When Ichiro left the field Thursday in Tokyo, the fans roared. His opponents applauded, and his teammates all hugged him. Some wept. The Great Ichiro was retiring from professional baseball.
Early Signs of Ichiro’s Greatness
Ichiro wasn’t a once-in-a-generation talent. He was more. He was a once-in-multiple-generations talent. In Japan, he became a huge star with the Orix Blue Wave of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) starting from the age of 20 in 1994. Questions, of course, abounded as to whether he could be as successful in Major League Baseball. The Seattle Mariners certainly thought so, paying a pretty penny to bring him to the Emerald City in 2001 at the age of 27. He took the Majors by storm, batting .350/.457/.381 with 34 doubles, eight triples, eight homers, and 127 runs scored. His total of 242 hits – the highest in the Majors since 1930 – and 56 stolen bases each led the league. At the time, the record for hits in a season was still 257, so in his first year facing Major League pitching, he was only 15 hits short of the Major League record. By comparison, Pete Rose’s career high was 230 in 1973. Since the establishment of the American League in 1901, 240 hits in a season had only been achieved 12 times before Ichiro did it in 2001. Wade Boggs and Darin Erstad reached 240 in 1985 and 2000, respectively, but those were the only two times since 1930. It was mind-boggling, but that was just the beginning.
In Ichiro’s eighth game, he made a defensive play that still has people talking. It was in Oakland against the Athletics. Ichiro did not start that game, but he entered in the top of the eighth. In the bottom of the inning, he took his position in right field. With one out and Terrence Long on first, pinch-hitter Ramon Hernandez hit a single to right that rapidly slowed down in the outfield grass. Ichiro charged in to get the ball. When he scooped it up, Long had already rounded second and was about one-fourth of the way to third. Ichiro rifled a perfect throw that beat Long by about three feet. It didn’t bounce, and it didn’t rise more than six feet in the air the whole time. When it arrived, Seattle third baseman David Bell caught it maybe six inches off the ground and easily applied the tag. It wasn’t a throw – it was a laser beam.
In 2004, Ichiro broke a record that many felt was impossible to break – the record for hits in a season. It was held at the time by the great George Sisler, someone many people have never heard of because he played for the St. Louis Browns, who moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles. The Orioles do not acknowledge their history as the Browns, so Sisler’s number is not retired anywhere. The record had stood for 84 years at 257. Between 1922 and 1930, someone came within 11 hits of it six times, but no one had come closer than 17 hits of it since then. The league leaders every year tend to hover in the 210s or 220s, with someone reaching the 230s every once in a great while. Remarkably, Ichiro hit 262 that season, and the humility he showed when breaking the record was exemplary. George’s 81-year-old daughter, Frances Sisler Drochelman, was in attendance, as were four other members of the family. When the game stopped after he singled for hit number 258, Ichiro bowed deeply to them as they applauded in congratulations. After the game, two grandsons told Bob Sherwin of the Seattle Times that George would have been proud to have his record broken by such a wonderful person.
Between 2001 and 2010, Ichiro had 200 hits or more in every season. How many other players in Major League history had 10 200-hit seasons in a row? None. Only one other player – Pete Rose – even had 10 in his entire career. During the same span, Ichiro stole 30 or more bases in all but one season – 2009, when he played in a then-career-low 146 games. He was an All-Star in each of those years, as well.
The Great Guy
Another part of Ichiro that others can only match but not surpass is his character. When he came off the field for the final time Thursday, he received hugs – some through tears – from every person in the Mariners’ dugout. For someone to be universally loved that greatly speaks volumes. He is one of the kindest, most gracious people ever to play the game. When St. Louis hosted the All-Star Game in 2009, Ichiro visited George Sisler’s grave. It was obvious that Ichiro greatly admired Sisler and was honored to be the one to break his hallowed record. That’s not the only example of his character, though. His postgame press conference in the bullpen gave further evidence of the grace and humility he is known for. He was calm and respectful, and he made sure to answer every question. For all the egomaniacs baseball has had through the years, it has also had plenty of wonderful people. Ichiro is certainly the latter. He played hard but didn’t showboat. When fans acknowledged a great play, he responded with humility and then continued playing the game.
Ichiro was one of the best defenders to ever play his position. He was one of the scariest hitters to ever enter the batter’s box. 262 hits in a season, which he established as the new single-season record in 2004, will be all but unassailable. The maximum number of consecutive hitless games he had that year was two, and it happened only three times. There were only 27 games all season where he failed to register a hit. His combined career hit total in NPB (1278) and MLB (3089) is 4367. Pete Rose – the MLB Career Hit King – had 4256. Although he played in different leagues, Ichiro’s career hit number should not be ignored. The pitching in NPB is not as strong as it is in MLB, but it’s still strong enough to do well internationally. Not only that, NPB played 32 fewer games each year for his first five seasons and 27 fewer for his final four. Plus, he came to the Majors and immediately saw success. Ichiro certainly deserves full recognition for his career achievement.
Few players were loved as universally as Ichiro, and few achieved his level of excellence, both as a player and a person. We were all blessed to have watched him, and those who are privileged enough to have met him received an even greater blessing. The game is better from having experienced him, and he will be truly missed. Thank you, Ichiro, from the bottom of our collective heart.
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