This legend is Marlins' all-time best bench player

May 19th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These all-time rankings are for fun and debate purposes only.

Here is Joe Frisaro’s top bench/utility player in Marlins history. Next week: Right-handed starters.

Marlins' Top 5: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF

When signed as a free agent with the Marlins in 2015, many wondered whether the already iconic outfielder from Japan would be a fit in Miami.

The skepticism was legitimate. Then 41, Ichiro had spent his entire MLB career playing in the American League, and the Marlins didn't have an outfield need. The trio was set -- Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton. Without the designated hitter in the National League, Ichiro became a fourth outfielder/pinch-hit option.

So did the signing make sense?

The answer became a resounding yes, because Ichiro spent three seasons (2015-17) as a valued bench player, and in the process handled some unfinished business to his remarkable MLB career.

Wearing a Marlins’ uniform, Ichiro reached 3,000 MLB hits in 2016. In the same season, counting his hit total from playing nine seasons in Japan, he accumulated more hits as a professional than any player in history.

On the lighter side of the sport, Ichiro also fulfilled a personal dream as a Marlin -- to pitch in the big leagues. He tossed an inning on the final day of the 2015 season at Philadelphia.

"I used to pitch in high school," Ichiro said. "I did pitch in an All-Star Game in Japan. But to be on the mound at a Major League Baseball game, you can say one of my dreams came true today. But I'll never ask to do that again."

Then there was the persona factor of Ichiro. Whenever the Marlins played, on the road or at Marlins Park, Ichiro received tremendous ovations every time he stepped on the field or came to the plate. His teammates embraced him and learned from his example.

In Marlins’ history, there may have been other bench/utility players who produced more than Ichiro did in Miami statistically. But no player coming off the bench was a better player over the course of their entire career.

That’s why Ichiro is on the Marlins' all-time team as the top bench/utility player.

"Obviously, Ich is a guy who is a really special player," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said in 2016. "There is longevity, love for the game, the whole thing. It was fun to be able to be here and see this."

Mattingly’s comments came on June 15 at San Diego, after Ichiro collected two hits, an infield single and a double, to give him a combined 4,257 professional hits -- 2,979 in the big leagues at that point, and 1,278 in Japan.

Pete Rose holds the MLB record of 4,256. MLB, of course, doesn’t recognize combined records. Still, the distinction of amassing that many hits was something to celebrate.

"This wasn't a goal of mine to get to this point," Ichiro said through his interpreter that day. "Obviously, I've heard Pete's comments, and he wasn't really happy about what they were saying about this record or whatnot. To be honest, this wasn't something I was making a goal. It was just kind of a weird situation to be in, just because of the combined. It was a tough one. It wasn't really something I've thought about."

A couple of months later on Aug. 7, at the age of 42, Ichiro reached a milestone that no one could dispute. He joined MLB’s 3,000-hit club.

The milestone came off Rockies left-hander Chris Rusin at Coors Field. Fittingly, the hit was a triple, because so much of Ichiro’s career was based on speed. Legging out a three-base hit was only right.

"More than the number 3,000 itself," Ichiro said afterward. “When I saw the teammates come out and how happy they were and how warm the fans were, it's not about just the 3,000 and what I did. It's about my teammates and my fans."

Ichiro’s superstar persona makes him a fan favorite of millions. A few days later on Aug. 13, Rush lead singer Geddy Lee was a guest of the Marlins at Marlins Park. He made the trip with the purpose of meeting and getting Ichiro’s autograph.

“I've been a lucky guy in my life,” Lee said that day. “I've had a long career, and I've crossed a few generations now, and I'm able to exploit from my own career to meet guys I respect.”

Ichiro, a 10-time All-Star and the 2001 AL Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year, announced his retirement after the 2019 season.

In his 19-year big league career, Ichiro amassed 3,089 hits, with 236 coming as a member of the Marlins. He finished his pro career with 4,367 total hits.

During his time with the Marlins, Ichiro had 51 career pinch-hits, which stands second in club history to Wes Helms' 56.