In Japan, Ichiro’s move starts long ‘Sayonara’

TOKYO — Ichiro Suzuki says he hasn’t retired, but his move to the front office of the Seattle Mariners is seen by many in Japan as the beginning of a long “Sayonara” for a national treasure.

Ichiro dominated Japanese TV talk shows, news shows and social media on Friday. National broadcasters showed historical footage of Ichiro playing with the Orix Blue Wave — his team before he joined the Mariners in 2001 — and his news conference in Seattle to explain his decision.

The backdrop to many offerings was Ichiro’s famous No. 51 jersey.

“I was choked up,” his father Nobuyuki Suzuki said in an interview on TV Asahi. The elder Suzuki is famous for training his son — often described as “Zen-like” — in baseball’s fundamentals, which have been diminished in the power-dominated game in the United States.

Tweets in Japanese on Friday often mentioned Ichiro as a “baseball scientist,” or a “student of the game.” One called him a “role model for small baseball,” a style in which the batter sacrifices power for contact, steals a base, or executes the hit-and-run.

“He’s like a player from the early part of the 20th century,” American author Robert Whiting said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I don’t want to say he’s a dying breed, but it’s very unusual for a major leaguer now to succeed like this. He had power, but he chose not to use it.”

Few know more about Japanese baseball — or Ichiro — than Whiting.

Whiting has lived much of his life in Japan, and has written several books including: “The Meaning of Ichiro” and “You Gotta Have Wa,” which focuses on baseball to examine Japanese culture.

“Ichiro gave Japan status and esteem,” Whiting said. “He showed that the Japanese ballplayer could compete on the same playing field with American major leaguers — and excel.”

Whiting, who came to Japan in 1962, said Ichiro was little-known in the country before he moved to Seattle. Games of his Orix Blue Wave were seldom shown on TV, overshadowed by the popular Yomiuri Giants or the Hanshin Tigers.

“When he goes to Seattle in 2001, suddenly all of his games are being televised by NHK,” he said, referring to Japan’s national broadcaster. “All of Japan wanted to see how he would do.”

He did just fine. He was a 10-time All-Star, has a .311 average and amassed 3,089 hits — not including the 1,278 he had in Japan. He goes down as one of baseball’s best pure hitters — often compared to Pete Rose — and will be the first Japanese player voted into the Hall of Fame.

Futoshi Takami, who works in Japan as a clerk at an electronics store, sent out at tweet that hit on much of what hundreds of other touched on.

“What I learned from Ichiro is the importance of preparation,” Takami wrote on Twitter. “I take my hat off, not only to the numbers he has left behind, but also the way he dealt with the game of baseball.”

He added: “Thank you for everything. Please become the Mariners manager.”

Ichiro’s decision comes as fellow Japanese two-way player Shohei Ohtani has become a must-see in Japan, where every game with the Angels is shown on TV, and replayed and dissected.

Ichiro’s semi-retirement announced Thursday in the U.S. leaves open the possibility he may appear again when the Mariners and the Oakland Athletics open the 2019 season with two games in Japan.

Whiting had the same thought, and so did others on Twitter. Even Ichiro hinted at it by saying: “I definitely see myself playing again … It’s hard for me to imagine not playing.”

“Maybe the reason he hasn’t announced his retirement is that they are going to bring him back next year to play in Tokyo for the Mariners,” Whiting said. “It would draw a big crowd and a big TV audience. And then he can officially retire.”

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