It was a memorable ride, not all of it smooth — some teammates, and some fans, pushed back against various aspects of his game and personality — but watching Ichiro was never anything less than fascinating.
When I look back at Ichiro’s career, I’ll remember the slowly building realization back in 2001 — the wonderment, really — that we were witnessing a baseball phenomenon like none of us had ever seen.
I’ll remember the Terrence Long throw — “like something out of Star Wars,’’ in Dave Niehaus’ immortal phrase — and all the infield singles that should have been routine outs until Ichiro went into his full Sultan of Slap mode to beat them out. One of those was as a rookie in the All-Star Game in Seattle off Randy Johnson, as it became ever clearer that Ichiro just had a knack for rising to the moment and confounding the mundane.
I’ll remember the excitement of watching one of the game’s hallowed records fall in 2004 when Ichiro banged out his 258th hit, breaking George Sisler’s 81-year-old season record on the way to 262.
I’ll remember being at the ballpark in San Francisco in 2007 when Ichiro became the first, and still only, player to get an inside-the-park home run in the All-Star Game. And I’ll remember so many penetrating “State of the Ichiro” interview sessions at his 10 All-Star Games, when he would give a tantalizing peek inside his brain, yet never revealing an iota more than he wanted to.
I’ll remember his provocative and unique quotes, as when, asked about facing countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka for the first time, Ichiro told journalist Brad Lefton, “I hope he arouses the fire that’s dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul. I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger.” I’ll go the rest of my career hoping to unearth a quote that vivid. And I might never get as funny a response as when, in San Diego, I asked Ichiro how he felt about heading to Cleveland for a makeup game. “If I ever saw myself saying I’m excited going to Cleveland,’’ he replied through interpreter Ken Baron, “I’d punch myself in the face, because I’m lying.”
Photos | Ichiro’s greatest hits
It was a memorable ride, not all of it smooth — some teammates, and some fans, pushed back against various aspects of his game and personality — but never anything less than fascinating. And looking back now at its totality, 18 years after it began in the 116-win dream season, it was a heaping slice of baseball brilliance and a privilege to witness.
What will barely even register in any archival retrospective of Ichiro’s baseball life is the brief stretch that just finished, when the decline of his once-transcendent skills became painfully evident.
In the end, while you could argue (as I did) it was a week or two too late, Ichiro’s departure as a player came about with grace. Considering the uneasiness that has surrounded him these last few weeks, that is a salvation for all concerned.
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Ichiro’s legacy, just like his friend Ken Griffey Jr.’s, will be the brilliance of his career, not the awkward month at the end of it. And while you could raise your eyebrows at chairman John Stanton’s statement that the Mariners won more games because Ichiro was on the team, it’s hard to find fault with what came down on Thursday.
No, it’s not an official retirement, as was stressed repeatedly, and all signs point to at least a cameo appearance in Japan next spring when the Mariners open the season against the A’s. Ichiro declared Thursday that he won’t retire until he’s walking around with a cane, and I don’t expect to hear the r-word coming from his lips until perhaps — perhaps — he’s on the podium in Cooperstown.
But let’s be realistic here. Ichiro’s major-league playing career, for all intents and purposes, came to an end on Wednesday when he struck out with two runners on base. It was excruciatingly close to a storybook ending that would have been the best capper to a career since Ted Williams hit a home run with three games left to play in 1960 and walked away forever. But Ichiro’s slashing drive down the third-base line was barely foul, and then his bat was achingly slow on the 97-mile-an-hour fastball by Oakland’s Blake Treinen that struck him out.
It was time, and frankly past time, for this phase of Ichiro’s career to end, and I was gratified to see that Ichiro himself seemed to not just understand that fact, but accept and even embrace it. He said on the podium that this stretch with the Mariners has made him the happiest he’s been in his 18-year career. He frequently tells manager Scott Servais how much he loves being a Mariner. And the Mariner players revere him like a beloved uncle and seek his baseball wisdom as if he were the Dalai Lama, as general manager Jerry Dipoto put it.
“It’s almost like they’re all waiting for him to opine from the mountain top,’’ Dipoto said.
The Mariners see great value in Ichiro’s new role as a sort of player emeritus and savant-at-large, dispensing his knowledge in whatever realm and whatever form he sees fit. And Ichiro is embracing it, which virtually ensures that it will be beneficial.
“If I know the answer, I’m there in any way for them,’’ he said.
I’m reminded of what John Updike wrote of Williams’ finale in his classic New Yorker essay, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”: “So he knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit.”
It looked for a while like Ichiro and the Mariners were going to botch his denouement, and it was approaching being a resentful situation for fans watching it unfold. But on Thursday, Ichiro showed he knew how to do the hardest thing. He didn’t quite quit — not Ichiro, iconoclast to the end — but he walked away with his dignity fully intact.