After nearly 25 years in professional baseball, over 4,200 combined hits between Japan and Major League Baseball, and as he closes in on his 3,000 MLB hit, at some point it’s realistic to start talking retirement for one of the game’s biggest names: Ichiro.
The hardest part about being a superstar in any sport, is choosing how you go out. Seattle first true superstar, Ken Griffey Jr, packed his bags and drove home in the middle of a season. The Captain of the Yankees took a year-long farewell tour. Everyday players come and go, but Ichiro isn’t an everyday player – Statistically speaking he hasn’t been an everyday player for two years, but in this case I’m talking about talent and profile.
Whether you like Ichiro or not, there is no denying the impact that he’s had on the sport. Ichiro was a phenomenon that brought ratings both here and overseas, drove attendance (again from both here and overseas), and was the first step in a more aggressive globalization of the sport, as teams established increased scouting and branched out camps and academies in a number of countries. You could argue that without Ichiro Suzuki, the World Baseball Classic would not exist. Which is why it’s the perfect place for Ichiro’s swan song.
In Japan, Ichiro’s name is spoken with a reverence reserved for the likes of Sadaharu Oh. There have been a number of Japanese-born Major Leaguers. Some, like Hideki Matsui, have tasted more success. But Ichiro was Elvis, he was the Beatles… He was the most famous player of his time. And then he left Japan, and became more popular than ever. By joining the Seattle Mariners, which at the time was partially owned by the Japanese-founded Nintendo, Ichiro became a living, breathing broadcast of Japanese baseball. His speed on the base paths, his slap-style hitting, and relentless routine were revered. Ichiro was Japan. After a 2001 rookie season, when Ichiro won the Rookie of the Year, MVP, a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and was an All Star in a year when the Seattle Mariners tied the Major League record of 116 wins, you could probably say that Ichiro was Major League Baseball too.
Japan and Major League Baseball were on a collision course of popularity, as Ichiro continued to be a league leader in hits, a repeated Gold Glover, and All Star. The inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 saw Japan defeat Cuba; Ichiro went .364 with 12 hits. His average dropped to .273 in 2009, but his base hit in extra innings of the championship game against Korea won Japan the series for the 2nd time. By 2013, Ichiro was showing wear, and free agency distractions had him off the roster.
Mike Piazza can play for Italy, Nomar Garciaparra can play for Mexico, but Ichiro is Japan. For Japan, the World Baseball Classic wasn’t about a trophy, it was about legitimacy. For as many players as Japan sends to Major League Baseball, it will always be considered a “less-than” league, so for Ichiro and the rest of Team Japan, winning the Classic was their way of, whether they would ever admit it or not, sticking a big middle finger in the air and saying “Beat this.”
Which brings this back to Ichiro’s retirement. Baseball players come and go. Ichiro is a first ballot Hall-of-Famer, but to American fans, he’s just another great player. Is he more popular than Griffey? Than Jeter? Than Ortiz? What about Trout? Or Harper? No. But to Japanese fans, he is their everything. By retiring at the World Baseball Classic, Ichiro would be cementing his legacy not as “just” a Major Leaguer and a Hall-of-Famer, but as an ICON for an entire country.