Ichiro Suzuki retires from Major League Baseball. Ichiro Suzuki playing for the Miami Marlins. Photo credits: Dr. Jonathan Eto.
TOKYO — Growing up as a Sansei Japanese Canadian, whose grandfather and great uncle played for the Vancouver Asahi, naturally I took to baseball as my choice of summer sports.
With my dad volunteering as an assistant coach for our house league team, my mom in the stands and at times my younger sister, Anne, playing by my side, the love of baseball was very much a family affair. Anne was always the only girl in the league and despite being three years younger, she played better than most of the kids. She even pitched for our team. Needless to say, our family was glued to the tube for every Jays game. But growing up in southern Ontario, seeing Asian players were far and few between in the leagues.
There were no Japanese players in Major League Baseball (MLB) until 1995, when Hideo Nomo broke into the league and won Rookie of the Year honours at the year’s end. As much as he was a pioneer, hurling pitches from his tornado wind-up, it wasn’t until Ichiro Suzuki came in 2001 that the world saw what Japanese baseball had to offer. Ichiro was a positional player (right-fielder), of average height and weight, but with extraordinary talent and dedication to his craft.
Much like the style of baseball the Asahi played, doing anything possible to get runners on the bases to manufacture runs, Ichiro embraced this “brain ball” technique. He was the “hit manufacturing machine,” terrifying pitchers with his opposite field singles.
He opened the door for not only Japanese positional players to come over, but to inspire average-sized athletes to succeed in an era that was rampant with steroids.
There was great speculation upon 27 year old Ichiro’s arrival and debut in the Seattle Mariners’ camp in 2001. Could someone five-foot-10 and 175 pounds transition to MLB and compete in the big leagues? He was already well decorated with awards playing in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), having seven consecutive All-Stars as well as Golden Glove, Best 9 and Pacific League Batting Champion awards already.
Ichiro lived up to the hype and won the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, one of only two in MLB history to do so. He finished the season leading the league with a .350 batting average, 56 stolen bases and amassing 242 hits, the most by any MLB rookie.
Ten years later, Ichiro had compiled ten consecutive 200+ hit seasons, Gold Gloves, and All-Star appearances.
Ichiro was unique in every way. He wore his first name on his jersey, his custom bats were kept in a humidor and never thrown on the ground out of respect to the bat maker. He had specialized workout equipment shipped from Japan for him to strengthen his muscles by stretching them.
Naturally a right-handed batter, his father, Nobuyuki, made him bat left so he could exit the batters box quicker to get to first base. With his token perpendicular bat stance, and pendulum style swing, Ichiro became an icon and idol for players on both sides of the Pacific.
Right-field at Safeco (now called T-Mobile Park) was nicknamed “Area 51,” after both Ichiro’s jersey number and his ability to effortlessly make every ball hit in his direction disappear into his glove or thrown with laser beam accuracy to add to his growing total of outfield assists. The “Ichiroll” maki was a regular at food vendors during home games.
Ichiro played professional baseball for four different teams from 1992-2019 and has achieved over 80 records in both leagues, recording a combined total of 4,367 professional hits, the most in history. For 19 years, I would check stats almost every night and watch the highlight reels to see the “Ichimeter,” the famous sign made by superfan Amy Franz, as it kept escalating as his hit totals kept skyrocketing.
That is until on March 21, 2019 at the bottom of the 8th inning in the Tokyo Dome, when the Seattle Mariners were playing Oakland Athetics in the final of two games to start the season. The 45 year old Ichiro was pulled off the field to a standing ovation of 45,000 fans. He waved sayonara for one final time as a professional baseball player. For three minutes, the game was delayed as players and coaches congratulated him on his incredible career.
Ichiro will continue as the Special Assistant to the Chairman with the Mariners but will no longer travel with the team or participate in drills like last year. We look forward to seeing Ichiro enshrined in Cooperstown as a first ballot hall of famer in 2025.
Thank you Ichiro for your years of inspiration and playing the game with class and respect. Arigato-gozaimasu for the memories, baseball seems a little different without you in it. My scorecard is now full.
Thank you, Ichiro.
The Mariners legend is transitioning to a front-office role, effective today. pic.twitter.com/rshgQ96AQv
— MLB (@MLB) May 3, 2018