April 23, 2019

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At 45, Ichiro Suzuki Concludes a Pioneering Career in Japan

At 45, Ichiro Suzuki Concludes a Pioneering Career in Japan
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Ichiro Suzuki, the unique and pioneering superstar who amassed 4,367 hits in 28 professional baseball seasons across two continents, announced his retirement on Thursday, concluding one of the most remarkable careers in the history of sports.

Suzuki, who is destined for a place in the Hall of Fame, told his Seattle Mariners teammates the news in Japan before their regular-season game against the Oakland Athletics at the Tokyo Dome. The news filtered out to the crowd and around the world after the Kyodo News Service reported it during the game.

“After nine years playing in Japan and entering my 19th season in America, I am announcing my retirement,” Suzuki said in Japanese after the game, at a ballroom packed with reporters in a hotel adjacent to the stadium. “I can’t describe how fortunate I feel to have my career conclude in the uniform of the Seattle Mariners.”

A day after he had become the oldest position player to start a season-opening game in the American League, Suzuki started Thursday’s game in right field and batted ninth. After going hitless in four at-bats, he took his position in right field to start the bottom of the eighth inning.

Seattle Manager Scott Servais then came onto the field to make a lineup change. With that, the other eight Seattle players quickly retreated to the dugout, leaving Suzuki a vast, green pathway to the third base bench, and he jogged unobstructed to thunderous applause from the sellout crowd.

Upon leaving the field for the last time, Suzuki received emotional embraces from each teammate in front of the dugout, including tearful ones from second baseman Dee Gordon and countryman Yusei Kikuchi, who grew up idolizing Suzuki and who had just made his debut as a starting pitcher in the major leagues.

The biggest embrace awaited him inside the dugout. Ken Griffey Jr., a Hall of Famer and a beloved Mariners icon, made his way to the bench in street clothes to offer his support.

“Ichiro has had an unbelievable career,” Griffey said. “Not only in the U.S., but here in Japan. What he has done to cross barriers and bring countries together is unbelievable.”

[Keeping Score: Ichiro Suzuki Is Not Baseball’s Hit King. He Is So Much More.]

Kikuchi was barely 1 year old when Suzuki made his professional debut for the Orix BlueWave in 1992. Within two years, Suzuki had established his greatness, swatting 210 hits in 130 games in 1994 and flashing a level of speed and athleticism on the bases and in the outfield that major league scouts had rarely seen.

Suzuki was long destined to become the first position player from Japan to play in Major League Baseball, and although he did not make it to the United States until he was 27, he still collected the 23rd-most hits in major league history.

Bobby Valentine, the former Mets manager, faced Suzuki in Japan in 1995 as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines. Before Suzuki joined the Mariners in 2001, Valentine, then with the Mets, called the outfielder one of the top five players in the world. But in that sensational rookie season, in which Suzuki batted .350 and became the second player to win the American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Awards in the same season, Valentine corrected himself.

“I was wrong,” Valentine said at the time. “He is one of the top two.”

Barry Bonds won the National League M.V.P. that year.

Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, who brought Suzuki to New York via a trade in 2012, issued a statement on Thursday calling him one of the greatest players in history.

“He has been married to this game for virtually his entire life,” Cashman said in the statement, “refining and perfecting his craft — and the relationship has been a beautiful one.”

Known for his strict regimens and year-round routine of stretching, conditioning and batting practice — he allowed himself only two days off in the winter — Suzuki had at least 200 hits in each of his first 10 major league seasons, including 2004, when he set a record with 262. He won two batting titles, was named to 10 All-Star teams and won 10 Gold Glove awards as he dazzled fans with his powerful and accurate arm from the outfield.

In 2016, while playing for the Miami Marlins, Suzuki tripled for his 3,000th hit. In his 18 seasons in the United States, he compiled 3,089 hits.

“Compared to what I achieved today, records like 10 years of 200 hits are small,” Suzuki said Thursday after the Mariners’ 5-4 win in 12 innings. “To think that I became inactive last May and despite no games to play in since then, I maintained my focus on coming back this season and was able to play in real games yesterday and today, that is truly something I am proud of. I’m sure in time, my records will be broken, but I find it hard to believe anyone will achieve the level of focus I did on this goal since last May.”

Suzuki was extremely meticulous as a player, carrying his specially made bats in a black dehumidifier case to ensure they maintained a precise weight and level of moisture. He had a carefully planned diet to preserve his wiry frame — though that often included cheeseburgers for lunch — and he tracked his weight by the half-pound. Everything in his routine was done for a purpose, and that usually meant getting hits in games.

Suzuki was also recognized for his fashion sense, including some outlandish outfits that would have teammates gawking. He charmed many of them with his wily sense of humor and well-timed off-color expressions in English. He speaks his second language fluently, but he kept Turner, his interpreter, on hand to make certain his thoughts were always precisely conveyed.

Toward the end of the 2014 season, his last one with the Yankees, he told his teammates that he wanted to play until he was 50. He got close, but after he joined the Mariners for a second stint in 2018, he played just 15 games before the team shut him down as a player. Ever the pioneer, he transitioned into a new role as a uniformed adviser who took batting practice but was not allowed on the bench.

He continued to maintain his fitness and prepare for games as he always did as a player, knowing that with an expanded roster for this opening series in Japan, he would be given the chance to play in the first two games of 2019 in his home country.

Suzuki was hitless in five at-bats and drew one walk in the two games against the A’s in Japan, finishing his major league career with a .311 batting average and 1,420 runs scored over 2,653 games. As for his future plans, he said he could not envision himself coaching or managing at the professional level.

“I don’t have the patience for that,” he said. “I could, however, see myself doing something with kids or somehow trying to knock down the barriers that prevent professionals from working with amateurs in Japan.”

As for what he’ll do in the immediate future?

“I definitely don’t plan on taking it easy,” he said. “I’m not one to sit still. I’m sure I’ll do my usual training tomorrow.”





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