SEATTLE – If there were any justice in the world, Ichiro Suzuki would have beaten out the slow roller to shortstop in the eighth inning of Thursday’s game against the Oakland A’s in Tokyo, as he did so many times.
The diabolically placed infield single was just one of many Ichiro trademarks during a career in which, Mariners teammate Mike Cameron once marveled, it seemed like he was playing chess at the plate.
But, of course, if Ichiro could still do that, could still place the ball at his discretion, as his former batting coach, Paul Molitor, was convinced he would do, he wouldn’t have been trotting off the emptied field in Tokyo for the final time moments later.
Ichiro always was a master of timing, and he got it exactly right at the end, when it mattered most, by retiring after Thursday’s game.
Oh, his stock line was always that he was going to play until he was 50 – at least – but when I pressed him about that once, he said he had no doubt he would be physically able to perform at that age, and beyond.
“Mentally is where I think it can be rough,” he replied.
I’m convinced Ichiro simply couldn’t come to grips with not being great.
Yes, it’s true he has not been great for quite a while, and you could make the case he hasn’t even been good for a few years now. But in his supreme confidence, honed nearly from infancy, Ichiro always thought he could be again, with the right training, the right preparation, the right mind-set, the right opportunity.
But this spring, Ichiro has had to wrap his mind around the fact that his greatness as a ballplayer is irretrievably lost – the hardest concession a supreme athlete will have to make. And, to get a little less esoteric, with the fact that he had run out of teams, at least in MLB, willing to wait.
It was only then, freed of that burden to chase his past exploits, convinced finally it was a futile pursuit, that he could walk away. And he did it, amid all the pageantry at the Tokyo Dome, with a sense of contentment that I thought shined through the television screen.
Ichiro got his moment today, in the wee hours back home in Seattle, as few ballplayers in any sport have. Japan, a country that reveres him beyond comprehension, showered him with love, while peers who admire him unconditionally did the same. The Mariners’ players lined up to greet him as he trotted off the field, while the A’s applauded from their dugout.
From the standpoint of emotional wallop, it was perfection. The tears of Yusei Kikuchi and Dee Gordon were mirrored in many a living room, I’m quite confident.
The last person Ichiro reached in the hug line was, appropriately, Ken Griffey Jr., another Mariners icon. I had to wonder what Griffey thought of this outpouring, having chosen a starkly different way to end his career, in solitude and unmarked.
Like Griffey, Ichiro at times found his fame, particularly in his homeland, to be out of proportion and stifling, which is why he took such delight in the relative anonymity he was afforded in the U.S.
Of course, that changed a bit as he made his mark with the Mariners. He was such a singular talent that baseball fans watched with mouth agape as he showed a new way to play a century-old game. At the plate, on the bases, in the field, it was as if Ichiro was rewriting the rules.
Everyone wondered at the beginning how he would adjust to the major league game, but that was the wrong question, it turned out. The MLB game had to adjust to Ichiro, who in those early days, when his skills were still at their peak, confounded opponents in every way. David Eckstein of the Angels once lamented that no matter how much they adjusted their infield to try to stop Ichiro, “it seems he hits it where we were.”
Ichiro’s sensibilities were a revelation as well. His father, Nobuyuki Suzuki, was a practicing Buddhist who believed that all inanimate objects, including baseball gloves and bats, are animated with a spirit. Ichiro’s nearly maniacal devotion to his equipment – which led him to a grudge against a former Mariners coach who treated roughly the gloves Ichiro had painstakingly placed on the bench – showed he was of the same mind.
Though he did all his interviews with a translator until the end, Ichiro’s quotes were unlike anyone else’s – often Zen-like, at times hilarious. I’ve said it before, but I’ll go the rest of my career without hearing anything like Ichiro’s description of facing Daisuke Matsuzaka for the first time, as translated by journalist Brad Lefton: “I hope he arouses the fire that’s dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul. I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger.”
Nor will I coax a quote much funnier than what Ichiro told me one day in San Diego – I remember the scene vividly, more than a decade later – when I asked about having to make another trip to Cleveland to make up a snowed-out game (through interpreter Ken Barron):
“To tell the truth, I’m not excited to go to Cleveland, but we have to. If I ever saw myself saying I’m excited going to Cleveland, I’d punch myself in the face, because I’m lying.”
In his book, “The Meaning of Ichiro,” author Robert Whiting described the arduous practice sessions that Ichiro and his father would undertake nearly every day, starting when he was a young child. The sessions often wouldn’t end until 11 p.m., when Nobuyuki would massage Ichiro’s feet before bed.
Mr. Suzuki once fired balls in anger at Ichiro, Whiting wrote, when he sat down on the field in protest of not being allowed to go play with friends. Ichiro batted away the balls, which Nobuyuki interpreted as a sign of superior reflexes and confirmation of his son’s athletic gift.
“He would stand in the freezing winter and watch every practice, the only guy in the stands, taking notes, refusing to sit down because his son couldn’t sit down, refusing to eat or drink because his son couldn’t eat or drink,” Whiting told me in an interview in 2004 – the year Ichiro set the all-time season hits record with 262.
Whiting in the book quotes from an essay Ichiro wrote in the sixth grade in which he details how he practiced baseball 360 out of 365 days a year, with only five or six hours a year to play with friends. In his essay, Ichiro expressed his dream to became a “first-class professional baseball player.”
In that goal, of course, he succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of anyone except perhaps Nobuyuki Suzuki. The meaning of Ichiro? He was a pioneer, an artist, a master craftsman, an innovator, an entertainer and a maverick. He was an icon and an iconoclast.
He was a ballplayer – unlike any we’ve seen, or will see again.
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