I love Derek Jeter as much as the next... well, as much as the next baseball fan who doesn't hate Derek Jeter. There seems to be a lot of both emotions going around as his farewell tour, which seems to have lasted almost as long as the rest of his career, finally draws to a close. But I wish more people would show a little love for Jeter's teammate, Ichiro Suzuki, who's probably playing his last major league game today as well. Of course, it's hard to throw a farewell party for someone who hasn't announced he's leaving. Ichiro shows no signs of voluntarily retiring, but it's questionable whether any team, even the Yankees -- who love to sign past-their-prime stars -- will sign him up for next year. He's been a shadow of the player he was for the first ten years of his major league career (he was a superstar for a decade before that in Japan as well), and despite a decent 2014, at age 41 it's doubtful he'll ever be that player again.
But I'm still going to miss the guy. I've been watching baseball pretty avidly since I was 8 (more than 35 years now, horrifying as that is to type). And while Ichiro may not have been the best player I've ever seen (he rarely walked or hit with power), I think he's been my favorite player to watch. That was true even when he was playing for the Seattle Mariners against my Yankees. Ichiro constantly pissed me off; every game he played against the Yanks, it seemed like he got three hits, stole a base or two, and in the field he'd stop at least a runner or two from taking the extra base. But you had to admire his excellence, even when he was beating your team with it. It was a lot more annoying when the Mariners were one of the best teams in the American League, especially during his rookie 2001 season, when they won a record 116 games and Ichiro took home both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards.
Just watching him swing was entertainment aplenty -- he seemed to be out of the batter's box and halfway down to first before the ball even reached home plate, and then somehow he'd reach out and flick the ball in between the outfielders for yet another single. A few pitches later, he'd be in scoring position with another stolen base. Ichiro isn't big, but even now he's fast and very smart on the basepaths. In the outfield, he'd crouch under a fly ball, perpendicular to the wall, looking almost like he was afraid the ball would hit him, before making the one-handed catch and uncorking another laser beam to third or home, stopping the runner dead in his tracks. And he did this game after game, year after year.
And he seemed like a good guy off the field, too. He never gave postgame interviews in English, preferring to use a Japanese translator instead, but he was plenty fluent, as this priceless interview segment shows.
By 2012, it seemed, he was done. He was still quick and still had that cannon arm, but he'd lost just enough bat speed so that he was rendered mortal; his on-base percentage hovered around .300, and the wizardry he'd displayed in the field was largely gone. And he seemed to have been worn down by playing in Seattle, which by then had been a pretty lousy team for years. So of course the Yankees got him in a trade. For two glorious months, the magic came back and he was the Ichiro of old. And he was doing it, at long last, in pinstripes! His first game as a Yankee was, coincidentally, in Seattle. I'll never forget seeing him doff his cap and bow to the cheering crowd before his first at-bat. He then singled and stole second. Of course.
Deep down, I knew it was a stupid move for the Yanks to sign him to a two year contract after that season. But I couldn't help it. I was thrilled. Predictably, he had a godawful 2013. Relegated to part-time play (which became most-of-the-time play as more decrepit Yankees went down with injuries), he actually had a bit of a bounce-back year, providing reliable defense as a late-inning replacement and his average climbing back into the .280s.
I'm sure Ichiro would like to stick around for (at least) two reasons: to reach 3,000 hits in the majors, and to top Pete Rose's all-time hits record, though 1,278 of Ichiro's knocks came in Japan, so they wouldn't be counted in the MLB record books. He's about 140 hits shy of Rose's record and 160 short of 3,000, which would necessitate at least another season of full-time play or two seasons of part-time action, by which time he'd be 43. I'm hoping someone gives him a chance. Not necessarily the Yankees, but someone.
But if today's game against the Red Sox proves to be Ichiro's last in the bigs, I'll be as sad about his departure as I am about Jeter's. It's been an absolute joy watching him play for the last 14 years, and I'll be looking forward to finding out whether he decides to make his Hall of Fame induction speech in English or Japanese in five years time.