Before fans, reporters and bloggers had a chance to digest the news, the immaculately dressed Suzuki was sitting next to Yankees manager Joe Girardi at a table to discuss the trade with the media.
There was plenty of time—five or six hours—for Mariners fans to find out that Ichiro had been traded. Yet, while watching him take the field at Safeco Field Monday night in a Yankees uniform, I kept imagining several thousand fans who either hadn't heard the news, were casual Mariners followers wondering if some sort of elaborate prank had been played or if they had entered a wormhole into an alternate universe.
The man is a folk hero in Seattle. Actually, he's a rock star. I've witnessed the adulation Ichiro receives from Mariners fans, and it was truly impressive. No one drew more cheers, no received more love, no one could do less wrong in front of the Safeco Field faithful. I've seen players who were popular with home fans before, but nothing like the continual affection directed at Ichiro.
Now that the initial shock and surprise have worn off, however, we can contemplate Ichiro's 12 seasons in Seattle and the legacy he left with the Mariners. We may never see another player like him in baseball. For one thing, Ichiro was a trailblazer. And that trail should lead all the way to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame.
A Strong First Impression
Ichiro was the first Japanese position player to play baseball at the major-league level. That alone made him a curiosity. With that curiosity came skepticism, naturally. How would this thin slap hitter fare against big-league pitching?
He could hit, but did it in a way we'd never really seen before.
Ichiro seemed to run out of the batter's box as he swung, getting a head start toward first base that allowed him to run out many infield hits. But he could drive the ball into the outfield, as if the upper half of his body stayed back to hit while his lower half was running toward first base.
No one could argue with the results. Ichiro led the majors with 242 hits that season, 36 more than the next closest competitor. His.350 batting average tied for the best in the big leagues with Larry Walker. Ichiro also finished with the most stolen bases in baseball that season with 56.
As SI.com's Joe Lemire reminds us, Ichiro was the first player to lead his league in batting average and stolen bases since Jackie Robinson in 1949. From one pioneer to another.
Oh, and we can't forget Ichiro's defense. We especially can't forget that straight-line throw he made from right field to nail Oakland's Terrence Long at third base. This was no little guy. He had a cannon for an arm.
Despite being a rookie, Ichiro led all players in All-Star votes. He won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards as a right fielder. But most impressively, Ichiro went on to win the AL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards.
Ichiro had this major-league thing figured out pretty well.
The Hitting Machine
During his 12 years in Seattle, Ichiro led the majors in hits seven times.
In 2004, he not only got more hits than any major leaguer that year, but Ichiro accumulated more hits than any baseball player had in a single season. His 262 hits broke George Sisler's 84-year-old record of 257 hits.
Even when Ichiro didn't lead the league in hits in three separate seasons between 2001-10, he still notched 200 hits for the year.
As of this writing, Ichiro has 2,534 hits. Just think if he hadn't spent nine seasons in Japan. During his professional Japanese career, he compiled 1,278 hits. That gives him 3,812 for a career total.
Even so, Ichiro could still reach 3,000 hits in the major leagues. Depending on whether or not Ichiro signs with another team next season and continues to play another two or three years, he'll reach that coveted milestone.
They Love Him, They Really Love Him
Ichiro was named to 10 straight All-Star teams from 2001-10. During that span, he also won 10 Gold Gloves and three Silver Slugger Awards.
Those honors are decided by fan balloting, and voting from managers and coaches. So, it could be argued that the awards are subjective and not reflective of a player's merit during a particular season.
But it's generally understood that All-Stars, Gold Glove winners and Silver Slugger honorees are considered the best of the best at their positions. Ichiro didn't get those awards simply because he was popular or had a good reputation. He earned them.
One subjective vote remains. Hall of Fame voters will consider Ichiro one of the best at his position during his major-league career. With nearly 3,000 hits and a career batting average around .320, he has the resume.
Ichiro won't have the power numbers that other Hall of Fame right fielders such as Al Kaline, Reggie Jackson, Roberto Clemente and, of course, Hank Aaron compiled. But he was a different kind of player.
As I wrote at the beginning of this article, we may never see another player like him again.
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