By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Seattle Mariners and Oakland A’s opened the 2019 Major League Baseball season in Tokyo, Japan. The visit to Japan was memorable, as Ichiro Suzuki decided that the right place to finish out his career was where it all started.
A superstar in Japan
Ichiro’s return to Japan came with much fanfare. A revered hero in the country, media and fans took pictures and videos of his every movement on the field. They applauded every fly ball caught during practice — he even treated the public to an almost behind-the-back catch of a ball. (Though Ichiro dropped the ball, everyone still applauded the effort.)
Initially in this opener against the A’s, some fans did not know whether this was the final game for Ichiro or if he would return for the second game. However, their question was answered when Ichiro was pulled from the game halfway through, signifying his retirement, as a “present” to the fans in attendance. (Ichiro was also substituted prior to the start of an inning to the surprise of many.)
Drawing such attention like this for one player is not common, and it threw the polite Japanese fans off. But when fans realized that Ichiro was leaving the game, many immediately showed their respect.
While it was not his official farewell, it was a goodbye to fans that would likely see him in uniform for the last time. It was a nice way to make the sellout crowd in attendance happy.
Officially the end
On the second day of the short two-game series, Ichiro announced that the final game in Japan would be the final game of his career. Stoic as always though, Ichiro played the game as if it was just another day.
Late in the game, he stepped up to the plate with a runner in scoring position, and the game tied. He was given the opportunity to drive home the go-ahead run, which would be the storybook ending that everyone wanted.
The sold-out crowd at the Tokyo Dome cheered Ichiro as he walked up to the plate and was dead silent when he was at-bat. Ichiro fouled off multiple balls with two-strikes on him, avoiding a strikeout for his last at-bat. He was able to hit a ball to the shortstop and, try as he may to invoke the hustle and speed of his past self, he could not beat the throw to first base.
Despite being out, fans cheered wildly and stood with applause for their hero.
The next inning, the Mariners took out Ichiro prior to its start. They allowed him to run out to his familiar right field position one last time to warm up. Then, Mariners Manager Scott Servais made the change to bring in rookie Braden Bishop, a former University of Washington standout, to replace the 45-year-old. The rest of the Mariners players on the field came into the dugout so that Ichiro was alone to soak up the adoration of the crowd.
The game stopped so that teammates could congratulate Ichiro and his Hall of Fame career.
During his major league career, which started after a stellar seven years playing professionally in Japan, Ichiro amassed 3,089 hits and a .311 batting average. Of his 18 years spent in the major leagues, Ichiro played most with the Mariners, but also had stops with the New York Yankees and Miami Marlins.
He will be remembered as an icon in Japan and a superstar to most in Seattle sports. He remained a mysterious sports figure due to the fact that he never directly spoke with the media, as he always used an interpreter. Yet, Ichiro does speak Spanish and English and converses regularly with other players.
Personally, I recall, at a Mariners fan meet-and-greet, that he was very cordial and introduced himself to me and my sons as if we didn’t know his celebrity status. Just to be next to him, there was a feeling that he was a superstar. While he may not have been an outgoing figure, Ichiro led by example, with his precision, work ethic, and dedication to the craft of baseball, especially the art of hitting. He will be remembered for playing with the Mariners and in Major League Baseball lore.
As Ichiro went through the line of Mariners players in his final goodbye game, he said bye to Yusei Kikuchi, who formally bowed before moving aside in tears.
Ichiro gave him a pat on the arm, as if to say, “Don’t take it so hard, kid.”
But one of the reasons why Kikuchi chose to play for the Mariners was due to “Mr. Ichiro,” as he referred to him. He had patterned his play after Ichiro and his boyhood dream of playing with him had come true. And, it was ending as soon as it was starting.
Kikuchi, along with many of the Japanese fans in attendance, shed a tear for the end of an era. Perhaps it was fitting that Ichiro’s last game was the very first major league start for Kikuchi, who was the starting pitcher in the game.
He pitched almost five innings, allowing just four hits and one earned run, while striking out three Athletics. While it was his first start, you might think to yourself that what he’ll remember the most was Ichiro retiring over his pitching performance.
The Mariners ended up winning the game in extra innings. After the game, Ichiro took a victory lap to celebrate the end of his career, to another standing ovation from the fans.
Ichiro’s departure from the Mariners seemed to be a long goodbye. Many had believed that the last time we would see Ichiro play baseball was his 2017 appearance at then-Safeco Field, when he was part of the Miami Marlins. That day, in his very last at-bat in the top of the ninth, Ichiro hit a home run into right field. Maybe that would’ve been a fitting end to his career in Seattle.
But then he was re-signed last year by the Mariners, as the team was in need of outfield help. Unfortunately, Ichiro did not show the same crafty hitting skills as he did in the 2000s, when it seemed as though he would reach base every game via a line drive, chopper, or beating out an infield hit.
So the Mariners made the unusual decision of taking Ichiro off of the roster and making him a “special assistant.”
Still, if you attended Mariners games, you could see him in his uniform and taking batting practice, making us wonder, will we see Ichiro again? I like to think that Ichiro will remain a part of the Mariners organization in some capacity. While his career may be over, you can tell that Ichiro still loves the game.
While he has recognized that his special skills may not be there at 45, he still has an affection for being in the batter’s box and taking batting practice.
Ichiro may be second to only Ken Griffey, Jr. as the most popular Mariner in team history.
Ichiro may have more of a global following, especially in Japan where he is the premier baseball player.
He was not the biggest or most outspoken, he was simply one of the best. Ichiro stood out to many Asian fans because he was them. He was not the daunting physical specimen with hulking muscles or a towering figure with overbearing power. He was quick, precise and exciting.
And while there have been great baseball players that have come to the United States from Japan, Ichiro may be the most well-known, most popular, and best to compete in the major leagues.
Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.