When it was finally time for it to end, after a career that began with the Orix BlueWave in 1992 in Kobe, Ichiro Suzuki looked into the crowd at Tokyo Dome and began to wave goodbye.
The 46,451 in attendance roared in appreciation as Ichiro jogged in from right field for the final time as a player. He waved a few more times on the way in, touching the brim of his hat in a show of thanks to the Seattle Mariners’ opponents, the Oakland A’s, who were applauding with everyone else.
There was still a game to play, but this was Ichiro, and a one-of-a-kind player deserved a moment all his own.
Ichiro ended the speculation about his future on Thursday night, retiring after the second game of the MLB season, a 5-4 Mariners win. He had returned to action this season after moving from the field to a special front office role last May.
“I had no intentions of going anywhere else except for the Mariners,” Ichiro said during a news conference that didn’t finish until after 1 a.m.
“I was so happy they allowed me to return to Seattle (in 2018). “But I wasn’t able to play in games after May. It really could’ve been then,” he said of the timing of his retirement. “But I was told I’d have a chance to play this spring. That’s why I was able to do as much as I did.”
He left the field to an emotional show of appreciation from the fans and players, with the game stopping for several minutes. Mariners second baseman Dee Gordon had a few tears rolling down his face and pitcher Yusei Kikuchi left some on Ichiro’s shoulder as he embraced one of his childhood heroes. Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. enveloped Ichiro in a big hug in the dugout when it was all done.
“Ichiro has had an unbelievable career. Not only in the U.S., but here in Japan,” Griffey said after the game. “What he has done to cross barriers and bring countries together is unbelievable. He is one of those guys you look forward to seeing.”
The scene stopped the game for several minutes.
“You don’t often see the opposing team stand up and give a guy an ovation,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “That shows you how much respect he has across the league, certainly from us.”
There were even more cheers from the fans when Ichiro returned to the field after the game. It was so loud in the Big Egg that Kikuchi reacted to the sound during his postgame news conference.
“There was no way I could’ve imagined that would happen,” Ichiro said. “But it did happen. I just entered my 19th season in America, so it’s been hard for me to feel the fervor of the Japanese fans sometimes. But since I’ve come to Tokyo Dome for the first time in a while, I thought it was quiet during the games.
“But I had the impression Japanese people aren’t good at expressing themselves. But they (the fans) totally changed my thinking. They really had a lot of emotion inside them. When they expressed it, it was something I’d never felt before.”
Ichiro’s decision to walk away ends a career that will land him the Baseball Hall of Fame in two countries.
He was a 10-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner in MLB, also winning a pair of batting titles. Despite spending the first nine years of his career in Japan, Ichiro still managed to join MLB’s 3,000-hit club, finishing with 3,089 in the majors. As the U.S. awoke to the news, the tributes came rolling in.
“Today we celebrate the remarkable career of Ichiro Suzuki, one of our game’s greatest players,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “Since entering Major League Baseball in 2001 and winning both the American League Rookie of the Year and MVP Awards, Ichiro established himself as a player unlike any other. He will always be remembered for his incredible talent in all aspects of the game, his historic seasons playing for the Seattle Mariners and for being part of the championship‐winning Samurai Japan in the first two editions of the World Baseball Classic.
“It is fitting that Ichiro will retire as a Mariner in his home country, where he first became a star player. We are forever grateful for Ichiro’s global contributions to our game.”
New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman also had nothing but praise.
“Ichiro Suzuki is one of the greatest baseball players the world has ever seen,” Cashman told MLB.com. “He has been married to this game for virtually his entire life — refining and perfecting his craft — and the relationship has been a beautiful one. As an organization we are fortunate to call Ichiro one of our own, and we congratulate him on a truly astonishing career.”
He was a star in Japan before MLB, winning three consecutive Pacific League MVP awards (1994-96) and finishing with 1,278 hits and a .353 average in nine seasons with the Orix BlueWave.
He ends his illustrious career with 4,367 hits between Japan and the U.S., the most by any player in history.
He was in a jovial mood after the game. If there was any sadness, he didn’t let it show as he cracked the occasional joke or laughed at something he’d said.
Ichiro said he loved baseball, but admitted the game wasn’t always fun.
“I’d dreamed of becoming a professional player since I was a child and I made it happen,” he said. “The first couple of years when I was 18, 19 years old, I was kind of in and out of the ichi-gun (first team).
“Playing in those circumstances, I actually had a lot of fun. Then in 1994, when (Akira) Ogi became the manager, he made me a regular player. Until that point I think I was able to say I had fun playing baseball. After that, the expectations began to get higher and it was tough for me. It’s really tough for anyone to be evaluated at a level higher than you actually are.
“Of course I had motivation to meet my goals and felt a sense of accomplishment when I did. But that was different than having fun.”
The 45-year-old also revealed that as he looked back over his career, it was the work he put in during practice last year that brought forth a sense of pride.
“After some time passes, I think today will be the first thing that would come to mind,” Ichiro said when asked about the most memorable moment of his career. “Two hundred hits for 10 straight years, winning MVP, All-Star MVP all those things were small things.
“I was able to stand on this stage today. I hadn’t been able to play in games since last May. But I’ve been practicing with the team since then. If I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have had a day like this.
“All the records and those things, someone is going to eventually break (them). But what I’ve done since last May, maybe that’s something no one else would’ve been able to do. So those are the days that make me feel a little bit of pride.”
Ichiro finished 0-for-4 on Thursday. He nearly delivered about the most Ichiro ending imaginable in the eighth, but was a step too slow in his attempt to leg out an infield single.
Ichiro was an iconic player. His at-bat routine of stretches and the way he held out the bat, fist facing the pitcher, before settling into his batting stance became almost the stuff of legend.
His success in the majors was a game-changer in two countries.
He was the first Japanese non-pitcher in MLB. The first overall, pitcher Masanori Murakami, was present on Thursday. The way he could expertly control a bat and leg out infield singles was unique even among the best players in the world.
In Japan, he helped inspire multiple generations of players, including current MLB stars Shohei Ohtani, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and his current teammate Kikuchi. Best-selling author Robert Whiting once said Hideki Matsui, one of Ichiro’s contemporaries, wouldn’t have left for the majors if not for Ichiro.
“I learned so much from him,” Kikuchi said. “I learned a lot from watching him and sometimes he taught me when we spoke. Hopefully I’ll be able to take advantage of that during my baseball career going forward.”
Beyond baseball, his success in the majors was an inspiration to Japanese fans, who watched in droves every morning his games were broadcast. His success, in America and at America’s game, was a great source of national pride.
Ichiro took MLB by storm in his first season in 2001, setting the record for hits by a rookie (242) and winning both the American League Rookie of the Year and AL MVP awards. The only other player to win both in the same year was Boston Red Sox outfielder Fred Lynn in 1975.
His fabulous first season was only the precursor. He set the MLB single-season hits record with 262 in 2004, breaking George Sisler’s mark of 257, which had stood for 84 years. He also compiled 10 straight seasons with at least 200 hits, another MLB record.
Ichiro also left fans in awe with his talents in the outfield, where he chased down balls and jumped into the air to take away homers at the wall. For all his talents at the plate, one his most iconic highlights was the laser beam he threw from right field to nail the Athletics’ Terrence Long at third in his first season.
While there had been Japanese players before him, it was Ichiro’s success in the U.S. that really opened the floodgates for players to move from Japan to the majors.
“Ichiro was a trailblazer when he arrived in 2001 and ushered in a new era for international players with his impact, and he demonstrated daily the skill, passion and preparation that only the truly great have over his playing career,” Mariners Chairman John Stanton said in a statement.
He spent the formative years of his professional career under BlueWave manager Ogi, who was also the catalyst for the switch from “Suzuki” to “Ichiro” on the back of his uniform. In 1995, the same year as the Great Hanshin Earthquake, Ichiro and the BlueWave won the PL pennant. In 1996, the team won the Japan Series.
Asked if he’d thought about retirement prior to this year, Ichiro said he was too busy trying to remain in the game.
“Rather than retirement, I thought that I might be cut,” he said. “It was like that every day after I went to New York. It was like that in Miami as well. New York is such a peculiar place. So is Miami.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5