Carl Johnson

On Wednesday of this week, the Seattle Mariners opened their regular season against the Oakland Athletics in the Tokyo Dome with 45,787 fans in the stands and Ichiro Suzuki in right field. In his first at bat, in the third inning, Ichiro popped out to second base and, in the fourth, he typically worked a nine pitch walk before being replaced in the last of the fourth in right field by Jay Bruce.
At 45, he was the second youngest position player ever to start an Opening day Game. Atlanta’s Julio Franco was a few years older when he started on Opening Day in 2004. Many of the players in Wednesday’s game were not even born when Ichiro began his career at 18 in Japan.
Eighteen years before, on Opening Day, April 2, 2001, Ichiro made his American Major League debut as a member of the Seattle Mariners against the Oakland Athletics. He went two for five that day. In his first three at bats, he grounded out twice and struck out once. He led off the seventh inning with the Mariners down 4-2 and hit a sharp single up the middle and scored on a single by Edgar Martinez in a two-run rally that tied the score.
In the last half of the eighth inning, with the score tied 4-4, the Mariners’ Carlos Guillen singled to start the inning. Ichiro then beat out a bunt and when the pitcher threw wild to first trying to get him Guillen went to third and Ichiro to second. John Olerud hit a sac fly to score Guillen with the winning run and Ichiro had made his first impact on Major League baseball.
The 27-year-old rookie, who had played nine years in Japan before being purchased by the Mariners from Orix in the Japanese Pacific League, would go on to win the Rookie of the Year Award and the Most Valuable Player Award that same year. He led the American League in hitting that year, batting .350, in hits with 242, and in stolen bases with 56. He was a key to Manager Lou Pinella’s Mariners’ win of the American League West with a 116-46 record, the most wins in history in a 162-game season.
The Mariners beat the Cleveland Indians in the American League Division Series, four games to one and Ichiro had an amazing 12 hits in 20 at bats. They then lost to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, four games to one in what would be Ichiro’s only playoff experience as a member of the Mariners.
From 2001 to 2010, he was selected for the American League All Star team and won the Gold Glove Award for right field every year. From 2000 until 2012, he played at least 157 games every year but one when he played just 146 in 2009. He led the league in hits seven times while at Seattle. He holds the record for most hits in a season with 262 in 2004 and is the only player in baseball history to have had ten consecutive 200 plus hit seasons. He was traded to the New York Yankees in 2012 and became a Free Agent at the end of that year but the Yankees resigned him, and he played there until being signed as a Free Agent by the Miami Marlins in January of 2015. He played with the Marlins through the 2017 season and, on March 7th, 2018 was signed as a Free Agent by Seattle.
In 2018, he played in only 16 games with Seattle and, after going 9-44, was released on May 3rd. The Mariners signed him to a Minor League contract on January 24th of this year and he went to Spring Training with them. In 31 at bats in Spring Training, he had just two hits. In 2012, when the Mariners last played in Japan, he wowed the Tokyo crowds there, getting four hits in one game against those same Athletics.
Of the 45,797 fans who turned out for the first game of the season, most were apparently there to see Ichiro. The stands were full of Ichiro jerseys and signs. The two games in Japan were his last games in baseball as he announced his retirement after the second game. Prior to coming to the United States in 2001, he had a .353 batting average and a .421 OBP for his nine years there, including 1,278 hits. In his 18 years in the Major Leagues, he batted .311 with 3,089 hits in 9,930 at bats. His combined batting average between the United States and Japan was .322 and he amassed a total of 4,367 hits in 13,549 at bats. Pete Rose, leader in most hits in the Big Leagues, had a total of 4, 256 hits in 14,053 at bats and a career batting average of .307.
Fans and experts have argued over whether Ichiro or Rose should be recognized as the career hit leader. Trying to compare Ichiro’s years in Japan and America with Rose’s total is like comparing apples and oranges. No matter what side you are on, there is no question that Ichiro was one of the best hitters and fielders of his time.
I saw him play in Seattle’s Safeco Field in 2005 and fans there appreciated his ability and would give him huge ovations whenever he came to bat or fielded a ball. The local television station in Seattle had a three-story picture of him on the side of the building. He was one of the most charismatic players of his generation and the game will be less without him.

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