Ichiro Suzuki is done as a player in 2018. The jury is out still on whether the baseball legend is calling it quits for good.
The Seattle Mariners announced Thursday Ichiro will move into the front office as special assistant to the chairman, effective immediately, for the remainder of the 2018 season.
“I didn’t imagine being able to wear this uniform at the beginning of March,” Ichiro said during a news conference on Thursday in Seattle. “Every day, from the time I signed the contract with the Mariners until today, it was like I was being given a gift, I was really happy.
“I love my teammates. I wouldn’t have been able to make this decision if there weren’t people here I really liked.”
Ichiro was in his 18th MLB season and 13th with the Mariners. He began his MLB career with the team in 2001 before being traded to the New York Yankees during the 2012 season. He spent time with the Yankees and Miami Marlins before rejoining the Mariners on a one-year deal on March 7. The 44-year-old appeared in 15 games this season and batted .205.
“We want to make sure we capture all of the value that Ichiro brings to this team off the field,” Jerry Dipoto, the team’s executive vice president and general manager of baseball operations, said in a statement. “This new role is a way to accomplish that. While it will evolve over time, the key is that Ichiro’s presence in our clubhouse and with our players and staff improves our opportunity to win games. That is our number-one priority and Ichiro’s number-one priority.”
Japan awoke to the news Friday morning, with Ichiro plastered on the front page of many newspapers and discussed on multiple news programs.
“Knowing Japanese fans, and how popular (Shigeo) Nagashima still is, if there was a poll of the top three players (in Japanese history), I think there would be Oh, Nagashima and Ichiro. Even now, I think,” Robert Whiting, acclaimed author of “You Gotta Have Wa” and “The Meaning of Ichiro,” told The Japan Times on Friday.
The move comes just before the Mariners were set to host a weekend series against Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angeles Angels.
“I have great respect for him for his contributions to baseball, the fans and the country (Japan),” Ohtani told reporters in Los Angeles, where the Angels were preparing to face the Baltimore Orioles.
Ohtani, who was named the American League Rookie of the Month for April on Wednesday, as Ichiro was in April 2001, is expected to pitch during that series.
“Of course it would’ve been nice to face him,” Ohtani was quoted as saying by Sports Nippon.
Ichiro may be stepping away, but he isn’t ready to announce his retirement just yet.
“By being given this opportunity, I can keep working toward that (continuing as a player),” Ichiro said. “At the same time, even if I wasn’t given this chance, I would surely keep looking for a way to continue.”
Whether or not Ichiro plays again, he’s already cemented his status as one of the game’s most important players.
“I’m certain he’ll be elected into the Hall of Fame, in five years on the first ballot for sure,” Whiting said.
“He was really a good representative of the Japanese style of baseball with his practice routine. He had the same intensive pregame practice routine every day of the year for the 17, 18 years he was playing (in the majors). Guys on the other teams used to stop and watch him, because it was such a labor-intensive workout.
“I think he set an example for people to follow, and he showed the major leagues there’s value in the Japanese approach to the game.”
Ichiro’s success also helped pave the way for other Japanese stars.
“I think if Ichiro had failed, I think Hideki Matsui would’ve stayed in Japan,” Whiting said. “I think he would’ve stayed with the (Yomiuri) Giants. Those two had a rivalry, there was a lot of jealousy there. I think if Ichiro had failed, then Matsui wouldn’t have gone. I think he probably would’ve figured it was too hard to succeed.
“The fact that he succeeded as a position player made other players think they could succeeded, too. But as it turned out, there haven’t been very many position players who have succeeded in the States.”
In Japan, Ichiro amassed 1,889 hits and a .353 average in nine seasons with the Orix BlueWave. He received three straight Pacific League MVP awards (1994-96). In 1995, he helped lead the BlueWave to the PL pennant and brought a Japan Series title to Kobe in 1996.
Among his many accolades are seven PL batting titles and his place as the first player to lead the league in both RBIs and stolen bases in the same season, which he achieved in 1995.
“The Americans didn’t see the Ichiro that played in Japan,” Whiting said. “There were two things that were different about him. One was he lifted his leg when he swung, and the second one was in Japan, he hit a lot more line drives. In the States, (former Seattle manager Lou) Piniella told him to hit down on the ball, hit it on the ground and take advantage of his speed.
“He was a different kind of hitter in the major leagues. I thought he was more interesting in Japan, actually, as a hitter. Because he hit more home runs and he hit a lot of line drives and a lot of extra base hits. In the States, he became an infield hits specialist, who was a hell of an outfielder. He had a terrific arm. I still remember that throw that he made (from right field) on the baserunner (Terrence) Long. He threw him out at third base. Jesus, that was something else.”
Ichiro won both the 2001 AL Rookie of the Year and AL MVP awards in his first season in North America. He also reeled off 10 straight years with at least 200 hits, tying Pete Rose for the most 200-hit seasons in a career. Rose, however, never had more than three straight 200-hit campaigns.
Ichiro broke George Sisler’s MLB single-season record for hits with 262 in 2004 and is also 10th on that list with 242 in his rookie season.
He ranks 21st all time in MLB history with 3,089 hits and is one of 31 players to have reached 3,000. He’s also one of seven to amass at least 3,000 hits and 500 stolen bases in the majors. Ichiro currently has a .311 average in 18 MLB seasons.
A defensive maestro, he won 10 straight Gold Glove Awards from 2001-2010 and will forever be remembered for his stunning laser-beam throw from right field to nail Long at third during a game against the Oakland Athletics in 2001.
The Mariners are hoping he can pass on some of his vast knowledge to his teammates.
“With Ichiro’s track record of success, his personality, his unique perspective and his work ethic, he is singularly positioned to impact both our younger players and the veterans in the clubhouse,” Dipoto said in his statement. “We really don’t want him to change anything that he’s doing right now, with the exception that he will not be playing in games.
“We believe that Ichiro’s signing and his assimilation into our team has helped us this season and we want to make sure we continue that.”
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