— MLB (@MLB) March 21, 2019
— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) March 21, 2019
— MLB (@MLB) March 21, 2019
You’d be forgiven for not knowing that the 2019 MLB season actually started yesterday when the Mariners and A’s began a two-game set in Tokyo. That sentence doesn’t exactly move the needle for the American mainstream. But something monumental happened early this morning: Ichiro Suzuki, future Hall of Famer, played his last Major League Baseball game.
It’s tough to know where to start with Ichiro, especially for people who don’t remember his prime. I guess I’ll start with his numbers since they’re the only part of him that’s easy to quantify. He came to the MLB at age 27 after getting 1,278 hits with a .943 OPS in Japan and immediately won Rookie of the Year and MVP. His first 10 seasons in the league he made the All-Star Game every year, got over 200 hits every year, won a Gold Glove every year, won two batting titles, lead the league in hits seven times, and collected 2,244 hits and 383 steals. He was a beast and one of the best two-way outfielders in history who was underappreciated in his prime because he played in Seattle for a team that didn’t win a lot and in the early-to-mid 2000s we still didn’t really understand that counting wins and losses against a baseball player was kind of dumb. In 2004 guy set the record for hits in a season, won a Gold Glove, and lead the American League in WAR and finished 7th in MVP. Huh? Listen, the last eight years or so weren’t great, but the fact that he was still playing at all into his 40s is amazing. He’s the all-time hit leader if you combine his Japanese and MLB stats, and that’s really all you need to know. He’s a no-doubt, first ballot Hall of Famer.
But if he was just another great player, he wouldn’t be Ichiro. Ichiro was just cool, man. Everything about him was cooler than everyone else around him. Fastest guy in the league? Cool. Absolute rocket arm that could gun people down at age 45? Cool. Unreal highlight catches? Cool. His sunglasses were cool. His stance was cool. The Mariners Ichiro number 51 jersey was cool as hell. Was he also a fashion icon?
I’ll let you decide.
Ichiro, at least for me, is kind of the last remnant of a time I’m finding myself oddly nostalgic for (despite spending many, many words defending the current era). Ichiro came into the league two years before Moneyball was released and put us on the road to solving baseball. It was a time when speed mattered, guys actually put the ball in play, and teams had different styles of play. A time when the Three True Outcomes weren’t a widely-known concept. Don’t get me wrong, I love today’s game. But are steals and balls in play really that bad (don’t tell anyone, but I’m starting to feel this way about the NBA, too. I don’t need every game to be a Rockets game)? I wouldn’t say Ichiro wouldn’t be able to succeed in today’s homer-centric league, he’s too talented of a baseball player not to be able to adapt to any era. But his career would certainly be different, and I think it would be worse.
One of the best player profiles I’ve ever read was Wright Thompson’s piece on Ichiro from last year. He described Ichiro’s relationship with his father and how, even though he resented the endless drills and practicing, he became addicted to the craft. There’s a Japanese concept called kodawari (yes, I’m a mild weeb, but you already knew that) that’s, in essence, an extreme focus on and dedication to achieving perfection in whatever you’re doing even though you know perfection is impossible. To see Ichiro demonstrate this so clearly and come so close to finding perfection with something he doesn’t even really like is fascinating to me. Part of me wonders if we’ll ever really see Ichiro again, but something tells me he’s going to enjoy his retirement too much to come back to the game. Thnks fr th Mmrs, Ichiro.