Drayer: Barrier-breaking Mariners legend Ichiro puts bat down for good
TOKYO – After 3,089 hits stateside and 4,367 total between Japan and MLB, the storied career of Ichiro Suzuki came to an end in the land where it started.
The black lacquered Mizuno bat has been put down. Ichiro has retired.
With the standing room only crowd of 46,451 chanting “ICH-I-RO, ICH-I-RO,” and Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. shooting pictures from the nearby camera well every at-bat, the entire Tokyo Dome seemed to be trying to will Ichiro to his 3,090th hit. Each inning he took the field, the roar that became louder was preceded by what sounded like joy that their hero – and make no mistake, that is how he is referred to by many in Japan – was still on the field, still in a baseball uniform, still allowing for the possibility of a dazzling play or that one more hit.
As it was, the 10 months of work, of a pregame routine he stuck with relentlessly, taking batting practice and preparing for games he would never play in just so he could have that handful of precious at-bats in the Opening Series, did not yield a hit. There are no true immortals in the game and time can be held off for only so long – even for Ichiro.
His final at-bat, with the entire crowd at the Tokyo Dome on their feet, ended in a hard grounder to short that Ichiro almost beat out to first. He gave his all, as did Scott Servais and his teammates to give him the chance to get that one hit, but it was not meant to be.
The results of his 19th MLB season and 28th professionally mean little. His mark has been left on the game. A barrier-breaking, record-holding, first-ballot Hall of Famer, Ichiro came to the United States and proved that his baseball would translate. He was who he was when he arrived and he stayed that way. He never tried to assimilate into the American game. Rather he bent it to his will – his will to accumulate hits, for the better part of a decade, posting 200 or more a year from his debut in 2001 through the 2010 season.
Along the way he grew a legion of fans in the US, as well. For the majority of his time in Seattle, if you asked any kid who was his or her favorite player, their answer was Ichiro. While some would think it remarkable that the kids would latch onto a player that preferred to keep an air of mystery about himself, never completely opening up to the media or letting the public get close, the kids saw what Ichiro himself wanted them to see, the joy he took in playing the game.
There was a little extra flair in everything he did, from the iconic pre-swing routine in the batter’s box to the slightly sideways turn he would make when catching a ball in the outfield. Up to his final year with the club, when he would make trick catches in the outfield prior to day games when there was no batting practice, Ichiro always delivered a show for the fans, something that was particularly important to him in the leaner years of his career.
There were glimpses that we got from his teammates of what we didn’t know about Ichiro. The stories of the speeches he gave at the All-Star Game that brought down the house were surprising when we first heard them. Ichiro was comfortable around his fellow All-Stars, the appreciation mutual.
While there was sometimes grumbling in Seattle about how Ichiro went about his business, game appreciates game. Talk to any Hall of Famer, any All-Star, anyone who knows what it takes to maintain what Ichiro has done, and you would be met with contempt if you suggested he was selfish for not sacrificing his body on a diving play.
The ultimate respect
We have seen the appreciation from Ichiro’s current teammates and Mariners management. Much like we saw in Griffey’s final run with the team, a number of these players grew up watching Ichiro in his heyday. When Ichiro was removed from his final game in the bottom of the eighth inning, replaced by the youngest player on the roster in Braden Bishop making his big league debut, his teammates left the field to give Ichiro the entire stage as the cheers rained down.
His cap came off, his arms were raised and then a fist tapped his heart, returning the affection to the crowd, many who had lined up at 6 a.m. for the 6:35 p.m. start in Tokyo. As Ichiro approached the dugout his teammates came out to meet him, showing great warmth with their smiles, hugs and back pats. Griffey, the man who along with Ichiro was carried off the field on teammates’ shoulders on final day of the 2009 season, was there with a Hall of Fame hug.
“It was awesome. This is what baseball is about,” Griffey said. “He got a chance to play in his home country where they saw him grow up. That’s what baseball is. Now it’s time for him to have fun. He’s done everything a player could do. Left it all out on the field.”
The most poignant scene, however was in the dugout, where the day’s starter, Yusei Kikuchi, remained despite being pulled from the game three innings prior. There were tears in his eyes as he watched the player that was his idol growing up leave the field forever. As Kikuchi’s dream of playing in Major League Baseball was beginning, the light was going out on the career of what many consider to be the greatest Japanese player ever.
“Ever since I was smaller, all of my coaches and my parents told me to read books about Ichiro and watch shows about him. I think Ichiro is ever engraved into my lifestyle and me,” Kikuchi said.
And the tears?
“It was building up inside of me the whole game and I had to let it out. I first watched Mr. Ichiro as a third grader and it was my first ever live baseball game, and he was the same person then as he is now.”
What does the future hold?
What’s next for Ichiro remains to be seen. Those close to him have said there appears to have been a better acceptance of his fate in the game in the past few days. Ichiro himself was not emotional when he spoke with reporters.
“Tonight it doesn’t get better than this. There is no happiness better than tonight. Happy is the overwhelming emotion,” Ichiro said at his press conference after the game.
There is no doubt a place for Ichiro in the Mariners organization. As a player he always enjoyed working with younger players. He hopes to be able to continue doing so.
“All the things that I have learned, if I can share it with kids or Major League players, if I could do anything of help, that’s what I want to do,” he said.
A young Dee Gordon, who was joined by Ichiro in Miami in 2015 and has been his teammate every year since, was a beneficiary of Ichiro’s tutelage.
“I wanted to learn from him and he took me in. Shoot, that batting championship I won (in 2015) was partly because of him,” Gordon said.
“The first day I met him I was starstruck. He was my favorite player. My dad (former MLB reliever Tom Gordon) made me watch him. Since then I have been infatuated with him. To get to play with him and be as close to him as we are, it’s surreal. Ichiro is the greatest thing to ever come out of Japan. For me to be able to call him a friend is surreal.”
For Ichiro’s 29 teammates in the Mariners clubhouse at the Tokyo Dome, the entire night was surreal. Ichiro received a curtain call 25 minutes after the game ended, hundreds of media members and cameras following him as he made his way across the field, teammates doing the same with their personal cell phones.
It was an incredible night for an incredible player.
“He just retired and there are still 40,000 people out there,” Gordon marveled. “He deserves it.”
And now it is time to ease into a new chapter. Somehow Ichiro will find a way.
“It’s going to take some time to really think back. I’m going to work out tomorrow, I do think I am going to spend some time on the couch,” Ichiro said.
“I am going to continue to do what I do.”
Words can't describe the scene at the Tokyo Dome over 30 minutes after tonight's game ended.
— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) March 21, 2019