Thursday 26 July 2012

On The Flip Side

In baseball, sometimes the uniform becomes part of the player. It isn't something that announces itself. Often, it is the sort of thing that comes to light at the end of a long career. The first one that springs to mind is Babe Ruth.

In your mind, there he is, in pinstripes, with the overlapping NY on his chest. I can't imagine any more lasting image of the Babe. It's like he was a Yankee through and through. Born at home plate in New York. After all, Yankee Stadium was The House That Ruth Built. Of course, that picture is not really reflective of Ruth's career at all.

Six years in Boston at the beginning of his career, a dominant lefthander on the mound. Funny, but we rarely picture him that way. Maybe it makes sense, because Ruth rewrote the rules of hitting in those pinstripes. Odd, though, that the Red Sox spent almost a century breaking a 'curse' of a man rarely pictured in their uniform.

This is from, which you, being a baseball fan, should have visited many times already.
The players of the past, through the late 1960's, became one with their uniforms by virtue of the way baseball conducted its business. The reserve clause dictated that players could be retained indefinitely by one team, and cheaply too! Great players were destined for long careers in one colour.
Musial in Cardinal Red, Koufax in Dodger Blue.  It is natural to us now, but maybe it would have been different in an era where changing teams came naturally when the highest bidder came calling. When baseball moved through the 1970, 80s and 90s, into collective bargaining and free agency, the thought of a player in one uniform and only one uniform became much, much rarer. Many players now seem to change teams like it's a contest to collect the most different shirts. Matt Stairs, Eric Hinske, Jim Thome, Octavio Dotel, I have no lasting impression of any logo or number on their backs.

To my way of thinking, there are two reasons why I picture a player in one uniform over all the others. The first reason is the old school one, the player played so often for one team, that there is no other logo worth associating them with.

Mike Schmidt, Phillie.

Tom Glavine, Brave.

Don Mattingly, Yankee.

Dave Stieb, Blue Jay.

Allan Trammel and Lou Whitaker, Tigers.

The second reason to remember a player is because of some significant achievement in a particular uniform.
Rickey Henderson, 939th steal, Oakland A.
Roberto Alomar, ALCS Home Run off of Eckersley,  Blue Jay.
David Ortiz, 2004 ALCS Hero, Boston Red Sock (Sox?).
Carlton Fisk, 1975 Game 6 waving his home run fair, Red Sock (Sox?).
Roy Halladay.

Hmmmm. Roy Halladay.

Halladay is a very tough one for me. I watched him perfect his craft in the trappings of a Toronto Blue Jay. I think, though, that history will remember him throwing a perfect game, and a playoff no-hitter, and they will see him wearing number 34 in Phillies colours. That's OK with me.

This season, back on June 24th, a player did the same thing Carlton Fisk once did. He went through a huge amount of effort, got on a plane, and changed his socks. Or his Sox, to be more precise. Kevin Youkilis was traded from Boston to Chicago, and donned the White Sox uniform, after seven years only wearing socks of red. (If you were wondering how often a player has worn only those 2 uniforms, do I have a chart for you!) Youk is still an everyday player, and it made me wonder how quickly we would get used to seeing him in only black, white, and gray. I also wondered, if the White Sox win it all with Youkilis at third base, what uniform will he wear in the popular imagination?

Youkilis changing his socks was not what inspired me to write this post. It was a trade, and it did happen this season. And it did happen to a player who became and icon in one uniform.

That sleeve has been bugging him for 12 years.
Ichiro will always be a Mariner.
In my mind he will always be standing, bat held high, tugging at a teal coloured sleeve. All time single season hits record. Ichiro, Mariner. Ten seasons with 200 hits, Icicro, Mariner. 1150 hits in a 5 year span, Ichiro, Mariner. That is the Ichiro in my mind.
The other night, my mind diverged from reality. Ichiro would appear on the televsion in the wrong uniform. In a bizarre twist, and in the blink of an eye, Ichiro Suzuki was a New York Yankee.
And a funny thing about that trade is what got me writing about uniforms and trades. This particular moment got me thinking about what changing uniforms really meant. It meant saying goodbye. Most often, players say their goodbyes in the off-season. There is a podium, and some logo splashed backdrop. There is a statement from the team. Sometimes there is a full page newspaper ad. Less often, there is a long wait for a player, after being traded to another team, or another league, to come back 'home'. There is much expectation. Sometimes he is still beloved, like Roy Halladay in Toronto. Sometimes he is not, like Nick Swisher in Oakland. This time though, something, through a convergence of schedule and circumstance, this time, something magical happened.

Mere hours after being traded,, Ichiro found himself right at home. He was in Seattle, in Safeco Field, and in the visitors dugout, wearing a Yankee road grey uniform, and number 31. He had the unusual opportunity to say hello and goodbye in the same breath. When he stepped out for his first plate appearance as one of the enemy, this was the result.

If you would like to see the video of the moment where Ichiro and the fans acknowledge that they were very special to one another, you can do that too.

And then, the moment had passed, and a new chapter in Ichiro's career and Mariner history had begun. Ichiro singled in that first at-bat against Kevin Millwood, and completed a perfect kind of circle. That hit meant that Ichiro Suzuki had recorded a hit against every major league club. Officially, he was an adversary, though still one beloved by his former home city.

Baseball players, they come to us young, and leave us only when age forces them too. Uniforms and their styles are always changing. Memories, though, are woven out of players talents, mannerisms, and accomplishments. They come bundled with names and numbers and team colours. In our recollection of our favourite baseball moments, the sounds, smells and sights of the game all become details we hold close, and the way the boys of summer wear their uniforms is an integral part of that.

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