The final day of the regular season saw the fulfillment of what was, for Ichiro, a career-long dream — he got to pitch in a game in the major leagues. Which is something that made Ichiro happy, and it made all the other players happy, and it made all the fans happy, and here we all are, delighted to no end that Ichiro got to stand on the rubber. Think about it hard enough and maybe you end up wondering why you feel so good that Ichiro finally got what he wanted, given that he’s made more than $150 million in the country on the other side of the ocean from the country in which he’s most popular, but then they’re all living gifted lives. And this is only in part about Ichiro anyway — it’s at least as much about us and our own curiosity. Ichiro always wanted to pitch, and we always wanted to see it.
It’s pretty easy to pinpoint the moment when people here wondered what Ichiro might look like on the mound. It goes back to that throw that’s part of the origin story of the Ichiro legend:
That was the first glimpse we had of his arm. That’s when we knew, but Ichiro had already known for years.
In Japan, Ichiro was a pitcher in high school. And he was an excellent one, too, but injuries eventually forced him to stop. In time, his arm recovered, and though Ichiro by that point didn’t return to pitching, he was armed with a cannon in the outfield. The fans knew it, and while we had to wait until yesterday to see Ichiro finally throw an official fastball, he was given an opportunity to pitch briefly way back in a 1996 all-star game. The crowd ate it up; of course the crowd ate it up.
So Ichiro pitched in Japan, and then when he was finished pitching, he got to pitch once more in Japan. That was 20 years ago. Two questions remained. Of greatest significance was whether Ichiro would be able to hit against major-league pitching. Of far lesser significance was whether Ichiro as a pitcher would be able to go against major-league hitting.
We learned about the arm strength when Ichiro made a victim of Terrence Long, and so began the fan fascination. Ichiro always knew how hard he could throw. And it would’ve become evident to teammates and coaches in practices that Ichiro possessed both strength and accuracy. And so it wasn’t long until Ichiro started lobbying Lou Piniella to let him pitch in a blowout, should a position player become needed. Ichiro wouldn’t sit back and wait for a sign; he’d make it known that he was both willing and available. The opportunity didn’t come.
This is a critical part of it:
For the longest time, Ichiro was simply too valuable. Every so often you’ll have a position player like Chris Davis take the mound, but that was an emergency situation, and just about all the time, position players on the mound are backups. Though managers don’t like to use words like “expendable” when describing their own players, the reality is that coaches know pitching is dangerous, especially for players who don’t do it, so when you have a throwaway inning, it’s better to risk losing a bad player than a good and important one. In part, this is Jose Canseco’s fault. Sure, the risk in any given inning is low. And sure, some players have better mechanics than others. But the Mariners played it safe, not wanting to put an icon at risk. Perfectly sensible, even if annoying at the time.
It should be noted that it’s not like Ichiro was passed over a handful of times every season. While we can’t speak to how many times Ichiro might’ve requested to pitch, he didn’t watch a position-player teammate pitch until 2008. In that year, with the Mariners, Jamie Burke pitched, instead of Ichiro. In 2013, with the Yankees, Alberto Gonzalez pitched, instead of Ichiro. In 2014, with the Yankees, Dean Anna pitched, instead of Ichiro. His own chance came in 2015 with the Marlins. But let’s go back. From a recap of that 2008 game:
SEATTLE (AP)—Once Ichiro Suzuki heard that backup catcher Jamie Burke was about to take the mound, he hustled over to manager Jim Riggleman and volunteered his services.
Burke’s name stuck in Riggleman’s head as someone to ask. Others offered up their help, including Willie Bloomquist and Adrian Beltre.
“I said I wanted to. I asked,” Suzuki added.
I remember every time our bullpen had ran dry in an extra inning game, Ichiro would take his translator over to the manager and plead his case for an inning. He was like a kid begging for a toy at the check out line of a supermarket. Which was rare to see a guy of his stature act like that!!
There were even a few phone calls to the front office to ask for permission but it always went that 3rd guy on the bench, no way were they willing to risk him blow out his elbow.
While there’s no second source backing that up, it’s interesting to hear a suggestion of phone calls to the front office. Clearly, this went a little beyond just being open to the idea of taking the mound. Ichiro wanted to pitch, and he wanted to do whatever he could to make that happen. Over and over, he was told no, but that was mostly because his bat was too good.
In 2009, reports came out of Japan that Ichiro might pitch for the team in the World Baseball Classic, and though he didn’t actually do that, the Mariners took the chance to express their disagreement. Don Wakamatsu cited protection of the elbow, which was the same reason as ever. Ichiro wasn’t going to pitch. Not the way things were, not as a Mariner, not as long as he was still a valuable starter.
The decline would come. The decline always comes, and the decline changed the math. Ichiro, as a hitter, was decreasingly valuable. But if there were years on his arm, there still would’ve been relatively little wear and tear. It was after Ichiro established himself on the Yankees that Joe Girardi said he’d be willing to go to Ichiro if he needed the help. Girardi never actually wound up making that call, but he did, at least, come awful close, as demonstrated by this Reddit thread:
Ichiro the quality starter wouldn’t pitch. Ichiro the role player might pitch. Enter the Marlins. Dan Jennings and Ichiro had talked about possibly putting Ichiro on the mound for more than a month, before it actually happened. Sunday’s game couldn’t possibly have meant any less. So, at long last, the timing was right. It wasn’t about the Marlins needing a position player to pick up an inning; Ichiro was their fourth pitcher, and they were playing with an expanded roster. It was about Jennings giving Ichiro and his own team a reward. Really, we all got to benefit.
Ichiro gave up a run on two doubles. He got the other three guys out, and he showed three pitches, with a fastball, a slider, and a splitter. Like many Marlins pitchers, Ichiro got squeezed:
But while Ichiro didn’t get to punctuate his one inning with a strikeout, he did at least get a legitimate swing and miss after messing with Freddy Galvis‘ timing.
It ended with a fly out from Aaron Altherr after eight pitches. Ichiro left the field to a dugout of smiles and high-fives, and before long he smiled himself, having finally done what he’d always dreamed of. He looked the part and didn’t embarrass himself, and he learned a little something about the difficulty of pitching in the major leagues. Additionally:
“But I’ll never ask to do that again.”
Ichiro batted in the top of the eighth and pitched in the bottom. There’s a chance, then, that we just saw the end of his career, given that none of his average, OBP, or slugging began with a 3. He says he’d like to return but that isn’t always up to the player, and it won’t be an easy decision for any front office to ask Ichiro to be a part of a potential 2016 champ. His skills very clearly are not what they were, and you do ultimately have to evaluate players by what they can still do on the field, no matter what they’ve done in the past.
So it’s possible that Ichiro’s last major-league plate appearance was an eight-pitch battle with a rookie outfielder, an outfielder Ichiro retired with a breaking ball out of the zone. Maybe he does end up with another chance, but Jennings at least allowed Ichiro to address a part of the mythology before the end of his career. We never did get to see Ichiro participate in the Home Run Derby. We never did get to see Ichiro bat right-handed. We did, eventually, get to see Ichiro pitch. Far from being the stuff of legend, Ichiro’s pitching appearance was recognizably human, neither fantastically good nor especially bad. Ichiro’s always had this presence of a magician, or of a wizard, to go with his nickname. Sunday was a reminder that, for everything Ichiro’s done, he did it as a normal player. He became the player he was simply by being a man who worked hard at his craft. That was the real magic.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.