Ichiro Suzuki just completed his 17th major-league season. Unfortunately, it might be his last:
In what was the first significant roster decision for new ownership, the Marlins on Friday declined their $2 million club option to retain Ichiro, who now becomes a free agent. Suzuki will receive a $500,000 buyout.
While Suzuki has said numerous times that he would like to continue playing until he’s 50, there’s no guarantee he’ll find a Major League team willing to give him a job.
Ichiro — known by almost everyone by just his first name, which he also wears on his back — turned 44 about two weeks ago, and in 2017 hit .255/.318/.332 in part-time play (215 plate appearances). He was a pretty good pinch-hitter this past season, going 27-for-100 with seven walks as a PH. The 27 hits were just one short of tying the major-league record for pinch hits in a season.
It’s entirely possible that someone will pick up Ichiro for the 2018 season. He might make a good fit in Seattle, where he began his big-league career and where he’s still beloved. With an American League team he could DH some of the time (even with Nelson Cruz still there) and serve as a mentor to younger players.
But this could be it for the Japanese-born superstar, and if it is, I wanted to post this as an appreciation for a remarkable career in which Ichiro posted 3,080 major-league hits despite not having a single one of those hits before he turned 27.
What’s important to remember about Ichiro’s career is that he was the first native Japanese position player to come to the major leagues from Nippon Pro Baseball (NPB). Prior to 2001, all the native Japanese players in the big leagues had been pitchers (plus a few American position players who had been born in Japan due to their fathers being in military service there).
At that time it had been thought that Japanese hitters couldn’t handle major-league pitching and would fail in MLB.
Ichiro, who had hit .353/.421/.522 (1278 hits in 951 games) in nine years in NPB, quickly put that idea to rest. He was signed to a three-year deal by the Mariners in November 2000; in addition, the Mariners paid about $13 million to the Orix Blue Wave for the rights to negotiate with him in that pre-posting system era. $13 million might not seem like a lot now, but in 2000 only two players (Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson) made that much.
Ichiro was an immediate sensation. He hit .350/.381/.457 in his official MLB “rookie” season (I put that in quotes because although he was a rookie by MLB definition, he had those 951 games in NPB prior), had 242 hits and 56 stolen bases and was American League Rookie of the Year and MVP, and helped lead the Mariners to a 116-win season.
And then there was defensive wizardry. Like this throw, which was made in his eighth major-league game:
He had eight outfield assists in 2001, on the way to a career of 123 outfield assists, including six in 2016 in just 78 outfield games. He even pitched an inning, against the Phillies on the last day of the 2015 season:
Ichiro was legendary with bat control. There’s a terrific story involving him in his first big-league spring training with the Mariners. Lou Piniella was his manager:
Piniella’s big concern in 2001 was whether or not his new outfielder could handle big league fastballs.
“Early in the spring he wasn’t pulling the ball at all,” Piniella said. “He was hitting everything to left field. I called the interpreter over and said, ‘Ask Ichiro if he can pull the ball. I want to see some bat speed.’
“He went back to the dugout and he huddled with Ichiro, and he (Ichiro) laughed a little bit. About two innings later, Ichiro leads off the inning with a home run into the right-center field bullpen in Arizona. He rounds the bases, steps on home plate and says, ‘Happy now?’
“So I said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ I recognized that this was a special talent.”
Ichiro helped pave the way for other Japanese position players to come to the major leagues, in particular Hideki Matsui, who hit 175 home runs in a 10-year MLB career with the Yankees and three other teams. Then there was Munenori Kawasaki, who played fine infield defense but became more popular for his interviews than his play on the field:
None of that would have been possible without Ichiro Suzuki leading the way.
Not all those position players succeeded, though. We are, of course, quite familiar with the failure of Kosuke Fukudome, who never lived up to high expectations after he signed with the Cubs before the 2008 season.
I hope Ichiro does catch on with someone for 2018. At 44, he’s obviously not what he was when he posted 10 straight 200-hit seasons from 2001-10 and set the all-time record for a single season for hits with 262 in 2004. But he can still pinch hit reasonably well and play a decent game in the outfield now and again.
If this really is it for him, he’ll be eligible for Hall of Fame induction in the summer of 2023. That will likely be the largest-attended induction ceremony in Hall history — I’d expect tens of thousands of Japanese fans would make the trip to Cooperstown.
That would certainly be an induction ceremony worth seeing. In the meantime, here’s hoping we can still see Ichiro for one more season.