Ichiro Suzuki is back, and Major League Baseball is way better because of it. Whether his return is for two games in Tokyo in the Mariners' regular-season opener or 120 more in the states, I care not. I just want the chance to see that sweet swing another time or
Ichiro Suzuki is back, and Major League Baseball is way better because of it. Whether his return is for two games in Tokyo in the Mariners' regular-season opener or 120 more in the states, I care not. I just want the chance to see that sweet swing another time or two.
This is an opportunity for all of us who love this game to appreciate how amazing this guy has been. If you were to come up with a list of the most interesting and accomplished players in Major League history, Ichiro would be somewhere high on that list.
I remember after his first spring with the Mariners, 2001, how he wasn't going to make it. I heard that from one scout after another who had watched him.
No faulting them for that assessment. Lots of us thought the same thing. Ichiro was so unorthodox that we had nothing to compare him to. If you looked at him -- 5-foot-11, 175 pounds -- you could not see that body holding up for an entire Major League season.
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Strength? He was so slightly built as to appear frail. At a time when baseball players were spending hours in the weight room, Ichiro stretched and did all sorts of isometric exercises.
His focus was on flexibility and quickness at a time when strength was the focus of so many workout routines. What we didn't really pick up on that first spring were the freakishly quick hands, the great eyesight and the ability to adjust to any pitch, regardless of where it was thrown.
That first year was an incredible experience. The Mariners won 116 times, and Ichiro was the American League Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year. He won the first of 10 Gold Gloves and played in the first of 10 All-Star Games.
He didn't just collect 242 hits, making one of the hardest things in the world look oh so easy, he made plays in right field -- throws mostly --that took your breath away.
Ichiro's teammates knew things about him the rest of us didn't. That he spoke fluent English -- he does most interviews in his native tongue -- and that he's wickedly funny. His pregame speeches at the All-Star Game became the stuff of legend.
His hit totals from those first 10 seasons are video game stuff. He averaged 224 hits a season, and you can roll that one around in your mind awhile. If you're looking for a comparison, think Wade Boggs. Pitchers always seemed to have the advantage on him, getting out in front, free to work the edge. About all they couldn't do is find the pitch that would get him out.
Ichiro also averaged 26 doubles, seven triples, nine home runs, 38 stolen bases, 46 walks and 68 strikeouts. In those 10 seasons, he had 326 more hits than the next-closest player (Derek Jeter). His 53.1 fWAR trailed only Jose Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds; how's that for company?
Did we mention his durability? He averaged 159 games per season in his first dozen with the Mariners.
He'd made his debut with the Mariners at 27 after nine seasons in Japan's top league, Nippon Professional Baseball. So while he blew us away in that very first season, it was difficult to imagine him playing at a high level for as long as he did.
Two seasons ago, Ichiro played in 136 games for the Marlins at 43. On this Opening Day, he'll be 45.
So, here we are, 18 years since his American debut, and he's going to grace our game with his presence again, at least for the two Mariners-A's games in Tokyo, hopefully more.
Whether that's the end of the road remains to be seen. But in that return home, he's going to hear the kind of cheers most professional athletes never dream of.
He'll begin the season with more hits than anyone in history -- 4,367 in all (3,089 in MLB, 1,278 in Japan). He has also been one of the great gentlemen of the sport, one who is funny and smart and engaging.
Hall of Fame in Cooperstown? Of course. Slam dunk. He deserves to be enshrined alongside Mariano Rivera and Cal Ripken and the others. But don't go looking for a place to hang his plaque just yet. We're going to have the pleasure of watching him play some more.
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.