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The meaning of Ichiro

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The Japanese star retired after Thursday’s game in Tokyo.

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Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The headline to this article isn’t something I made up. It’s actually the title of a book written by Robert Whiting, an expert on Japanese baseball.

And it’s also a phrase quite meaningful today, as Ichiro Suzuki retired from baseball, at age 45, after playing two games for the Mariners in his native Japan.

Here’s how it happened [VIDEO], in the eighth inning of the Mariners/Athletics game.

Here’s more of the amazing scene from the Tokyo Dome:

To understand what Ichiro means in Japan, check out the words of his teammate Yusei Kikuchi. Kikuchi made his major-league debut in Thursday’s game for the Mariners and what he said at the time of his signing with Seattle in December sums it all up:

At about the age of nine, his first professional baseball game featured Ichiro playing for the Orix Blue Wave in 2000.

“Since then I’ve read any book that there is about Mr. Ichiro, read any article about Mr. Ichiro, about his playing style, his work ethic,” Kikuchi said.

A year later, Ichiro left for the U.S. and the Mariners. Now, they will share a clubhouse and a field together. Of course, Kikuchi must still meet his childhood idol.

“It’s starting to hit me that I get to meet him,” he said. “I have a lot of questions that I want to ask him.”

And yet …

“Mr. Ichiro is kind of a person in the sky, a legend. I don’t know if he really exists,” he said. “So the first step is to be able to meet and talk to him. When I do have the opportunity to step on the field with him, it will be a great memory for me that I’ll cherish forever.”

“Mr. Ichiro” wasn’t just the most famous baseball player in Japan. He is probably the most famous person in Japan, beloved by all.

And he spent 19 seasons in the USA, playing major league baseball and thrilling fans, mostly in Seattle, where he became Rookie of the Year and MVP in the American League in his first season, 2001, when the Mariners won 116 games. He set many records, including the one for most hits in a single season (262).

It’s true that after those first 10 seasons in Seattle, his performance began to decline. But he was still a very good player into his early 40s; in 2017, then with the Miami Marlins, he came within one of tying the big-league record for pinch hits in a season. You’ll likely recall the three-game series at Wrigley Field in 2016 when he came to bat once each game, as a pinch-hitter, one hit short of 3,000 in his MLB career. Warm ovations greeted this all-time great each time he batted at Wrigley, but he was retired in each of those at-bats, and eventually got his 3,000th MLB hit in Colorado, of all places.

He had long before cemented his place in history and eventual induction to the Hall of Fame, with his hitting (3,089 MLB hits, currently 23rd all-time), baserunning (509 stolen bases) and great throwing arm — which he showed off even in the last few days in an exhibition game against the Yomiuri Giants [VIDEO].

That one was reminiscent of this throw he had made nearly 19 years earlier:

It’s the same body, the same man, only with a little less hair that has now turned gray.

The reason Ichiro is so important in the history of Major League Baseball is that up until the time he came to the Mariners in 2001, all the Japanese-born players in MLB had been pitchers. No Japanese-born position player had even tried to come to North America; it was thought, at the time, that those position players wouldn’t be able to handle MLB pitching and the rigors of the 162-game schedule.

Not only did Ichiro do it, but he did it well, and always with class and dignity.

There’s a story regarding Ichiro and his first MLB manager, Lou Piniella, which I think sums up the Japanese star perfectly:

Piniella recalls using Ichiro’s interpreter that day to challenge his new right fielder to hit the ball to the right side.

“He was hitting to left field a lot, and they were really shading him over, playing him almost like a right-handed pull hitter,” Piniella said. “I told him he needed to pull the ball, and he said, ‘No problem.’ The next at-bat, he hit one out of the park to right and said, ‘Are you happy now?’

“I told Ichiro, ‘You can do whatever you want the rest of the year.’ “

He did “whatever he wanted” for almost two more decades.

Six summers from now, when Ichiro is inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (hopefully, on a unanimous vote), I’d expect perhaps the largest crowd ever in upstate New York, potentially tens of thousands of Japanese fans making the pilgrimage, along with Mariners fans and people who just love baseball and this man who devoted his entire life to playing baseball.

The conclusion to this Deadspin article sums up the meaning of Ichiro to the Mariners, Kikuchi and MLB:

What does Ichiro mean to Kikuchi? Would the Mariners have so invested in Japanese scouting if not for Ichiro’s success? Would MLB teams be so eager to sign the top NPB players each winter? Would Kikuchi be here if Ichiro hadn’t done what he did? Now that’s a legacy.

Indeed. Farewell, Ichiro. There truly will never be another baseball player like you.