TOKYO — This was his moment, but they had to be a part of it, knowing what it meant to him and to baseball.
Ichiro’s teammates couldn’t ignore his somewhat abrupt, if expected, retirement Thursday after the Mariners’ final game in Japan. And their fondness for the 45-year-old legend made it a night to celebrate, not lament.
After Ichiro’s emotional and applause-filled exit between the top and bottom of the eighth inning — and Seattle’s 5-4 win in 12 innings — his teammates followed him into a small media center setup near their clubhouse in the Tokyo Dome, where he officially announced his retirement. His teammates applauded him, then urged him back onto the field, where more than three-fourths of the 46,000 fans crammed into the stadium continued to cheer. As he took the extended curtain call, Mariners players chronicled the event — the videos destined for social media and their personal archives.
“This is unbelievable,” said Braden Bishop, the player who replaced Ichiro in the eighth.
Ryon Healy, who hit a two-run homer and added a key double, said: “I think every moment that I kind of witnessed with him the last couple of years and this last one here are just kind of surreal. I don’t think it’s something that will sink for myself for a lot of years to come, just how special all these little moments are. It’s unbelievable to be a part of it.”
Healy watched from the dugout in the top of the eighth inning of a 4-4 game with Ichiro at the plate and Tim Beckham on second. He ached for Ichiro to get a base hit to score Beckham with the go-ahead run. Ichiro couldn’t quite beat out an infield hit on a ground ball to shortstop, coming up a step short on a play he would’ve beaten out five years ago.
“The whole world seemed to be just willing it,” Healy said. “But his career is bigger than getting that one base hit.”
Even former players got into the act. Ken Griffey Jr., on the trip as an ambassador and not a coincidence to the circumstances, was in the dugout in the eighth, giving Ichiro a hug.
“It was awesome,” Griffey said. “This is what baseball is all about. He had a chance to play in his home country, where they’ve seen him grow up.”
Griffey, who retired in the middle of the 2010 season, had some simple advice for Ichiro in retirement.
“Have fun,” he said. “He’s done everything that a player could do. He left it all on the field. You are talking about a career. You aren’t talking about one year. Look at what he’s done from Day 1 til now.”
Like new Mariners pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, the emotion was a bit too much for Dee Gordon. TV cameras showed tears streaming down Gordon’s cheeks after Ichiro demanded a hug from him instead of the traditional Japanese bow.
“I don’t know what y’all are talking about,” Gordon joked. “That was sweat.”
But Gordon knows his friend deserves those tears.
“Selfishly, I wanted him to keep playing,” Gordon said. “That’s my boy. That’s my family. I’m going to miss him. I’m going to miss those off days and going to hit with him. Coming into the stadium after the season’s over and he’s in there working out. I’m going miss our conversations. That’s who I sit next to on the plane. That’s my friend.”
They first met when they played together with the Marlins. Two men with different backgrounds, the universal language and binding qualities of baseball brought them together. They were two players with speedy, smaller frames who could seemingly make contact with their left-handed swings on any pitch, sometimes to their detriment.
“To get to play with him and be close to him as we are, it’s a surreal feeling,” Gordon said. “I’m from Avon Park, Florida, and Ichiro’s the greatest player to ever come out of Japan. For him to call me a friend, it’s pretty amazing.”
Sometimes heroes can break your heart when you meet them. But Ichiro didn’t disappoint.
“I’m one of the only players that actually asked him questions,” Gordon said. “I didn’t care about asking too much. I didn’t care if he got mad about not wanting to tell me. I wanted to learn from him. And he took me in. Shoot, that batting championship (.333 in 2015) is partly because of him.”
Asked to put into perspective what Ichiro meant to baseball, Gordon kept it simple.
“He just retired, and there was still 40,000 people out there screaming for him,” Gordon said. “Most guys decide to retire and just go home. He deserves it.”