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Baseball reflects on marvel of Ichiro's career

Japanese star moving into front-office role with Mariners for rest of '18
MLB.com @castrovince

Ichiro Suzuki considered what the team doctor was telling him for a few silent moments. Eight years into his career in Major League Baseball, the Mariners were trying to put Ichiro on the disabled list for the very first time. But he was adamantly against the move, and so here was a medical professional explaining to him that this condition -- this bleeding ulcer -- was a threat not just to his athletic activity but to his very life.

"If you play and rupture it," the doctor said, "you have a chance to die."

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Ichiro Suzuki considered what the team doctor was telling him for a few silent moments. Eight years into his career in Major League Baseball, the Mariners were trying to put Ichiro on the disabled list for the very first time. But he was adamantly against the move, and so here was a medical professional explaining to him that this condition -- this bleeding ulcer -- was a threat not just to his athletic activity but to his very life.

"If you play and rupture it," the doctor said, "you have a chance to die."

View Full Game Coverage

Ichiro thought about it briefly, and came to a conclusion.

"I'm willing to take that chance," he said.

Video: Ichiro on transitioning to special assistant advisor

Sanity ultimately prevailed in that situation. Then-manager Don Wakamatsu convinced Ichiro that there's little glory in collapsing in the outfield grass, and so Ichiro missed those first couple weeks of the 2009 season. But that story is a little window into what drove this undeniably unique player to greatness.

"For someone to be that dedicated to the game was absolutely amazing," Wakamatsu, now the Rangers' bench coach, said Thursday. "I have a lot of respect for the man and what he has done here and in Japan."

Video: Wakamatsu gives his thoughts on Ichiro's legacy

MLB had never seen anything like Ichiro. He arrived a 27-year-old rookie, 1,278 professional hits deep but with so much to prove, so much curiosity surrounding his wiry frame and strange stretching and knee-knocking, black Mizuno bat-waving pre-pitch routine.

He leaves -- temporarily or otherwise -- 17 years and, unfathomably, another 3,089 hits later, with his legacy as an artistic accumulator of Hall of Fame-worthy stats secure.

The Mariners announced Thursday that Ichiro has transitioned out of a playing role and will serve as a special assistant to the chairman, providing input on outfield play, baserunning and hitting while serving as a mentor to players and staff. The move precludes Ichiro from rejoining the active roster in 2018, though Ichiro's agent, John Boggs, said Ichiro, who in the past has said he wants to still be playing baseball when he's 50, will keep his options open in 2019 and beyond.

Video: Ichiro transitioning to new office role with Mariners

"Let's see what he's going to do next," fellow future Hall of Famer and 2001 Rookie of the Year Albert Pujols said. "I don't think he's done yet. ... If you put your mind into it and you keep yourself healthy -- and he's done that since Day 1 -- I think not only to 50, he might be able to play until 60 and maybe we'll have to get him a wheelchair to get to first base."

Whatever the future holds, Thursday was a day for people around MLB to reflect on and celebrate Ichiro's past. The stockpiled singles. The legendary BP power (alas, we never got the Ichiro Home Run Derby participation the world deserved). The awesome arm. The signature stance. The devilish sense of humor (who else learns Spanish for the sole purpose of talking trash?). And the sheer longevity.

"You're not going to find a player like that for a while," Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus said. "When he was in his prime, he could do magic with a baseball bat. He mastered it."

Video: Ichiro, Dipoto talk about Suzuki's new role

For those who grew up in Japan watching Ichiro from afar and dreaming of one day making the same leap he did, Thursday's news was especially emotive.

"Obviously, a lot of respect for him," Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka said. "I don't want to comment on retirement or anything like that because I don't think he actually made a retirement announcement. But I think it speaks a lot when the Mariners bring him into the front office to help them out on whatever it is that they're asking Ichiro to help out on."

We came tantalizingly close to a potential Shohei Ohtani-Ichiro matchup this weekend at Safeco Field, where the Angels will be facing the Mariners. The two-way star Ohtani has classified Ichiro as one of his baseball idols, and Ichiro had joked this spring that he wanted to face Ohtani -- with Ichiro pitching and Ohtani hitting.

Ohtani disappointed he won't play vs. Ichiro

"I have nothing but the utmost respect for him," Ohtani said in a statement released by the club. "What he has done for this game, our country and the fans. Sure I wish we could have played against him but [it] wasn't meant to be. Wish nothing but the best for him moving forward."

Video: A look at Ichiro's first and last hit in the Majors

Ohtani was just 6 years old when Ichiro made that trek across the Pacific to begin his MLB career. Ohtani's eventual manager, Mike Scioscia, remembered what it was like to see Ichiro up close and personal for the first time.

"Saw him in Spring Training in '01," Scioscia said. "You'd heard a lot about him. He's playing right field. It took us four innings to go, 'Wow, this guy is talented.' He has unbelievable range in right field. Just an unbelievable throwing arm. The way he was so fundamentally sound. At the plate, you could see he was going to hit. He could fly. There were so many things he could do. No doubt, he was a force in the Major Leagues for a long time."

Ichiro has certainly given the game plenty of stats to unpack.

20 incredible facts about Ichiro's career

"He had 10 [consecutive] years of 200 hits," Rangers DH Shin-Soo Choo said in awe. "I don't even have one. Even when he was young, I heard stories about how he was all about routine, routine, routine. What he was going to do that day, he did it. That's what made him a superstar. Day game after a night game, while everybody else was tired and resting, he would be out stretching and doing something."

Video: MLB Tonight on Ichiro's transition to front office

But beyond the stats were the stories. Teammates would always marvel at Ichiro's brute power in BP and wonder what kind of hitter he might have been if he applied that style to the games.

"He's one of those classic guys that you have that debate," Twins manager and former Mariners hitting coach Paul Molitor said. "Do you want him to hit .350 and hit 10 homers or try to see if he can hit 40 or 50? He didn't have a huge vector of where his power was, but to watch him pepper those windows in Seattle every day, it gets your attention. Wade Boggs had a little bit of power like that. He could put on a little bit of a show at times. But who they are in the game was pretty effective."

Video: MLB Tonight looks back on Ichiro Suzuki's career

Effective, indeed. Ichiro could turn even the worst contact into a hit.

"With his speed, it was unbelievable," Pujols said. "Two-hop to shortstop, and he would beat it out. Two-hop to second base, you need to hurry up and throw that ball to first base. It was just a really unique talent."

That talent -- and speed -- of course extended into the outfield, where Ichiro robbed Pujols of extra bases in the 2003 All-Star Game with a sprinting, leaping grab.

Video: NL@AL: Ichiro robs Pujols of hit in fourth inning

"I could have easily had a chance to win that MVP in '03, and he made a great play," Pujols said. "A ball that I thought was in the gap. Only him and maybe Trouty [Mike Trout] would have caught that ball with the speed that those guys have in the outfield. But he just made a great play and then he got on later on first base, and I told him, 'Hey, man, why do you have to do it like that? It's the All-Star Game.' And he said, 'Hey man, I just play hard.' He was just a fun guy to play against. I wish we would have played more against each other."

Perhaps there's still more to come from Ichiro on the baseball field. If that 2009 threat of death was, to him, nothing but a nuisance, it's hard to say semi-retirement will stop him from suiting up again.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Seattle Mariners, Ichiro Suzuki