It was evident virtually from his first day in Seattle that Ichiro was a genuine marvel, simultaneously an icon and iconoclast, and a thoroughly unique practitioner of the pastime.
On Monday, Ichiro will return to Safeco Field for the first time since June 12, 2014 with the Yankees. Since then, he has changed teams, changed leagues, turned 41 (and 42, and 43), become a part-time player, surpassed Pete Rose with his combined hit total between Japan and MLB, and recorded his 3,000th hit in the majors, stamping Ichiro’s baseball immortality.
Stamping it quantitatively, that is. It was evident virtually from his first day in Seattle that Ichiro was a genuine marvel, simultaneously an icon and iconoclast, and a thoroughly unique practitioner of the pastime.
“He’s one of the few guys I’ve seen where the league had to adjust to him, and his style,’’ recalled Bret Boone.
Everyone had to adjust, including fans, who found plenty to gripe about over the years despite the annual Gold Glove, 200 hits and .300 average he delivered (including a single-season hit record in 2004 and two batting titles), and teammates, some of whom rebelled against, rather than embraced, the differences.
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But for the most part, Ichiro was rightly revered during his 11-plus seasons in Seattle (where he still maintains a home), and should receive a warm, if not hero’s, welcome at Safeco when he takes the field for the Marlins during the interleague series.
That’s assuming he does take the field. Once known for playing virtually every day, Ichiro rarely appears at all now, amassing just 10 at-bats through Friday.
“He’s at peace with his role, and at peace with himself,’’ said Mike Cameron, who visited with his old teammate and friend during spring training in Florida.
I can vouch for that, having spent time with Ichiro last year in Miami when he was in pursuit of his 3000th hit. He is revered by his younger teammates (which is all of them), who sit in awe of both his accomplishments and his still-vigorous work regimen.
Ichiro tells everyone now that he plans to play until he’s 50, and he means it. No one doubts he’s physically capable, though Boone wonders if he’ll eventually grow weary of part-time play, having been so used to being in the thick of the action.
“It’s one thing to say that when you’re 42, 43, but when he gets to be 46, 47, he might say, ‘I’m kind of tired of this,’ ’’ Boone observed.
Those who were there at the beginning of his Seattle tenure still marvel at the phenomenon that was Ichiro. The famous story, of course, is Lou Piniella watching in increasing horror as Ichiro hit everything to left field during his first spring training in 2001. Piniella privately fretted to his bench coach, John McLaren, that maybe Ichiro was overmatched by major-league velocity. One day, Piniella challenged Ichiro to pull the ball — and he yanked one onto the berm at Peoria Sports Complex.
There was a method to his approach, because there always was. He had never seen a power sinker before, Ichiro told McLaren, and he wanted to study American pitching. So he’d foul balls off to give him increased exposure to that pitch at a time when results didn’t matter, except to soothe some organizational nerves.
“He was killing us in the third-base dugout with his fouls,’’ laughed McLaren, now a Phillies coach. “Lou would say, ‘I’m not going to dodge this anymore,’ and get behind the netting in the dugout.”
The Mariners won 116 games that year, with Ichiro winning the batting title and Most Valuable Player award as a complement to Boone’s 37 homers and 141 runs batted in.
“It was a magical year for all of us, and he was a catalyst,’’ Boone said.
Boone still remembers the look that infielders, particularly shortstops, would flash once they realized that routine grounders were no gimmes with Ichiro running — “I don’t want to say terror, but concern,” he said.
Cameron said that only two players he saw matched Ichiro’s hit-making ability — Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs.
“But Ichiro did it on the move and running, which made it extra special,’’ Cameron said.
There was simply no way to defend Ichiro in those days, though some teams tried playing him in tight, some shifted over toward the left side. It rarely worked, because Ichiro had the ability to mis-hit the ball and still beat it out. He was the Sultan of Slap.
“It was like he’d say, ‘You’re playing over there? I’ll hit it over here.’ ‘’ said McLaren.
And Ichiro managed to establish a distinct personality despite rarely allowing media, and by extension fans, to break down the wall he’d build, except in small, well-regulated doses. To this day, Ichiro does interviews through an interpreter, though his English is good.
Boone still laughs about Ichiro’s first game at Safeco Field in 2001, when veteran umpire Dana DeMuth approached Boone and asked what was up with his right fielder. DeMuth explained that he had approached Ichiro to say hi and welcome him to the majors. Ichiro responded, “What’s happening, Home Slice?”
“I started laughing and said, ‘That’s how he is,’ ’’ Boone said. “He’d say things that would make you say, ‘What?’ Stuff that would shock you. Ichiro had a real dry sense of humor, which was funny, charming and charismatic.”
He’s still all those things, and you have to wonder if the day will come that Ichiro pulls a Ken Griffey Jr. and pulls back on a Mariners jersey — however briefly — in a full-circle denouement of his career. But if you take Ichiro at his word, he’s got a lot of years left before the end is near.
For now, Ichiro is a Marlin, but it still means something when he comes back to Seattle, particularly with a nearly three-year absence. He is on the short list of all-time Mariner performers, along with Griffey, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Felix Hernandez, and, depending on how generous you’re feeling, A-Rod.
“I’ve never seen a guy get hits in so many different ways,’’ marveled Boone.
And all these years later, Ichiro is still doing it.
|Ichiro by the numbers|
|Ichiro is in his 17th major-league season. He played for the Mariners from 2001-2012, amassing 2,533 hits here.|
|Note: Statistics through Friday’s games.|