Sayonara, Ichiro, and thanks for all the incredible memories
There’s something admirable about someone who excels at their profession and continues to approach each day like it’s their first day on the job. While many may search for shortcuts, the great ones spend countless days honing their skills. They are not satisfied with being just a master at their craft; they strive for something greater, which is to be the best version of themselves that they can be. To them, good isn’t good enough.
One such person is Ichiro Suzuki, commonly known as just Ichiro. On May 3, the Seattle Mariners announced that he would be transitioning into a front office role, assumming special assistant to the chairman. This all but ensures that Ichiro’s playing days are over.
Ichiro is not considering this move a retirement, telling reporters, “When I start using a cane, that’s a time I think I should retire.” A look back on Ichiro’s career reveals a man whose dedication to success created someone who is considered one of the greatest baseball players on two different continents.
Ichiro played parts of nine seasons in the Japan Pacific League. He batted .353, with a .421 on-base percentage, and a .522 slugging percentage. Ichiro became an international free agent after the 2000 season and was signed by the Mariners.
It was in Seattle that Ichiro made history. In 2001, he joined former Boston Red Sox outfielder Fred Lynn as the only players to win rookie of the year and the MVP award in the same season. The Mariners won 116 games, and it was the most recent year they made it into the postseason.
Following his earlier success, Ichiro had 262 hits in the 2004 season. This broke the record for most hits in a single season, surpassing the previous mark of 257 by George Sisler in 1920.
Then there are Ichiro’s clutch hits. On Sept. 18, 2009, the Mariners were trailing 2-1 to the New York Yankees. Ichiro came up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and a runner on first base.
The Yankees were on their way to the league’s best record and an eventual World Series victory, while the Mariners were fighting, albeit unsuccessfully, for the wild card to end an eight-year playoff drought. Ichiro stepped into the box and launched Mariano Rivera’s first-pitch cutter into the right-field seats, hitting a walk-off home run against one of the game’s greatest closers.
Ichiro was a model of consistency. All told, he collected over 200 hits in his first 10 MLB seasons. That is still the record for most consecutive 200-hit seasons. He had 10 straight All-Star appearances and 10 straight Gold Glove awards. Ichiro pulled his career batting average above .300 in his 10th at bat, and never would dip under that mark.
He was a stellar base runner, hit to all fields, had a cannon for an arm and could scale outfield walls to rob home runs just like his teammate Ken Griffey Jr.
Ichiro never needed to put his best swing on the ball to get a hit. Since Fangraphs Inc. began tracking batted ball data in 2002, it has not recorded any statistics near Ichiro’s 550 infield hits. The next closest is his former teammate Derek Jeter with 294 infield hits.
Ichiro’s speed wasn’t simply limited to hustling to first base. He is one of four players to have 3,000 hits and 500 stolen bases, along with Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins and Paul Molitor.
When factoring in his hits in Japan, Ichiro has had 4,367 professional hits. Only eight other players in history have had that many hits in any professional league including the MLB, the minor leagues or foreign leagues.
The numbers only tell a part of the Japanese outfielder’s story. ESPN The Magazine had an article on Ichiro in March. Three anecdotes from the article exemplify his commitment to excellence and his passion for baseball.
In 2009, Ichiro went on the disabled list for the first time as a major league player because of a bleeding stomach ulcer. That year, he led Japan to a victory in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, winning the final game with a base hit in extra innings. The stress created from the tournament led to his stomach ulcer. Several weeks later, the Mariners’ team doctor told Ichiro he wouldn’t be able to play on the opening day of the season. Ichiro refused to listen according to his former teammate Mike Sweeney. Before the Mariners ultimately forced him to sit out, his doctor tried to explain that a bleeding ulcer was a serious condition that could actually kill him.
Ichiro’s response: "I'll take my chances." Though he didn’t get his way, it’s amazing that even the chance of death couldn’t scare Ichiro from playing baseball.
The second anecdote is from October of 2017. The Miami Marlins’ season had already ended. Sometime after, Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon went into the clubhouse to get something he had left behind. Gordon found Ichiro in the batting cage working on his hitting. That’s nothing new for Ichiro, as he has been training almost every day since the third grade.
Nothing gets between Ichiro and baseball. His mastery of his craft does not come from natural talent alone. It comes from the hours he spends daily preparing for the next game.
The only thing he hates more than not playing baseball is playing baseball poorly. According to ESPN The Magazine, Ichiro’s wife says she wakes up some nights and hears him crying in his sleep.
This man literally puts blood, sweat and tears into the game he loves. His legendary career has transcended our lifetime, but like all good things, it must come to an end.