An Ode to Ichiro Suzuki, the Most Prolific Hitter Ever

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On Thursday afternoon, the Seattle Mariners announced news that would send the collective baseball world into a state of shock. Legendary outfielder Ichiro Suzuki would be stepping out of the batter’s box and into a role as the special assistant to the chairman in the Mariners organization.

Ichiro’s agent, John Boggs, told The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, “He is not retiring. He’s taking on a different role for 2018, and 2019 has yet to evolve.” Nevertheless, we have to get used to a baseball world without the most prolific contact hitter in the sport’s long history, and start watching an MLB without Suzuki for the first time since “Butterfly” by Crazy Town topped the Billboard charts.

If Ichiro is done for good, he leaves MLB with a career .311/.355/.402 slash line, 117 home runs, 780 RBIs, 509 steals, and 3,089 hits. Considered by many to be baseball’s true hit king, Ichiro amassed 4,367 knocks between his career in his native Japan and in the majors. Though he was an AL All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner 10 times, Suzuki’s legacy is bigger than the game.

The 2001 AL Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year was as influential as any position player in the game’s vast history. From paving a path for fellow Japanese players to come over and find success stateside to his patented batting stance, the left-hander emphatically stamped his place in baseball folklore. Guys like rookie phenom Shohei Ohtani and established pitchers Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka might never have transitioned to MLB without Ichiro’s tremendous influence.

His batting stance will forever remain as iconic as any. A man of great discipline and routine, Ichiro would stand with his legs bowed inward, his front foot about half a shoe length behind his back foot, swinging his bat like a pendulum twice before sweeping it over his shoulder and holding it straight up, parallel to the pitcher, and adjusting his right sleeve. From there he would hop his front foot up and down in preparation for the pitch, always ready to sprint to first at superhuman speeds.

I’m right-handed. Growing up in the Ichiro era, I wanted so badly to mimic the Ichiro batting stance and preparation that I taught myself to become a switch-hitter. The very first time I tried hitting lefty — doing the whole Ichiro regimen — in a little league game, I slapped a go-ahead double on the first pitch. This was 2005, the year after Suzuki totaled a single-season best 262 hits. Everyone wanted to be Ichiro, and for a second it felt like I was.

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Ichiro was a contact and speed hitter in a baseball world that progressively discouraged that type of player. Especially with Barry Bonds breaking home run, OPS, and walk records, and the emergence of Albert Pujols, to be Ichiro Suzuki was to be a major outlier. He played the music between the notes and became the most impressively unique and unusual player of all-time.

He was always an enigma, but that was the appeal behind him; a guy who would literally sacrifice his own sanity to be a better player. Seven times the league-leader in hits, it was often said that Ichiro had spectacular home run power, hitting batting practice home runs into the upper deck without breaking a sweat. However, he was too obsessed with being the perfect hitter who refused to sacrifice his playing style for power. Ichiro would rather hit .330 with nine home runs than .260 with 25, and he owned it.

The only undefeated presence in sports is time; the aging curve hits every professional athlete eventually. At 44 years old, Ichiro had to wait until March 7 to find a contract for this year, heading back to Seattle, his old stomping grounds before stints with the New York Yankees and Miami Marlins. On March 31, he robbed 2017 MVP finalist Jose Ramirez of a home run in left field and went 2-for-4 on the day.

It looked like Father Time was never coming for Ichiro, but today’s news was that. Ichiro looked like a 44-year-old last night, disappointed in himself as the hard-nosed competitor he is struck out swinging in what might be his final MLB at-bat. A 28-year-old Ichiro would have put the barrel onto the strike three pitch and legged out an infield single with relative ease.

In a way, his struggles this season (.205 on the year) shined a light on the reason as to why the M’s signed the aging legend. Twenty-first all-time in hits, it’s as though both parties knew he was set to retire imminently. Ichiro wanted to retire as a Mariner, the franchise with which he holds the all-time hits record at 2,542, and Seattle wanted to give the future Hall of Famer the sign-off he deserved.

If Ichiro’s retirement isn’t permanent, like his agent hinted to, then his final game should come on either March 20 or March 21, 2019, in Tokyo, as the Mariners and A’s will open their seasons in Japan next year. The best hitter of his generation completing his illustrious career in his home country, with his signature team. It’s picture perfect, much like the entirety of Ichiro Suzuki’s 26-year pro baseball career.

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