The reign of Ichiro Suzuki began so long ago that it’s practically ancient history. Nearly 20 years ago, a wiry and short man came from Japan to Seattle with more expectations upon him than any of his countrymen had ever faced in the majors, and he exceeded them by any and every measure. When the final words are written on Ichiro, they’ll note just how automatic and consistent he was—that his genius was how steady he was at the plate, practically a metronome, spitting out hit after hit after hit with a compact, inside-out swing that burned countless infielders and practically carved tunnels out of the dirt between third base and shortstop. Like Tony Gwynn, he was a savant when it came to singles, a wizard who could make contact with seemingly anything and beat out just about any throw. He was, in a word, special.
But Ichiro was also fun, and through his long and impressive career, he piled up moments and awards and accolades. As he prepares to head off into a temporary hiatus—we won’t call it a retirement quite yet—let’s revisit some of the biggest and best hits, dramatics and milestones of Ichiro Suzuki.
April 2, 2001: Ichiro’s first MLB hit
What were you doing 17 years ago? Flunking your way through trigonometry in high school? Flunking your way through calculus in college? Flunking your way through job presentations? Whatever it was, it was a long time ago—nearing on two decades in your past. That’s how long ago a fresh-faced Ichiro came to Major League Baseball, a veteran of Japan’s professional league but a rookie for American pitchers. He didn’t wait long to make his first mark, collecting career hit No. 1 in career game No. 1 with a seventh-inning single against Athletics reliever T.J. Mathews, a man whose otherwise anonymous stint in the big leagues at least gains the asterisk through that association with a future Hall of Famer. Ichiro finished the day 2-for-5 with that hit and—fittingly—an infield single. (By the way, peep the long pants; Ichiro had yet to embrace the high-pants look that would become synonymous with his style.)
April 11, 2001: The Throw
It may feel sometimes like Ichiro arrived to the majors fully formed, like Botticelli’s Venus in the clamshell or Athena emerging from Zeus’s head to slap singles to the third base side. Plays like this—Ichiro gunning down Oakland’s Terrence Long at third base from rightfield with a throw like a heat-seeking missile—only furthered that impression, that this rookie had already figured out the hardest pieces of baseball’s code. Throws like this, beautiful perfect strikes, are the realm of the truly gifted. It took just one week for Ichiro to prove that he belonged.
November 2001: MVP and Rookie of the Year honors
After a season in which he hit a mind-boggling .350/.381/.457 in 738 plate appearances, stole 56 bases, and led the majors in hits with 242, Ichiro became only the second player in league history and the first since Fred Lynn in 1975 to win the Rookie of the Year award and the Most Valuable Player award in the same year. For the former, it was no contest, as he took home 27 of the 28 first-place votes, easily beating out a stout Indians lefty named CC Sabathia. In the latter, he squeaked by A’s slugger Jason Giambi (who led the Junior Circuit in WAR that season) and teammate Bret Boone (who hit a career-high 37 home runs for a 116-win team). It was an unprecedented achievement: No Japanese player before Ichiro had managed even more than 150 plate appearances in an MLB season, much less the kind of year he put together. Oh, and he also added a Gold Glove for his work in rightfield—the first of 10 straight he would win.
Oct. 1, 2004: Breaking George Sisler’s single-season hits record
The only constants of the early 2000s were death, taxes, disastrous and deceitful foreign policy in the White House, and Ichiro banging out 200-hit seasons. It all culminated in 2004, when he overtook Sisler for the most hits in a single season, tying and breaking the longtime St. Louis Brown’s 84-year-old record in the same game by recording his 257th and 258th hits of the year (with Sisler’s daughter in attendance, too). In true Ichiro fashion, the historic knock was a ground-ball single up the middle off of Rangers righty Ryan Drese; he ended up tacking on four more before season’s end to give him 262 (and a ludicrous .372 batting average), a record that still stands today and probably will for the rest of time.
July 10, 2007: Inside-the-park home run in the All-Star Game
All-Star Game records and accomplishments exist in a bizarre limbo space, happening as they do in a game that fundamentally doesn’t matter and is patently silly. But leave it to Ichiro to do something never before done in a Midsummer Classic and have it be something thrilling and fun. Playing in his seventh straight All-Star Game, this one in San Francisco’s AT&T Park, Ichiro took a Chris Young (!) fastball and ripped it off the rightfield wall, where it took a strange bounce and caromed off into the corner. That was more than enough to give the speedy outfielder time to circle the bases for a two-run inside-the-parker—the first such home run in All-Star Game history.
March 24, 2009: Winning the WBC for Japan
Not all of Ichiro’s best moments as an MLB player came in MLB. Playing for Japan in international competition, he was a difference maker both in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, when he collected 12 hits over the course of the tournament to help his country win the title, and in the second edition in ’09, in which he dramatically delivered the game-winning hit in the final against rival South Korea. His two-run single in the 10th inning—his fourth hit of the game—broke a 3–3 tie and gave Japan its second straight championship in the event, though he and his country haven’t won it since.
Sept. 18, 2009: Walking off Mariano Rivera
It may not have mattered one bit in the standings—Seattle finished the 2009 season 85–77 and in third place in the AL West despite Ichiro hitting .352/.386/.465—but any time you can walk off against the greatest closer in baseball history, that’s worth celebrating. So here’s Ichiro beating the mighty Mariano Rivera, with a two-out home run no less, to make this otherwise uneventful September game special—a battle of two of the game’s all-time titans that ended in fittingly dramatic fashion.
Oct. 13, 2012: Ichiro’s first career postseason homer
By 2012, Ichiro’s career had begun its long, slow and inexorable decline: The year previous was his first ever in the majors with a batting average under .300, and heading into the summer, his line was a decidedly un-Ichiro .261/.288/.353. Now 38 years old, the end was clearly in sight, and with the Mariners struggling, Ichiro asked the team to trade him at midseason to make room for younger players. They did so, sending him to the Yankees for a pair of minor leaguers. In pinstripes, Ichiro turned back the clock, slashing .322/.340/.454 in the Bronx and helping his new team make it to the ALCS against Detroit, where he finally accomplished something it’d taken him 11 years to do: hit a home run. Facing Tigers righty Jose Valverde in Game 1 in the ninth and down 4–0, Ichiro pummeled a pitch to deep right for a two-run shot, his first ever postseason dinger. It wasn’t enough to turn around the night or the series for New York, which was swept in four games, but it did prove that even old dogs can learn new tricks.
June 15, 2016: A new Hit King
The next few years for Ichiro were spent in the wilderness, otherwise known as “playing a fourth outfielder role and eventually ending up on the Marlins.” His late 2012 surge didn’t last, though he was able to carve out a role as a reserve in Miami after leaving the Yankees, excelling as a bench bat as he marched toward a pair of historic achievements. The first came in mid-June of 2016, as Ichiro doubled off the Padres’ Fernando Rodney to record the 4,257th hit of his professional career (including his time in Japan), pushing him past noxious Thanksgiving uncle Pete Rose for the most in top-tier baseball. Rose and others will argue that he remains the Hit King by virtue of all 4,256 of his hits coming in the majors, but don’t let that take away from Ichiro’s incredible longevity and skill (or the fact that, in our hearts, he deserves to be the true Hit King).
Aug. 7, 2016: No. 3,000
With Rose disposed of, Ichiro’s final milestone came just two months later, as he became the 30th player in MLB history to record 3,000 career hits. He did it with a triple against Rockies lefty Chris Rusin, making him only the second hitter ever to reach 3,000 with a three-bagger and the first to do so as a Marlin (something that future generations will probably edit so that he’s wearing a Mariners uniform in the video, as it should be).
By that point in his career, Ichiro was running mostly on dust, fumes and the memories of a decade prior, as that season was the last gasp of the man who was once the bane of every pitcher alive. His next season in Miami was a dud; his return to Seattle at age 44, while heart-warming, went no better before he called it quits. Now he heads off into semi-retirement, but he does so as one of the game’s superstars and greats—a lock for Cooperstown, the history books, and a permanent place in our hearts and minds.