a right fielder for the Mariners, Yankees, and Marlins.
Ichiro is a sure bet first-ballot hall of famer. He is a ten-time MLB All-Star, a multiple Gold Glove winner, and has had an American League–record seven hitting streaks of 20 or more games (Wikipedia HERE). Still, Ichiro’s impressive numbers were not the central theme of the article. Instead, Thompson wrote about a 44-year-old man struggling with his identity, nearing the end of a career; a career that may have defined him in the eyes of others, but for Ichiro, may have become much more.
The spirit of the article transcends sports. In fact, my sense is that most readers will each pull a little something different from its pages. Case in point, Ichiro does not have a relationship with his father, a man that he admits “burned into him” the discipline necessary to be successful on the grandest stage; yet, in doing so, Nobuyuki has effectively kept his son from fully enjoying the fruits of those efforts, or the satisfaction of knowing when or how to walk away from the game.
From over 4,600 words of dialog, I found my thread in these: “…he's talked about playing until he's 50 but also of his desire to ‘vanish’ once his career ends. Those two desires exist in opposition…” For the entirety of his career, Ichiro has adhered to a strict routine that has earned him the kind of accolades that few will ever know within any profession. This will one day lead to an honored place in the Hall; a place reserved for players like Ruth, Cobb, Mays, and DiMaggio. The man has nothing left to prove, and yet he is not at peace. This is a struggle that I feel many of our first responders have experienced.
After 35 years in the fire service, I have seen too many retire after a long career with little more than a pension, proclamation, and a wooden plaque. This is not to say that they are “entitled” to more, but rather it’s a commentary on just how much of a firefighter’s identity is wrapped into the various elements of the job, and whether they are able to cope after retirement without the benefit of those elements.
There is more. We can be hard on each other. Whether you are a ballplayer, firefighter, or politician, if too much of your personal stock is placed in the love and opinions of others it can be very hard to find an inner peace. And, let’s just get it out there; the fire service does not have any shortage of people that have opinions…tough, barely filtered, and sometimes destructive opinions. It’s clear that Ichiro is dealing with a lifetime of demons set in place at a very early age. It’s a shame that so many firefighters and chief officers are left to deal with the same.
Imagine walking out of the dugout for the last time, knowing that a piece of you has been left behind, and that the value of your legacy remains in the hands of those friends, already bidding for your station or measuring your office for new furniture. I’ve seen it - men and women who, given the time and resources, did their best to make a difference within the profession they loved. And, when it was time to retire they were left with a hollow feeling in their heart because a system, that should begin its measurement of a career by first evaluating one’s character and effort, has let them down.
Ichiro’s paradox remains in his desire to vanish without fanfare and his inability to divorce himself from that which has defined him most of his life. Such will be the outcome destined for many of us: no more fans in the seats; no more adrenaline rush; no more team dinners, or handshakes and backslaps from coworkers. Instead, we are left to reap from the investments we have made outside of the ballpark, the office, or the fire station.
Wright Thompson wrote an engaging piece about an aging (by baseball standards) superstar living the final chapter of his professional life. My sense is that each of us would do well if we imagined ourselves in the same place; greeting an author with pen in hand, ready to take down our story. Would he write that we lived and worked with courage and honor; would he write that we supported each other; would he write that we invested well in our families and friends; would he write that we lived by a code that gave us a sense of peace as we last walk off our playing field? Or, would it be something else.
Japanese culture in general – and Ichiro in particular – remains influenced by remnants of bushido, the code of honor and ethics governing the samurai warrior class. Suffering reveals the way to greatness (Thompson).
I like that. Our professional lives can be demanding; I do believe that it’s how we handle the difficult times and the difficult people that determine our greatness, not the adoration of fans who will soon turn their attention to the next superstar destined to take the field in our place. Indeed, ours is a legacy written over time, in good times and bad, evaluated only by those closest to you and the mirror that either welcomes or haunts you with every gaze.
ESPN Ichiro Article HERE - ESPN • By Wright Thompson • March 7, 2018