By Evan Bleier / March 20, 2019

Appreciating Ichiro’s Love of, and Skill for, the Game Before His Last MLB Season

The Japanese-born star is one of the best ever to play America's national pastime.

Ichiro Suzuki during the 2009 MLB All-Star Game (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Ichiro Suzuki during the 2009 MLB All-Star Game (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

If Kevin Costner didn’t already star in the film, For Love of the Game could have been cast with Ichiro Suzuki as its star.

Not based on his non-existent acting skills, but purely on how much the Japanese-born star enjoys being on the baseball diamond.

Consider that prior to this season, 45-year-old Ichiro signed a minor-league contract to stay with the Seattle Mariners for his 19th season in Major League Baseball.

While the details of the contract haven’t been revealed, rest assured Ichiro doesn’t need it as he has earned an estimated $167,081,483 over his MLB career in salary alone, not including endorsement money and appearance fees. That’s also not including Ichiro’s earnings from nine seasons playing professional baseball in Japan.

So, with money in the bank and 27 seasons of professional baseball under his belt, why is this dude still playing? Like Billy Chapel (Costner’s character in the ’99 flick), Ichiro just has got a love jones for baseball.

Japanese baseball player Ichiro Suzuki gives the thumbs-up prior to an interview at the Seattle Mariners spring training camp. (AFP/Getty Images)

And that love is equaled, if not surpassed, by the skills Ichiro’s brought to the field and the accomplishments he’s reached over nearly three decades of pro ball.

For those who follow the game, Ichiro’s MLB bona fides are fairly-well known: more than 3,000 hits, more than 2,500 games, more than 500 stolen bases, more than 350 doubles, and a career batting average over .310.

According to Baseball-Reference.com – an authority on such matters – those offensive stats put Suzuki in the same class as Rod Carew, Lou Brock, Kenny Lofton, Max Carey, Doc Cramer, Tony Gwynn, Harry Hooper, Fred Clarke, Sam Rice, and Zack Wheat.  Of those 10 ex-MLBers, seven are already in Cooperstown (Carew, Brock, Carey, Gwynn, Hooper, Clarke, Rice), a location that’s guaranteed to hold a bust of Ichiro as soon as he’s first eligible. 

Then there are the awards Ichiro has added to his trophy shelf since first playing in MLB in 2001 as a 27-year-old: AL MVP (2001), Rookie of the Year (2001), AL Batting title (2001, 2004), All-Star Game MVP (2007), and Silver Slugger (2001, 2007, 2009).

But that’s just half the story. Well, actually two-thirds of it.

Over the course of nine years playing pro ball in Japan, Ichiro actually won a trio of MVPs, giving him four in total if you look at his 18-year career in the U.S. and time abroad as a single entity.

It’s a worthwhile exercise because it demonstrates how dominant Ichiro has been over an extended length of time.

Consider these numbers when you combine Ichiro’s stats from Japan and the U.S.: 3,602 games, 2,078 runs scored, 708 stolen bases, 1,030 walks, 1,309 RBI, 235 home runs, and sparkling.322 batting average.

“Everyone struggles, everyone has been through bad spells, bad halves, bad seasons. In ’97, I hit .223,” second baseman Bret Boone, Ichiro’s teammate on the Mariners, said in the early 2000s. “Think people told me I was done? Last year, I hit .229 the first half. That is scuffling. When most guys can’t find it, they hit .180. When Ichiro can’t find it, he hits .260.”

And though he couldn’t have known at that point, Boone was right as Ichiro has only hit below .260 five times in 27 years of pro baseball and in three of those seasons (1993, 2015, and 2018), he played in fewer than 50 games.

Then there’s his career hit total: 4,367. Considering 3,000 hits is considered the gold standard for baseball and almost guarantees a Hall of Fame induction, the fact that Ichiro has nearly reached that threshold one-and-a-half times over is ridiculous.

Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki #51 of the Seattle Mariners warms up at Tokyo Dome on March 18, 2019. (Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images)

And the hit total may not even be his most impressive stat. Twenty-seven years of working as a professional athlete is, in an of itself, an amazing feat. And this year has the chance, albeit not a good one, to be his 28th.

Opening this season on Seattle’s active roster while the team leads off the 2019 MLB season with a two-game slate against the Athletics this week, Ichiro may not make it through the season if his performance at spring training – two hits in 25 at-bats with nine strikeouts – is any indication.

This may be the end of more than a quarter century of dominance.  But that doesn’t matter because Ichiro’s legacy is already set in stone.

Or, if you’d prefer, something even harder than stone: diamond.