Photo: Jon Wells
This was the profile I wrote about newcomer Ichiro Suzuki for The Grand Salami back in the spring of 2001:
Hey, when did we pick up this guy? Just kidding. Ichiro comes to the M's with quite a bit of fanfare, and a playing record whose numerological significance seems something out of folklore. You‘ve heard of the 7 Deadly Sins, the 7 Wonders of the World? Ichiro won 7 straight batting titles with the Orix BlueWave, 7 straight Gold Gloves; he was named to 7 straight “Best Nine” All-Star teams. And he’s only 27. He has a .353 lifetime batting average and Michael Jordan stature in Japan. Yet he's given it all up to try to become the first Japanese position player to make it big in the bigs. Can he do it? That's the question. The U.S. players he's been compared to keeps leveling off: from Johnny Damon (hitting plus power) to Rod Carew (hitting with no power) to Brett Butler (hitting, but not Rod Carew-type hitting). How does .353 translate into English? We hope well.
This is what I wrote three weeks into the season:
Well, that didn't take long. In his first game he looked a little overmatched against Oakland's Tim Hudson—and admitted as much in a post-game interview—but that didn't stop him from dropping a key bunt-hit to help win the game. Four days later against Texas (and You-Know-Who), Ichiro went deep in the 10th inning for the game-winner. The following week against Oakland, he made a throw from right field (now capitalized: The Throw) which defied physics, nailing Terrence Long at third. A week later he robbed Raffy Palmeiro of a home run at Safeco. What's next? Lightning bolts shooting from his hands? Ridding the universe of evil-doers everywhere—or at least Scott Boras? And we haven't even mentioned the way he slaps that sweet single between third and short, his speed on the basepaths, and his quiet efficiency in an age of blowhard swagger. To paraphrase an old ad slogan: You Gotta Love This Guy.
So we did. So we do.
Today, the Mariners announced Ichiro Suzuki would be leaving the field but not the team. He's being kicked upstairs and given a suit and a Zhou Enlai-like title: “Special Assistant to the Chairman.” Good call. Whenever a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer is slipping toward Mendoza territory, as Ichiro was this season with his .205/.255/.205 line, it's probably time.
But what fun to recall that great rookie season in 2001, when he hit .350, collected 242 hits, stole 56 bases, and electrified several continents. He also hit .600 in his first post-season series. I'd forgotten that. Against Cleveland in a 5-game ALDS he went 12 for 20. It was one of four post-season series he would play in: two in 2001 (ended by the Yankees) and two in 2012 (with the Yankees). He never made the World Series. Like Junior and Edgar. Our best players are ringless.
That 242 hits, by the way? That was the ninth-most hits in a single season in MLB history, and the most in any season since 1930. Three years later, he set the record with 262. He broke a record no one had come close to breaking since the '20s. Just look at the guys who have collected the most hits in a season in baseball history. That first row of a dozen guys. Nothing but black-and-white photos. And then Ichiro. Twice.
He collected 200+ hits 10 years in a row—another record. He collected 10 Gold Gloves. He wound up with 3,089 hits, which is amazing when you consider he didn’t get his first hit in the Majors until he was 27. Combine what he did in Japan and the U.S., he had more professional hits than anyone in baseball history.
On the Mariners, he's the all-time team leader in hits (2,542), batting average (.322), at-bats (7,902), triples (79) and stolen bases (438). He's second in games (1,859) and runs (1,181). He's third in total bases (3,292). He‘ll be the third Seattle Mariners inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I haven’t even gotten to the intangibles: the sumo stretching moves in the on-deck circle, the sleeve tug, the cool. On the Terrence Long throw, he was so matter-of-fact it sounds like bragging: “The ball was hit right to me,” he said. “Why did he run when I was going to throw him out?”
Someone on Twitter suggested it was a shame Ichiro didn't get to go out like Derek Jeter: collecting gifts and accolades in stadium after stadium until you wanted to slug the dude. My friend Nick's response: “Self-effacing Ichiro? Don't think he wants that, deserving though he is.”
Ichiro's last game was last night at Safeco. He went 0-for-3 with a walk and he scored one of the M's two runs. The last hit in his remarkable baseball career happened more than a week ago, April 22 against Texas, 4th inning. It's not a hit for most people, but for this 44-year-old, yes: a single to shortstop.