ANAHEIM, Calif. – Here, where he’d arrived after nine seasons (and nearly 1,300 hits) in Japan, hardly anyone had seen someone hit a baseball like Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki did. Not as in where it landed, though more of the balls he hit were brilliantly placed or, perhaps, depending on one’s perspective, maddeningly placed. But the manner in which he got the bat to the ball, his body half in the batter’s box and half out, his hands the last to go, the last to leave, everything else hell-bent for first base.
You thought it was odd.
“Of course you did,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Thursday night, on the occasion of Ichiro’s – what? – retirement? Sabbatical? Promotion? “Everybody did.”
Then an Arizona Diamondback, Showalter had visited Japan to see this reputedly wonderful player who would become an American sensation, returned and reported, “He was bigger than Michael Jordan over there. I came back and told people here and they didn’t believe it.”
Turned out, Ichiro would be about that size wherever he played, slender as he was, belt loops drawn and cinched well over his hips, right jersey sleeve plucked just so. He’d coil over his left leg, load up back there, gather those 170-or-so pounds and slash away, his spindly legs leading the jail break.
“Pretty unique,” said Albert Pujols, himself one hit shy of 3,000 and 90 behind Ichiro. “Coming from Japan, those guys really have a good technique.
“The best thing they do, they keep their hands back. That’s a huge part of hitting.”
He admitted upon seeing Ichiro for the first time, in 2001, he’d mused, “I don’t know if it’s going to work out.”
Ichiro had 242 hits that year as the American League’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. Two-hundred-and-eight the next. Then 212. Then a record 262, all on his way to 10 consecutive seasons of at least 206 hits. He hit the way he did, the special way he did. They pitched him away and played him away, and that didn’t work, as there was hardly a shortstop in the league who could throw him out from the hole. So they pitched him in, and he’d beat them there. Hell, his swing was made for that.
Or, he’d bunt. And the opposing manager would push his cap back on his head.
“Really,” Showalter thought the first time he saw that, “he’s going to do that too?”
Ichiro would have what amounted to two Hall of Fame careers, one in Japan, where he batted .353 over nine seasons, and one here, where he accumulated 3,089 hits and a .311 average and 509 steals and All-Star Game appearances and Gold Gloves and the adoration of U.S. baseball fans who’d hardly seen anything quite like him. He could run and throw and, every once in a while, some say only when he really wanted to, he’d pop one of his 117 home runs.
So, of course it was odd when Thursday the Seattle Mariners, Ichiro’s ballclub for 1,859 of his 2,651 major league games, announced Ichiro would be taken off the roster, would be added to the front office, and would not be retiring. Because Ichiro always was charmingly odd, from his game to his outfits to his out-there personality to his promise he would play until he was 50, still six years to come.
“Let’s see what he does next,” Pujols said. “I don’t think he’s done yet. Maybe he’ll play into his 60’s. Get him a wheelchair.
“This was a guy who was probably Mike Trout in ’01 and ’02. Everybody stopped what they were doing to see him. … As soon as he retires, he’s going to be a legend. And a future Hall of Famer, too.”
He has, at 44, reached the point many reach as much as a decade sooner. But, still, a .205 hitter in a part-time gig back in Seattle. He leaves (temporarily, perhaps) as the next Japanese sensation – Shohei Ohtani – arrives, which is the way things go sometimes. Ohtani was 6 when Ichiro registered his first big-league hit. The Angels and Ohtani, who, while longer and thicker than Ichiro, possesses many of the same batter’s box mannerisms, are to arrive in Seattle on Friday.
“I have nothing but the utmost respect for him,” Ohtani said in a statement. “What he has done for this game, our country and the fans. I wish we could have played against him, but it wasn’t meant to be. Wish nothing but the best for him moving forward.”
Somewhere along the way, before they’d both grayed some, Pujols and Ichiro stood together at a first base somewhere. Pujols complimented Ichiro on another fine season. That swing really was working.
Pujols recalled Ichiro smiled and responded, in Spanish, “Really lucky.”
And that would make all of us.
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