In what will likely be the final at-bat of his major league career, Ichiro Suzuki had one last opportunity to give Mariners fans a chance to cheer Wednesday night. He came up in the bottom of the ninth with one out and runners on first and second, the A’s leading 3-2.
There had been unconfirmed rumors that this would be Ichiro’s final homestand. Watching on my computer screen, it certainly felt like this could be the end for the future Hall of Famer, that given his meager production and the return of Guillermo Heredia to the roster, there wasn’t really room to carry a 44-year-old fifth outfielder, franchise icon or not. Maybe he’d make it through the weekend, but the Mariners’ silence on the issue seemed to indicate there was no guarantee of anything.
Maybe the fans in attendance felt the same thing. They launched into their “Ich-i-ro! Ich-i-ro!” chant first heard in that magical season of 2001, when Ichiro came over from Japan, won MVP and Rookie of the Year honors, helped the Mariners win a record 116 games and became one of the most beloved athletes in Seattle sports history.
Facing Oakland right-hander Blake Treinen, he took a strike and ball and then nearly turned into the hero. With a patented opposite-field swing, he lined a 96 mph sinker down the third-base line, a potential hit that would have scored the tying run and perhaps the winning run ... except it was a foot or so foul as it curled past the bag.
On the next pitch, Ichiro swung through a 96 mph fastball, and two batters later the game was over.
The Mariners announced Thursday that Ichiro will not play again with the team in 2018. He’ll move into a front-office position and will still travel with the team, serving as a de facto coach and mentor. His agent stressed that Ichiro wasn’t retiring, but let’s be honest: His major league career is over. He hit .205/.255/.205 in 47 plate appearances with the Mariners, and other than a nice season as a bench player for the Marlins in 2016, when he also collected his 3,000th career hit, his offensive production has been subpar for a long time. His OPS+ since 2015 is just 76, 24 percent below a league-average hitter, and he has produced just 4.7 WAR since 2011, all of that coming via his defensive and baserunning value.
If this is it, Ichiro will finish 22nd on the all-time hits list with 3,089, a remarkable total given he didn’t come over from Japan until he was 27. There is no doubt that if he had spent his entire career in the majors he’d have more career hits than Pete Rose (indeed, if you add up his totals from Japan and MLB, he does have more hits than Rose). He led his league in hits seven times, including setting the single-season record of 262 in 2004, when he hit .372.
At his peak, he was one of the best all-around players in the majors, carrying on the legacy of hitters like Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn with his unique ability to place the ball wherever he desired. In an era of beefed-up sluggers swinging from their heels, Ichiro’s artistry and style of play turned him into a rebel of sorts amid the home run revolution. I’ll miss that as much as anything, that reminder that baseball can be played in different ways. His defense and baserunning were superlative, and his famous throw to nail Terrence Long early in the 2001 season remains a popular YouTube staple.
He hit an inside-the-park home run in the All-Star Game, but every die-hard Mariners fan probably remembers his walk-off home run against Mariano Rivera in 2009 as maybe his greatest moment. That came in a rare decent season for the Mariners -- they finished 85-77 -- but by mid-September they were out of the playoff race yet again.
Indeed, while Ichiro’s career began with the great 2001 team and then two 90-win seasons, many depressing seasons followed. For a long time, it seemed the only positives were Ichiro and Felix Hernandez. When Ichiro finally was traded to the Yankees in 2012, it felt necessary -- it was time to move on and rebuild and try something different.
That’s why this reunion, as brief as it turned out to be on the field, always felt a little awkward. The Mariners needed an outfielder at the start of the season only because Ben Gamel was going to spend a few weeks on the DL. When Gamel returned, Heredia was sent down to the minors -- even though he was playing well and clearly is a better player at this time than Ichiro. For a team off to a good start and in pursuit of ending the longest playoff drought in the majors, it became a delicate situation. You don’t want to insult a player who had meant so much to the franchise.
For Mariners fans, instead of a joyous return, it brought back memories of Ken Griffey Jr.’s finale. He had hit 19 home runs for the Mariners in 2009, but hit just .214. There wasn’t much left in the tank, but he returned for 2010, went homerless in 98 at-bats -- I remember Mariners fans praying for one final home run -- and then disappeared of his own accord. As with Griffey, at least this didn’t linger too long, and it appears everyone is content with the transition.
Ichiro has said he wants to play until he’s 50 and maybe he will, somewhere, someplace, for the love of the game. That idea of baseball immortality is an alluring dream, to play forever. Or maybe it’s a curse. After all, we’re all mortal, living on memories.