Ichiro's return to Seattle is sparking a lot of buzz, just like when he first came to town.

By Milan Chang
March 29, 2018

Ichiro is back in Seattle. Photo by Milan Chang.

Being a Mariners fan has never depended on a belief in World Series success. Loyalty to the M’s has always been inspired by an unwavering devotion to our hometown heroes, the players who rise above their athleticism to become points of pride for the entire city. Legacies like those left by Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and Felix Hernandez will long outlast the stadiums in which they played.

I was fortunate enough to grow up watching the Mariners through the tail end of their most competitive era to date. Over the course of its 41-year history, the team’s prospects have oscillated between cautious hope and quiet resignation and, unfortunately, the signs marking the start of the coming season seem to suggest that 2018 will be another year of the latter. But one move by the front office is sparking new conversations around a familiar face, even among those who don’t consider themselves Mariners fans.

On the eve of Opening Day, much has already been made of Ichiro’s return to Seattle. Since the news of his homecoming first broke, reactions from around the league have ranged from elation to indignation, but few seem to genuinely believe that his presence will allow the Mariners to break their nearly 20-year playoff drought. The last time the M’s saw themselves in the postseason was in 2001, the same year that Ichiro came to town and made this city fall in love with baseball all over again.

Ichiro memorabilia coming back out of the closet. Photo by Milan Chang.

For me, Ichiro was one in a million. He was a hotshot player who took less than a swing to become a star, whose speed was unstoppable, prowess unparalleled, and charm undeniable, even in translation. Most importantly, he was Asian, and he played for my team.

In his first season, Ichiro recorded 242 hits, picked up nods as both Rookie of the Year and American League MVP, and helped carry the Mariners to the ALCS for the second time ever, tying the major league record for most wins in a single season. He would continue smashing records throughout his career, including the all-time single season hit record and, if you count the years he spent playing in Japan, the all-time career hit record.

But what I remember most are the Ichiro jerseys that became ubiquitous around Seattle, the life-size cardboard cutout my first-grade teacher kept in the classroom, and the way every kid, not just the Asian ones, imitated Ichiro’s iconic batting ritual – you know the one. Ichiro was a star, not a sidekick, and back then, I didn’t have the words to express the significance of seeing a player who looked like me revered for a skill that we were never expected to have. Every win for him was a win for us—me and every other Asian waiting for a hero.

When Ichiro was traded to the Yankees, I was sad but not sorry. I believed then, as I do now, that he ought to do what’s best for him. In 2012, that meant going to a team where he might finally win the World Series ring he deserves. And even though Ichiro returns ringless to Seattle, I refuse to co-sign the belief that it would be best for everyone — baseball fans, the Mariners, Major League Baseball, Ichiro himself — if he retires now.

Baseball is everything to Ichiro. That much has always been evident, as is his increasing anxiety around the prospect of his final year in the league. But Ichiro, having dedicated all of himself to the pursuit of greatness on and off the field, has earned  a victory lap, one in which he may take a final trip around the bases on his own terms, with the team where it all began, and one in which we as fans around the country, from every corner of the world, can pay our respect in the same way Derek Jeter was given his due in 2014.

This season may very well be Ichiro’s last and, even though he wouldn’t agree with me, I could care less how he plays. The year is one of transition in which the Mariners attempt to build a new team in the wake of a legend’s largely-symbolic return. But it would be naive to think that its only significance lies in the team that will be on Ichiro’s jersey when he retires. This year may also be our last chance to show him our gratitude for his contribution to the sport of baseball, his impact on the city of Seattle, and his inspiration to all the kids who needed him. As far as I’m concerned, Ichiro is still one in a million. And I intend to give him the welcome home he deserves.