October 24, 2012. Mark it on your calendars as the day the hopes and dreams of all fun-loving Seattle Mariners fans were destroyed. On this date in history, Munenori Kawasaki — he of the crowd-waving, dugout-dancing, fake-base-stealing whimsy — was released by the only Major League Baseball team to have ever employed him. Let’s all now share a moment of silence in honor of Mune.
From a business perspective, it makes sense. There are any number of utility middle infielders around the game of baseball who can bat .192, drive in seven runs, and get caught stealing in fifty-percent of their four attempts. But for Christ’s sake, how many of those utility middle infielders will willingly break out spontaneous dance moves in the dugout, flop their wrists in between pitches at the plate (for dramatic effect, we can assume), leap across the infield lawn when a game has just been won, or smile every single day, for no reason at all? None, I imagine. None of those other guys will do it. Except Kawasaki.
In nearly 28 years of loyal Mariner fandom, I have never seen such a statistically ordinary bench player garner so much love from the team’s supporters for reasons that have so little to do with baseball. In a 2012 season that was as disappointing as they come, Kawasaki gave fans something to latch onto, even when he did little more than entertain from the sidelines. All one had to do to witness the Mune lovefest is check Twitter around, say, the eighth or ninth inning of every Mariners game. If Kawasaki had entered the contest in the latter frames — be it as a defensive replacement or pinch runner, most likely — one’s social media timeline would explode with otherwise-random outbursts of “KAWASAKI!!!” to go with a bevy of comments, pictures, animated GIFs, or YouTube videos of Japan’s other favorite son (after Ichiro, of course).
This adoration I have for Mune isn’t limited to just a few fans, either. Shortly after news of his release broke on Wednesday, “Munenori Kawasaki” was a trending topic in Seattle on Twitter. Never mind the fact that Miguel Olivo, a starter, had also been cut along with Kawasaki. Everyone was talking about the 31-year-old backup who had appeared in all of 61 games in his first (and in all likelihood, last) season with the M’s. People cared about Mune. They enjoyed him. And frankly, it’s gonna suck not seeing him in a Mariner uniform next year.
Type “Munenori Kawasaki” into a Google search box and the first four AutoFill options that appear are “Munenori Kawasaki dancing,” “Munenori Kawasaki gif,” “Munenori Kawasaki twitter,” and “Munenori Kawasaki energy boy.” I guarantee that no other baseball player, let alone professional athlete, let alone human being, enjoys that odd collection of search terms to go along with their name. Which speaks volumes about the person who Mune happens to be.
Kawasaki was the everyman given a chance to play baseball. We rallied around him because we could identify with his joy for a game he had the opportunity to turn into a career. Every single one of us would be thrilled to have his job. And unlike so many of his colleagues, he was thrilled to have his job, too. It didn’t matter if he was sitting or starting; Kawasaki brought his personality to the park every single night. He was fun to watch, fun to have around, and fun to experience when the 2012 campaign more or less went down the tank.
But Major League Baseball is a business. And a conscious business decision was made to part ways with Mune. I get it. I just don’t like it. There are certain intangibles you look for in team players for a team sport. Kawasaki seemed to possess all those necessary intangibles and then some. On top of that, he was cost-effective, earning a near-league-minimum $625,000 on the year. (I know that seems like a lot of money, and it is. But for comparison purposes, consider that in the final two seasons of the show Friends, each “Friend” earned $1,000,000 per episode. Per episode! Would you rather watch a season’s worth of David Schwimmer’s horrible acting at the ridiculous rate of $22 million dollars or a season’s worth of Kawasaki’s quirky antics at a fraction of the cost? Yeah. Pretty easy decision.)
Kawasaki, on behalf of many Mariners fans, you will be sorely missed here in Seattle. You made us laugh over and over again, you made boring games tolerable, you made great games better, and you were a pleasure to be around. I wish you all the best in whatever you pursue next, and sincerely hope that you’ll continue to spread your happiness for life to as many people as you possibly can.
And on one final note, I’ll say this: Nobody, and I mean nobody, will ever mount Casper Wells with as much unbridled passion as you did. That was freakin’ beautiful and I’m so glad I got to be a part of it through my television set.
You’re a gem, Mune. A lustrous gem. Shine bright.