It’s 2:30 AM Pacific Time and my iPhone buzzes. An alert from a sports news app informs me that the Mariners vs. Athletics is about to begin. I quickly glance, and mute alerts since my alarm for work goes off at 4:15. I figure I will catch up later.
After laying there a second, semi-conscious, a fleeting thought crosses my mind: This could be Ichiro’s last baseball game. Begrudgingly, but with little thought, I decided to go ahead and turn on the streaming app and listen to the game while I’m snoozing. As a bonus, maybe this would allow me to dream of baseball.
It’s now 4:15, my alarm has gone off, the game is still streaming, and it is time for me to jump into my normal workday routine. It’s the top of the 4th and Ichiro is up to bat. There’s chatter from the announcers that this could be his last at-bat. The crowd is roaring and cheering. You hear the chant “Ich-i-ro” echoing from the stands.
Cue emotion: Sadness.
He grounds out for out number three, heads back to the dugout with the look of dismay because he, and pretty much anyone watching live or on TV, just want that last base knock. Scott Servais leaves him in the game, surprisingly.
At this point, I tip my cap (or bedhead) to the M’s skipper. He’s handcuffed, like a shortstop trying to field a hot grounder between hops: He wants to win the game, but some things are more important than winning.
I take a sigh of relief that Ichiro is still in the game. We all want him to end with something positive. It’s roughly 4:45, I’m about ready for work and getting my coffee and lunch prepared to roll out the door to get an early start on traffic here in San Diego. It’s now the 7th inning, Ryon Healy doubles and Ichiro comes back up to the plate. “Could this be it?” I ask myself. “He needs a solid single, and I think Healy has enough leg to get home. Come on Ich.” He strikes out looking.
Cue emotions: Anxiety and Sadness.
At this point, Ichiro has gone 0-3, just struck out looking and I’m thinking to myself that there is no possible way that Servais leaves a struggling Ichiro in the game after that at-bat. I mean, he should give him another opportunity to swing and not go down looking, but I thought that was it.
At this time, the announcers made it public that Ichiro has made it official that this ballgame was his last.
Dee Gordon singles to left, Healy makes it to third, Mitch gets drilled. Bases are now loaded. Jay Bruce comes to the plate. I think, “Well, if something positive happens here, this game will no longer be a one-run match-up, and perhaps Scott will leave Ichiro in for one more at-bat.” Jay pops up to left, Healy tags, and now it’s a 4-2 ballgame. A’s pitcher Yusmeiro Petit balks, runners move up. Encarnacion ends up walking. Bases are juiced again with Domingo Santana at the dish. He already has a grand slam under his belt this season so could he do it again?
The game is still 4-2 heading into the bottom of the 7th inning. I honestly believe that Jay Bruce extended Ichiro’s career with that sacrifice fly. Ichiro remains in the game at right field. At this point, everyone is doing the math. Five batters came to the plate in the top of the 7th. This means Ichiro, if he remains in the game, will definitely go back to the dish one more time.
In the bottom of the 7th, Roenis Elias is pitching. He struck out the first batter, Ramon Laureano, on three straight pitches. Looking good. Josh Phegley, with a 1-1 count grounds out to Beckham. Two outs, looking really good for Ichiro to stay in the game.
Then it falls apart. Marcus Semien singles to Ichiro in right, Matt Chapman walks. So with two outs, two men on, Dan Altavilla comes in to pitch. With Stephen Piscotty at the dish, Altavilla spikes a slider about 40 feet (exaggerating) in front of home plate allowing both runners to advance. Now the situation is two runners in scoring position, and Altavilla is still trying to find the strike zone. He ends up walking Piscotty and now Khris Davis, of all batters, comes to the plate.
After 2 straight balls, he fouls one off. Altavilla’s fourth pitch is knocked up the middle for a base hit, scoring both runners. The game is now tied at 4 apiece. Limiting the damage, Altavilla gets Chad Pinder to ground out.
Cue emotion: Sympathy.
It’s 5:25 AM, I’m on the road to work, listening to the game. At this point, going into the 8th inning locked up at 4, I didn’t know what Servais was going to do. Narvaez gets called out on strikes. Tim Beckham doubles. Ryon Healy grounds out. There is a duck on the pond, and a struggling Ichiro is coming up to the plate. This is where I thought it was going to end.
Ichiro steps into the box. Extends his bat towards center field and holds it until Lou Trivino comes set. Ichiro tugs his jersey sleeve as he always does and is ready to hit. Everything inside of me was hoping that he could pull the ball down the line. He nearly does. Foul ball, strike 1. Unfortunately for Ichiro, his teammates, fans in the stadium and watching live, he grounds out to Marcus Semien for out number three.
Cue all the emotions, grab the tissue. Or if you were (are) driving like I was, just let the tears drop all into your lap.
It’s time. Bottom of the 8th, 5:34 AM Pacific Time, Ichiro takes the field for the last time. After a brief pause, Scott Servais made the slow and harrowing walk out towards the foul line and pointed at Ichiro. The rest of the Mariners’ fielders sprinted back into the dugout, leaving one man alone on the field: Ichiro.
I sure hope MacBooks are tear proof as I continue.
Ichiro raised his hands in the air, spun around and waved to the sold-out crowd of 46,451, and slowly walked off the turf for the last time as an active competitor in Major League Baseball.
The TV announcers were silent as no one said a word. It was a “take it in and listen” kind of moment. I could almost guarantee that the Tokyo Dome could have given Century Link Field a run for their money on decibel level at that specific moment.
As he neared the dugout, he gave each of his teammates, new and old, a hug. Ich hugs a teary-eyed Dee Gordon. Ken Griffey, Jr. gave Ichiro a long embrace. He turned to Kikuchi and gave him a hug, but it was more like a symbolic passing of the torch. Kikuchi looked down, covering his face with his ball cap, obviously saddened that his hero’s playing time is over. What an iconic moment for YK to share the field for one game with a legend, a fellow countryman, in their homeland.
Watching and listening had me, and anyone else who has an emotional tie to baseball, sobbing like I had lost someone close to me, but different. As he walked off the field, I watched the last of my childhood baseball heroes ride off into the sunset–a player who was instrumental that magical Mariners’ 2001 season. With him, all of the Mariners greats from the last playoff team have officially finished playing baseball, marking the end of an era.
Let’s start a new one.
Ichiro grew up in Toyoyama, Japan and started playing baseball around the same age most American kids start playing baseball. He attended a prestigious high school in Japan where he honed his baseball skills as a pitcher before moving to the outfield. It is not a surprise because his arm is remarkably strong, even today. In high school, he hit over .500 with 19 home runs.
He was drafted in the final round of the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) draft in 1991 at the age of 18. He made his debut in 1992 but cemented into a full-time starter in 1994. It was then he started setting baseball records in Japan as being the first player to achieve the 200-hit mark in a single season. Ultimately, before even coming to the MLB, he collected 7 All-Stars, 3 Pacific League MVPs, 7 Gold Gloves, 7 Batting Championships, a World Series Champion equivalent, and a plethora of other Japanese baseball accolades. He concluded his Japanese career with a .328 average (.359 as a starter), 1,278 hits, 118 home runs, 199 stolen bases, and 529 RBIs.
He signed with the Mariners in 2001 and was assigned jersey number 51. One source says that Ichiro was hesitant when he was appointed that number because Randy Johnson was recently with the team for a decade and also wore 51. Ichiro messaged Randy and promised that he would not “bring shame” to the uniform. Ichiro has been quoted saying:
Randy is a great pitcher and, as a Mariner, wore number 51. One thing I will always keep in my mind is to keep this number with dignity. I believe I inherited good things from Randy by wearing number 51.
In 2001, he recorded 242 hits and 56 stolen bases and hit .350. He was an All-Star, Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, Gold Glove winner, and Silver Slugger. From 2001 to 2010, he collected an array of awards. Annually, in that time frame, he was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner. In 2001, 2007, and 2009 he was award the Silver Slugger. His slash from 2001 to 2010 was .330/.375/.430/.805. He collected 2,244 hits and had 383 stolen bases.
He shattered a lot of MLB records including most base hits in a season, most hits by a rookie, most seasons with over 200 hits, and most 20-game hitting streaks in any season. He is also the only player ever to hit an inside-the-park-home run during an All-Star game.
Excluding the 2018 and 2019 seasons, his career slash as a full-time starter is .303/.346/.394/.741.
Ichiro, thank you. Thank you for what you have done for the Seattle Mariners, Major League Baseball, and fans worldwide. Personally, I will never forget going to Safeco Field and hearing your name called by the public address announcer. I’ll always remember the last live game I saw you play in a Mariners uniform: Mariners at Angels, June 2012, with an 8-6 win over the Angels. I sat on the first base foul line, about 100 feet from where you were playing the field. I’ll never forget.
Luckily, I was able to attend a Padres game in 2017 when you came to town as a Marlin. I would have never imagined that was the last time I’d see you in uniform on the baseball field, but ultimately it was. All of us fans have a similar story: Where and when we first and last saw you play.
You played the game the right way all the way up to Thursday, March 21st, 2019 at 5:34 AM Pacific Time. Your career will be hard to match, but may that be an inspiration for future players from all over the world to pursue their dreams of making into the Majors. Arigato, Ichiro, for the 18 years of amazement. After you stepped off the field, the world realized there actually IS crying in baseball. And this is why baseball is the best.
Cue emotion: Thankful.
See you in Cooperstown, Ichiro,
Mariners and Baseball Fans Everywhere.