(Originally posted as a comment on this post, Hisashi Iwakuma agrees to deal with Dodgers, at Lookout Landing.)
Kuma is literally the only reason I developed an interest in MLB. I stumbled across livestreams of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, the sea rising incomprehensibly on the screen of my iPhone, a black video wipe across thousands of lives. I became depressed as the nuclear emergency was recognized and both incompetently handled and reported for over a week thereafter. Seeking hope and solace, I put my newfound expertise at navigating online Japanese media sources to work, and followed the 2011 campaign of the Tohuku-based Rakuten Eagles with pirate-stream 3 A.M. raccoon-eye enthusiasm.
They sucked. Kuma had tried to go MLB to Oakland after his seven years but an injury knocked him out of the contract negotiations and onto a long-ass stint on the DL. When he pressed his case to the MLB over the break in 2012 he was still recovering, no-one in the US (that mattered) knew who he was, and the M’s literally lucked into him.
He was benched longer than any other roster player in that season, sitting disconsolate and alone in the bullpen next to Antony Suzuki, the team’s translator. Suzuki literally sat between Iwakuma and his Mariners teammates, physically at the very end of the bench.
I was at a bunch of games early that year because opening day had produced a giant cluster-f in the concessions which led the Ms to offer freebie makeup tix to everyone who attended that game. The makeup tix were very cheap on Craigslist. I had a lot of opportunities to observe Kuma, shoulders slumped and isolated on the bench.
At one of these games, I was able to draw a smile and a hat tip as I waved my Eagles cap and called his name. A bit later in the season, on a Rainiers Turn Back the Clock day, he signed both my Iwakuma M’s jersey, purchased before his first start, and the Eagles cap. He included appropriate uniform numbers on each sig.
I was at his career-high strikeout game, 13, thrown immediately after returning from a whirlwind trip to Japan to say goodbye to his dying father. I was at his duel versus Darvish, in which he dominated the younger man. I’ll forever be denied my dream of Iwakuma vs. Tanaka, it seems. Last year, my wife and I adopted an aged black lab mix, formerly feral in Snohomish County. I attempted to name the 90-pound black behemoth Kuma. The dog over-ruled me, insisting on “Logan” instead. I was unable to attend Kuma’s no-hitter, as the unusual thunderstorms in the area that day ramped the big dog into a state of such fear and anxiety that he tore the door frame to my bath off as I attempted to shower in preparation for attending the game. We watched it together on the couch, my mild resentment at his neuroses growing with every whiff.
I would have to say, given my near total disinterest in the Mariners this spring during Kuma’s injury hiatus, it’s an unsettled question if my interest in MLB and Mariners baseball will survive his departure. I came to it late for reasons unrelated to family or tradition. I’m middle aged and don’t have kids. My dad is not a baseball fan. My next door neighbor, a senior who was a baseball fan and with whom I enthusiastically shared these past few years, died in his sleep the night before last. I can think of many other ways to spend my time.
Whatever happens, thanks, Kuma. You’ll always be my favorite ballplayer of all time. Ganburo!