It was a new wave of Seattle baseball when former Orix Blue Wave Ichiro Suzuki inked a deal in 2001 with the Mariners. Due to the 1999 departure of Ken Griffey, Edgar Martinez’s age and Alex Rodriguez pending free agency (where he signed a record-shattering 10-year/$252M contract with division rival Texas Rangers,) Seattle found themselves in the need for a new superstar, a new legend to market for the next generation of Seattle Baseball.
While the Mariners probably weren’t as positive as they should’ve been, they did jump at the chance to sign Japan’s favorite son to a 3-year/$14M contract. Suzuki was 27 years old, and who knew how long he’d remain productive? 3 years, at the time, seemed about right for a guy who was that marketable, especially when a lot of guys come over and flounder because of the competition disparity. Ichiro, however, didn’t flounder—he flourished. The 3-time MVP of the Nippon Baseball League took the Majors by storm with his impressive command of the strike zone; unsurpassed eye only comparable to the great Wade Boggs; speed that was a throwback to the Rickey Henderson’s, Tim Raines’ and Vince Coleman’s of the game; and the best arm in right-field since the awe-inspiring Roberto Clemente. Soft-spoken when addressing the media, Ichiro was the every-man’s ballplayer and a refreshing change of pace from the fear-inducing sluggers of the steroid era that shattered every record that the baseball purists held sacred.
If a baseball traditionalist built his ideal player from the ground up, he’d give him the hustle of Rose, language of Baines, baserunning dominance of Rickey and ability of Gwynn. Sprinkle in the platinum defense, the perfect amount of vendibility, and cult-like aura and you have the recipe for a player that may be small in stature, but is ultimately carrying on a larger-than-life baseball personality that the child in you yearned for as an adult. Ichiro was a myth of the past that came to fruition in the present-day. Each era has a batting stance that was universally mimicked in the backyard of every kid dreaming to hit a walk-off bomb to win the World Series. In the ‘60s you had the immortal Willie Mays, the ‘70s Hammerin’ Hank, the ‘80s was Eddie Murray. Baseball lost those types of figures following the 1994 strike. Ichiro was the first guy to really bring it back. He’d let the bat swing at his feet, hoist it up, flip it, hold it in the air staring into the pitchers eye, before flipping it back and holding it behind his head with his knees crouched into his signature stance drawing fear into the pitcher that was almost guaranteed to be giving up an infield single in the coming moments.
With his unique stance and other-worldly eye, Suzuki entered the league following a dominant eight year stretch in Japan that saw him log 1,278 hits to go alongside his .353 batting average and .943 OPS in 951 games. On Opening Day, he ripped a soft single up the middle for his first big-league knock that sparked a late rally as the Mariners went on to win the game. He notched base-hits in 16 of his first 17 games and continuously flashed the leather, as shown by the hardest throw on the diamond where he gunned down Terrence Long.
Everything about Suzuki’s transition was the definition of the word “flawless.” His 242-hits in a single-season were the most in baseball since Bill Terry’s 254 in 1930. This was the first of Ichiro’s five 215+ hit seasons which culminated into the MLB record-262 in 2004. In his first year he also won the batting title, hitting .350. He led in the league in steals with 56, posted an .838 OPS and struck out only 53 times in a game defined by strikeouts more than ever before. Suzuki did it all, and did it well. He became the second player ever, and first since Boston’s Fred Lynn, to win an MVP award the same year he won the Rookie of the Year award. He is the only player to win both of the awards, as well as a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger in the same season. In 2001, the Mariners won a record 116 games. They haven’t, however, made the playoffs since.
He followed up his historic 2001 season with a similar power (8 homeruns) and batting season. He traded some hits and batting average ticks for walks and a better on-base percentage. He walked more than he struck out and had his second of 9 (12 overall) 30 stolen base seasons. Ichiro was a stick of dynamite that was set off every night in front of the Safeco faithful.
In 2004, Suzuki set the record for most hits in a single season. The record is still standing. 2004 is important also in part to the retirement of Edgar Martinez, who many consider the greatest Mariner of all-time. Edgar was known for his marketability and yearly Mariners’ commercials. With Edgar gone, the franchise needed a new player to step into that role: Ichiro.
He has 10 seasons of 200 hits or more, another MLB record. In 2007, with Ichiro at age 34, the Mariners signed Ichiro to a 5 year/$90M contract extension. In his first Major League contract, he got $14M over 3 years, and now it was his yearly salary. Not many people agreed with it at the time, because of Ichiro’s lack of power, but it’s peanuts to what he would’ve been worth in 2019. He made most of the contract, as well. He appeared in 793 games out of the 810 possible games, and batted .306 with 180 stolen bases. Unfortunately for the Mariner fans, Ichiro was traded to the Yankees of all teams in the final year of the contract.
In 2 and a half seasons with the Yankees, Suzuki hit to a more pedestrian .281 and sub-.700 OPS. He only hit 13 homers and walked 52 times. He did make the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season in 2012, and raked in the bright lights. He signed with Miami in 2015, and looked awful hitting .229. He had a nice bounceback campaign in 2016, posting a more-Ichiro-like .291 average and notching his 3,000th hit.
Only 32 Major League players have reached 3,000 hits out of over 19,000 that have appeared in a big league game. The only other active player in MLB to have reached this milestone is Angels designated hitter Albert Pujols. Every player eligible for the MLB Hall of Fame to have reached 3,000 hits has been inducted with the exception of Rafael Palmeiro whose career has been clouded by performance enhancing drugs. Only Craig Biggio wasn’t inducted in his first year of eligibility. This is regarded as the golden standard of baseball hitters. The legend again grew in 2015 when Ichiro crossed off a major bucket list: pitching at the Big League level.
Ichiro’s defining moment outside of Mariner blue, however, was against the Mariners. On a night that the Mariners were honoring Suzuki with a bobblehead, he visited Safeco as an opposing player. Having not hit a homerun at Safeco since April of 2012, and retirement rumors running rampant, he turned back the clock and launched one out in what many believed to be his final at-bat in the venue that molded him into the man and superstar he became in the States. It was one of only 3 homeruns he’d hit that season and the Mariner fans ate it up.
The Mariner fans again got something to go crazy about that offseason: Ichiro re-signed with Seattle. On March 7th, 2018 the team announced that Suzuki had signed a 1-year MLB deal at 44 years old. Suzuki hit an atrocious .205 without an RBI, extra base hit or stolen base. The team released him, and he took a Mariners’ front office role.
This past October the league announced that the Mariners and Athletics will have their first series of the year in Japan. The team announced that Ichiro will be in the lineup for those games, and that they will sign him to a minor league contract. While he’ll make the team, it’s unlikely he’ll be there after the series. At 45, he doesn’t have much left. But because of Ichiro, Japanese ballplayers have become a mainstay in MLB, and because of Ichiro, the Mariners were relevant for so long. He goes back to his homeland a hero with the team that gave him the opportunity to come into the big leagues. Even though he isn’t what he used to be, there is no better place to be and no better uniform to wear for Ichiro in likely his final games.
Though he’ll never get the chance to play in a World Series, the 10x All-Star and active hit leader (3,089) is considered by a number of fans to be the best offensive player of his generation. He won our hearts, inspired many, and brought a culture-shock to the most diverse sport in the world. Due to the barriers he broke, foreign-born players are a mainstay more than ever, and a big key to MLBs current youth movement. Ichiro Suzuki brought back the old-style of play while modernizing the game all at the same time.
Next on the Hall marquee: Suzuki.
Congratulations to Ichiro on a fabulous career. We will see you in Cooperstown.
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