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Will Ichiro Be Our Last Universally Beloved Superstar?

After 18 years in Major League Baseball and nine years in Nippon Professional Baseball, the Mariners legend is hanging up his knee socks

Ichiro Suzuki holding his bat in the air Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I am writing these words, even though I don’t believe them: Ichiro Suzuki, eternal lord of the outfield, all-time (OK, kind of) hit king, seducer of home plate, first-born child of the Great Baseball Spirit and a lissome grasshopper bride, is stepping away from the plate. After 2,651 Major League games, 3,089 Major League hits, and another 1,278 in a nine-year career with Japan’s Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro—always simply Ichiro—will join the Mariners front office, effective immediately. He will do this in uniform and only after taking batting practice, of course, but his playing days, at the very least on this side of the Pacific, are through at last.

Did you, too, gasp when you first heard this news? Yes, he had played in just half of Seattle’s games so far this year, putting up a most un-Ichiro total of nine hits; yes, he had been slightly less swift around the outfield of late; yes, he is now 44 years old, just five months younger than our great, buoyant grandfather, Bartolo Colón. But you’d be forgiven for thinking that Ichiro—maybe just Ichiro, of all the baseball players and perhaps all the humans on earth—was immortal. Why shouldn’t we think that he would keep going? Why not Ichiro: designated hitter, or Ichiro: pitcher? Why not 54 years old? Why not 4,000 hits? In Japan, as the baseball artist S. Preston wrote on Twitter on Thursday, they call players like him “monsters”—singular talents who might just swallow you whole, a legend broken loose from the storybooks.

Ichiro will go down as one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, both in his native Japan and in his adopted U.S. His accomplishments in either leg of his career are dizzying in their extremes. He joined the Orix Blue Wave just after his 18th birthday, eventually earning three MVP awards and seven consecutive Golden Gloves. He concluded his first year stateside, at age 27, by winning both the Rookie of the Year and American League MVP awards. He had the most ever hits in a single season—262—in 2004. He is one of seven major leaguers with at least 3,000 hits and 500 stolen bases, a list that also includes Rickey Henderson and Ty Cobb. He is the only player ever to have 10 seasons in a row with 200 or more hits. It’s worth contemplating all the things that entailed: the hundreds and then thousands of days of quiet grinding, all the fans who shushed family and friends for the duration of his spindly at-bats, all the players who stood behind him in the on-deck circle who knew with certainty that they would shortly be following him up to the plate.

These are the things that they’ll list on the statue outside Safeco Field someday, and the ones they’ll talk about in Cooperstown—and rightfully so. But Ichiro was something even rarer, perhaps, than a generational baseball talent: He was, and is, universally beloved (with the possible exception of Cleveland). You need not be a Mariners fan—or, over the last few years before his 2018 return to Seattle, a Marlins or Yankees fan—to root for him. To watch Ichiro was to take delight in baseball, even if he was speeding past your infielders. He won over AL brethren through what became an annual, profanity-filled All Star Game pep talk; he won over the league’s Spanish-speaking players by picking up enough of the language to lovingly curse them out. (“Que coño tu mira?”—”What the hell are you looking at?”—he once asked a baffled Carlos Peña as he sidled up to first base.) He won over fans: by logging an inside-the-park home run in the 2007 All-Star Game; by blushingly dropping an F-bomb on Bob Costas. He, too, could geek out over sports idols: Footage of a 21-year-old, Tom and Jerry sweatshirt–adorned, and palpably starstruck Ichiro meeting Michael Jordan has become a cult classic. “He’s really nervous right now,” his interpreter explained to Jordan as Ichiro giggled and covered his face.

It is a cliché to say that Ichiro is an enigma, but so he is. The sum of our knowledge of non-baseball Ichiro doesn’t go much beyond the fact he is married and loves dogs. (“He said, ‘Woof, woof, woof,’ which meant, ‘Stay, stay, stay,’” Ichiro once told reporters of his dog convincing him to stay with the Mariners. “Of course, I listened.”) Part of this mysteriousness, surely, has to do with a language barrier: Ichiro has spent the better part of two decades in a country whose language he did not speak when he arrived, becoming in the process MLB’s first Asian superstar. He has by all accounts mastered English in the intervening years—how else to curse out his fellow American Leaguers before the All-Star Game, or pull a James Bond in a Mariners promo? But he still insists on using a translator: “We have to connect to our fans through the media, and when you talk about that, it’s got to come from your heart,” he told SportspressNW in 2011 (through longtime interpreter Antony Suzuki, naturally). “And when it comes from your heart, it has to be absolutely consistent.”

His reticence undoubtedly had something to do with his universal appeal, as my colleague Michael Baumann pointed out. How could you resent someone whose most heartily expressed opinion is a love of baseball? Ichiro was everything to everyone, a superstar who could be anything you wanted him to—and do everything, to boot. He arrived in the U.S. to tremendous fanfare and then proceeded to surpass American audiences’ wildest expectations, and then, soon enough, to surpass any reasonable observer’s hope of longevity. As he approached his 3,000th Major League hit in 2016 and the all-time hit king debate, spurred on by Pete Rose, reignited, you couldn’t help but root for him. He would have been a legend if he’d retired the day he left Kobe, or if he merely made it into his 30s before calling it a day. And yet he continued, with a banner year in 2016 at age 42—his slash line read .291/.354/.376—belying any who dared to doubt his capabilities.

Ichiro was, and is, a player seemingly sent from another era, and it feels fitting that he would shun a Major League farewell tour, or even—to the disappointment of fans looking forward to a faceoff with fellow Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani, whose Angels will be in Seattle later this week—a farewell game. For now, we’re getting an exit so calculatedly understated and graceful that you can’t help but admire it—a thoroughly Ichiro way to say goodbye to the plate. And true to form, he refuses even now to call it an ending. Might we see him play again next year, back home in Japan? As his agent, speaking, as ever, to the U.S. press on his behalf, said, “The future has yet to be determined.”