Yusei Kikuchi went silent for exactly one minute, struggling to both express himself and maintain control of his emotions.
He stared ahead, fighting back tears. He’d look down, then up and exhale. He brought the mic to his lips, but nothing escaped. The emotions of his first MLB start for the Seattle Mariners and the final game of teammate Ichiro Suzuki’s career were making it hard for him.
“I’ve had such a good time playing with him from spring training until now,” Kikuchi said after finding his voice.
“Ichiro-san told us that being able to come to Japan and play in these games was a gift. But for me, being able to play with him, that was the greatest gift.”
The baseball world said goodbye to Ichiro on Thursday night at Tokyo Dome. Kikuchi cried some as Ichiro came off the field in the eighth and when he hugged him and also later on the bench. While Ichiro was beloved by many, the impact he had on generations of Japanese players who idolized him and followed him to MLB was even more intense.
“I’ve had a lot of chances to have conversations with him,” Kikuchi said. “But every time I saw him, I’d get sweaty palms and my heart would start beating fast. But I was fortunate to be able to spend time with him. That’s my once-in-a-lifetime treasure.
“I learned so much from him. I learned a lot from watching him and sometimes he taught me verbally. Hopefully I’ll be able to take advantage of that during my baseball career going forward.”
New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka played with Ichiro in New York in 2014 and 2015 and also during the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Like Kikuchi, he was among those who idolized Ichiro growing up.
“He was a superstar when I was in elementary school,” Tanaka said from the United States, according to Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. “I never thought that I would be playing with him in my wildest dreams. I had the opportunity to be teammates with him in the World Baseball Classic in 2009, and obviously I had the chance to play with him here in ’14.”
The Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani awoke to the news.
“I saw a short video this morning and I want to watch the full scene,” Ohtani said, referring to Ichiro’s emotional exit, in a group interview, the video of which was published online.
“I saw it when I woke up this morning and I still can’t believe it.”
Ichiro played for nine seasons in Japan with the Orix BlueWave before moving to the majors for the 2001 season. He then embarked on a career that saw him set the single-season record for hits with 262 in 2004 and also become the first player to record 200 hits in 10-straight years. He was 10-time Gold Glove winner and 10-time All-Star.
Many of his games were broadcast live in Japan. So most of the current major leaguers grew up watching him, ensuring his impact will remain in the game for years to come.
“There are so many, it’s hard to think of just one,” Kikuchi said when asked what moment he cherished most from his time with Ichiro. “It wasn’t only the things he said, it was the way he prepared every day. He was so focused on his play. I’ve read books about him and seen things on television. But the actual Ichiro was so much more than that, and I got to see his determination to play the game firsthand.”