Ichiro Suzuki’s greatest hit was proving he belonged

SEATTLE — Ichiro Suzuki’s otherworldly talents made an early impression on Dave Niehaus, the Hall of Fame voice of the Seattle Mariners.

During Suzuki’s first month in the majors in 2001, Niehaus narrated a throw by Suzuki from right field that nailed Terrence Long at third base. In a way, Niehaus was also describing what Suzuki was about to bring to the major leagues for 18 seasons.

“I’m here to tell you, Ichiro threw something out of Star Wars down there at third base,” Niehaus said.

Suzuki was unlike anything the majors had seen when he left Japan for Seattle, and he’s become one of the most important figures in baseball history — and not just because of his 3,089 hits, 10 Gold Gloves, numerous All-Star Games, single-season hit record and MVP award.

Suzuki carried the burden of an entire country in coming to America, and his success created opportunity for the countless others who have followed. Whether he wants to accept the label or not, Suzuki was a trailblazer.

Suzuki and the Mariners announced Thursday his 2018 season was over. He’s shifting to a new role as special assistant to the chairman. He may never play another game in the majors. Yet his influence and importance shouldn’t be understated.

“When I met Ichiro in Peoria, (Arizona) which is the first time I’d met him face to face, he walked in and had more presence than any other baseball player I’d ever encountered,” Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “And I’ve been doing this my entire adult life, been in the game close to 30 years and met and played with and against every great in my lifetime really and never met one quite like Ichiro.”

Suzuki preceded Hideki Matsui, who had a stellar career with the New York Yankees, by two years. In the years since, players like Nori Aoki, Kosuke Fukudome and Kaz Matsui followed. Now, of course, there’s two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani.

All of them got their chance after Suzuki smashed the stereotypes that surrounded Japanese hitters.

Could he handle 162 games?

Could he handle major league pitching?

Could he play every day in the outfield?

He swatted away those stigmas with an AL MVP Award, 242 hits and a Gold Glove Award in his rookie season. He was a catalyst for a team that won a record-tying 116 games, and he brought a new style to the majors while laying the foundation for others to follow.

“To come over here and pave the way for a lot of Japanese players, what he and (Hideo) Nomo did, that’s not an easy thing to do,” said Oakland manager Bob Melvin, who managed Suzuki for two seasons in Seattle. “You just look at the talent and say it’s easy to come over and play like that, but it’s not. So that was a challenge. If there’s another challenge that’s put in front of him, it would not surprise me if he was able to conquer that challenge.”

By the time Melvin arrived in Seattle in 2003, Suzuki was already established as a star.

“He’s the most committed player that I’ve ever had,” Melvin recalled. “His whole day, his whole night, everything he thought about, was about the next day’s game and being prepared for it, from the way he works out to the routine that he’s on. It’s all about being prepared to play a major league baseball game. So I’ve often said that he was the easiest guy I’ve ever had to manage because all you had to do was tell him what time the game was and you knew he’d be ready and committed to go.”

Retirement wasn’t the ‘R’ word used Thursday for the how and why of Suzuki moving off the field. But reality was. The reality of being 44 years old, being unable to consistently catch up to 95 mph fastballs, being a step or two slower trying to beat out an infield single.

Yet the idea of playing again is another — maybe final — challenge for Suzuki. Sitting on the horizon is Seattle’s season-opening series in Tokyo next season, and the possibility for Suzuki to shine again in his home country.

And would anyone be surprised if he was on the field once more?

“I want to be like a researcher or a student of the game. Or maybe at this age what I can do is prepare myself, train and see what I can do and the work I put in, see what happens to my body and performance,” Suzuki said. “Just see what happens. I want to continue to do that and be able to continue to work and see what I can do.”

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