[Installment #5 of My First Favorite Player comes to us from Ashley Varela. Ashley is the lead writer of Aerys' Seattle Mariners site, Needleball. You can follow her on Twitter at @wcoastfangirl. Enjoy!]
I dusted off my mother’s scrapbooks the other day. Between vacation photos and Christmas portraits, there is one page dedicated to the Seattle Mariners. It is the only proof I have that my parents were once baseball fans. Beneath blurry snapshots of the 1995 ALDS are two lines scribbled in blue ink: “Lorraine’s favorite player: Randy Johnson” and “Gabriel’s favorite player: Ken Griffey, Jr.”
My parents did not impart these memories to me as a child—or, if they tried, my five-year-old self quickly dismissed the stories. Seventeen years later, the Mariners and I were reintroduced, and I finally had my own line to add: “Ashley’s favorite player: Munenori Kawasaki.”
Unlike my mom and dad, my favorite player did not leave a remarkable legacy in Seattle. His contributions were paltry at best—20 hits, 7 RBI, a batting line of .191/.257/.202 in 61 games and 115 PA. Not a single one of his hits left the infield, except for a rumored batting practice home run. His bWAR clocked in at -0.4, making him only slightly more valuable than Carlos Peguero, Justin Smoak, and Chone Figgins.
Kawasaki first popped on the scene in the 2011 offseason, when word came that an NPB All-Star was offering himself to the Mariners in exchange for a chance to play with his boyhood idol, Ichiro Suzuki. He was chastised for his desperation, but the ploy worked. In 2012, he raked in spring training, earning a season-long spot in the majors.
Despite his Cactus League-leading stats, Munenori’s at-bats were reserved for late innings, when he could be substituted for an injured Brendan Ryan or pinch-hit to preserve the strength of better players in certain losses. Even so, I eagerly scanned the starting lineup every night, hoping to see his name penciled in at the bottom of the list.
There was no definitive moment when Kawasaki claimed his spot as my first favorite player. If anything, it was a succession of little moments throughout the season that endeared him to myself, not to mention the rest of the Mariners fanbase. It was the way he dove back to the bag on pick-off throws, always pausing for a quick round of pushups first. It was the way he flapped his hands between pitch counts. It was the way he chased Ichiro from the dugout when the Mariners took the field during home games.
Although his Baseball-Reference page suggests otherwise, Munenori gave the 2012 Seattle Mariners his all. Even from the bench, he made his presence known: dancing between innings, racing from the dugout to embrace his teammates, and waving to the fans on his slow walk back to the clubhouse. On the rare occasions when he pinch-ran during walk-off wins, his smile was as bright as Griffey’s after The Double.
Last July, the Mariners traded Ichiro to the New York Yankees in the middle of a homestand. When news of the trade broke, just hours before first pitch, my thoughts immediately went to Mune. Would he lose his spark when his idol walked from the Seattle dugout to the visitor’s clubhouse? Would he forget his passion for the game once Ichiro was no longer there to mentor him? Two days later, I had my answer. In his third start for the Yankees, Ichiro attempted a stolen base off former Yankee Jesus Montero. Montero fired a shot to Kawasaki, who laid down a perfect tag—then let out a roar of delight. It was the most excited I’d seen him act all season.
Munenori Kawasaki will never be a logical fan favorite. In fact, many will probably forget his single season in Seattle within a few years, if not a few months. To me, however, he will always be the first player to embody an irrepressible spirit and Little League exuberance for the game, not only lightening my experience of many Mariners games, but giving me a deeper appreciation for Seattle baseball as a whole.