TOKYO -- For a man who never wanted to quit playing baseball, there can be no perfect ending. But Ichiro Suzuki might have come as close as possible to finding the right exit to a brilliant career when he announced Thursday that he's retiring from the game after playing one last time with the Mariners in a 5-4, 12-inning win vs. the A's in his home country of Japan.
The 45-year-old gathered himself for a final hurrah in front of a sold-out Tokyo Dome crowd that cheered his every move and then bid farewell to baseball and his Japanese fans in a touching tribute that brought goosebumps to an entire nation and tears to the 45-year-old's eyes.
"For me, it doesn't get better than tonight," Ichiro said through translator Allen Turner, surrounded by teammates as he did an impromptu press conference in the bullpen adjacent to the team's clubhouse in the Tokyo Dome. "Nothing can top what happened tonight for me.
"It's tough when you feel something and you're happy and you always look back and say that was some happy moments. But tonight, it doesn't get better than this. There's no more happiness than this here tonight."
Mariners manager Scott Servais sent the legendary right fielder out to his position in the bottom of the eighth inning of the Opening Series finale, then pulled the rest of his defenders off the field to allow Ichiro to come off on his own as he was replaced by rookie Braden Bishop.
Ichiro tapped his chest and waved repeatedly to the crowd, then hugged his teammates one by one before eventually being swarmed up in the arms of Hall of Fame friend Ken Griffey Jr.
"It was fun. It was awesome," Griffey said. "He had a chance to play in his home country where they've seen him grow up. This is what baseball is about."
Ichiro went 0-for-4 in his finale as 46,451 fans held their breath, hoping for a storybook finish. But Ichiro made several nice running catches in right field and this is a man whose story has long been written as he's etched himself into the record books while racking up more hits than anybody in history over 18 seasons in the Majors and nine in Japan.
"The whole world was willing everything that he did," said third baseman Ryon Healy. "But his career is bigger than a base hit. All of it is surreal."
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While his teammates hustled to board a flight back to Seattle following Thursday's game, Ichiro was addressing the massive group of Japanese journalists who've followed his career and preparing for the next phase of life.
"Every moment I've witnessed this last couple years has been surreal," said Healy, who helped send Ichiro out on a winning note as he homered and doubled with two RBIs. "I don't think it's something that will sink in for a lot of years, just how special all these little moments are. It's unbelievable to be a part of this."
The man who went by one name wound up with 4,367 hits across two leagues. He'd had the most hits of any active Major Leaguer with 3,089 in his 19 seasons in MLB and figures to be a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible in 2025, a process he delayed a full year by choosing to play in the two regular-season games in Japan.
Though he made more than $167 million over his MLB career, at the end he was clearly playing for the love of the game, as he signed a Minor League deal with Seattle this season for $750,000 after earning $2 million in each of the previous two years.
Ichiro kept saying he hoped to keep playing past the two-game Opening Series in Japan. He often quipped that he wanted, in fact, to keep playing until he was 50 or beyond. But reality can be harsh in professional sports, and he hit just .064 (2-for-31) this spring while striking out 10 times.
Ichiro said he knew when he struggled this spring that his career would end with the Japan trip, but it was still going to take some time to sink in.
"I'm going to work out tomorrow," he said with a smile. "I don't think I'm going to spend some time on the couch, but I'll continue to do what I do."
His future plans remain vague, though he said if he "can share what he's learned with kids or Major League players, if I can be of any help, that's what I'd like to do."
And while he occasionally summoned reminders of the greatness that had been -- unleashing an eye-popping throw from right field and making a nice running catch at the wall -- during the two exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants earlier this week, those moments weren't enough to eclipse the reality that even the greatest can't compete with youngsters half their age forever.
The Tokyo Dome fans seemingly willed Ichiro to get one last hit this week, roaring in appreciation as he stepped to the plate before growing agonizingly quiet during each at-bat, with thousands of smartphones poised to capture one last magical moment.
But for Ichiro to finish up back in Japan, where his career started with nine seasons with the Orix Blue Wave, seemed magical on its own.
"You just walk around Tokyo and see the ads that look like they've been up for decades," Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "You see younger Ichiro in ads, you see older Ichiro in ads and just about everything in between. He's the most accomplished baseball player in the history of Japan, all due respect to Sadaharu Oh and some of the other greats that have played here, because there have been many.
"But to do what he did, not just in this league but in MLB, and as big as he's been on the marketing front worldwide, it's not just a baseball career. He's a baseball personality. He's become a worldwide celebrity."
Ichiro finishes with 10 All-Star Game selections and 10 Gold Glove Awards to his name, all earned with Seattle in his first stint with the Mariners after signing as a 27-year-old in 2001. He captured the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year Awards that season, helping Seattle win 116 games while batting .350 with 56 stolen bases and 242 hits.
Ichiro broke George Sisler's single-season hit record with 262 hits in 2004 while batting a career-high .372, and he retires with an impressive slash line of .311/.355/.402 along with two AL batting titles and the 23rd most hits of any player in MLB history despite not coming to the U.S. until he was 27.
Mariners chairman and managing partner John Stanton issued the following statement:
"For the last two decades, Ichiro has been an integral part of the Seattle Mariners organization. That has not changed with today's announcement. He will remain a key member of our Mariners family.
"Ichiro was a trailblazer when he arrived in 2001 and ushered in a new era for international players with his impact, and he demonstrated daily the skill, passion and preparation that only the truly great have over his playing career. We appreciate all that he has done for the Mariners, and for Major League Baseball, on the field. Personally, I deeply appreciate the advice and insights he has offered me in the last year.
"Ichiro will continue to have an impactful role with Seattle. And now, we look forward to all that he can bring to the Mariners, and Major League Baseball, off the field. He will always be a Mariner."
Ichiro became an icon in his home country as the first Japanese position player to not only play in the Majors, but to become a star on the foreign stage. His exploits were chronicled daily by a group of Japanese journalists that followed him from Seattle and then New York and Miami and finally back to Seattle again as his circle came full.
And now he'll begin a new chapter, one that he didn't seem quite ready to write until he had a chance to say goodbye on his own terms, on his own stage, and in his own country once more.
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.