Ichiro Bows Out (Again)

Even if you didn’t wake up at an ungodly early hour to watch Thursday’s Mariners-A’s game at the Tokyo Dome, by now you may have seen the stirring footage of Ichiro Suzuki exiting the game in the eighth inning en route to his official retirement. If not, beware the coming dust storm:

That the 45-year-old Suzuki — who was nudged off the Mariners’ roster and into an unofficial retirement and special assistant role last May 3, at a point when he was hitting .205/.255/.205 through 47 plate appearances — went 0-for-5 with a walk and a strikeout in his two-game cameo matters not a whit as far as his legacy is concerned. His awe-inspiring total of 4,367 career hits (1,278 in Nippon Professional Baseball, 3,089 in Major League Baseball) still stands as the signature accomplishment for a player who has spent more than a quarter-century serving as a wonderful ambassador for the sport on two continents. His stateside resumé, which includes not only his membership in the 3,000 Hit Club (despite not debuting in the majors until he was about half past his 27th birthday) but also his 10 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, AL MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, and so on, is ample enough to guarantee him first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame. In the wake of Mariano Rivera’s groundbreaking unanimous election to the Hall in January, it’s even possible that Ichiro could replicate the feat.

The question is when. Hall of Fame election rules require a player to be retired for five seasons before appearing on the BBWAA ballot, which means that had he been content to hang up his spikes last May, he would have been eligible for the 2024 ballot (the date refers to the year of induction, not the year of the ballot’s release, which is typically in late November or early December of the previous year). Barring what would be an unprecedented ruling by the Hall, his two-game cameo resets his eligibility clock, pushing him to the 2025 ballot, a small price to pay for his being able to check off the bucket-list item of retiring on his own terms, in his native country. Not only will he become the first Japanese player to be elected to the Hall, but according to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, he will be the owner of the shortest final season of any elected position player.

Shortest Final Seasons for Hall of Fame Players
Player Position Career Span Final Team Final Season Games
Mickey Welch SP 1880-92 Giants 1
Chief Bender SP 1903-17, ’25 White Sox 1
Lefty Gomez SP 1930-43 Senators 1
Dizzy Dean SP 1930, ’32-41, ’47 Browns 1
Hal Newhouser SP 1939-55 Indians 2
Juan Marichal SP 1960-75 Dodgers 2
Amos Rusie SP 1889-95, ’97-’98, ’01 Reds 3
Al Simmons LF 1924-41, ’43-44 Athletics 4
Chuck Klein RF 1928-44 Phillies 4
Mel Ott RF 1926-47 Giants 4
Lou Boudreau SS 1938-52 Red Sox 4
Yogi Berra C 1946-63, ’65 Mets 4
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

A few pitchers had one-game cameos, but no position players have left after playing just one or two games. Of the above dozen, four of them had not played at all in the previous season, with Bender’s seven-year hiatus the longest. At age 41, while serving as the pitching coach for the White Sox under friend and former teammate Eddie Collins, he came out of retirement to throw a single inning, allowing two runs. Dean, after five full seasons away, came out of the Browns’ broadcast booth to throw four shutout innings; he was still just 37 at the time. Rusie, whose high-velocity pitches were so terrifying that they were said to be a factor in the NL increasing the pitching distance from 50 feet to the now-familiar 60-feet-6 distance in 1893 (he was the rare pitcher to star on both sides of the change), was cuffed for 25 runs in 22 innings over three appearances, the last of which came against his former team, the Giants. Berra, who had retired from the Yankees in 1963 to manage them in 1964 — all the way to the World Series, only to be unceremoniously replaced by Johnny Keane, whose Cardinals defeated the Yankees — was serving as a player-coach for the crosstown Mets under manager Casey Stengel and general manager George Weiss, both of whom had guided the Yankees during his heyday.

Of that group, only the candidacies of Boudreau and Berra were actually delayed, since the five-year waiting period wasn’t introduced until 1955. Boudreau, who was managing the Red Sox at the time of his final appearance, received a couple of stray write-in votes in 1956 and then 24.1% in ’58; he wasn’t elected until 1970. Berra didn’t become eligible until 1971; in an embarrassing display of blithering idiocy on the part of the BBWAA, the three-time AL MVP and 10-time champion received only 67.2%, and wasn’t elected until the following year. I haven’t come across any Yogi-isms regarding his eligibility, alas, but I can’t imagine it was much on his mind at the time.

Ichiro’s move, on the other hand, was a conscious one that delayed the festivities in Cooperstown. Not that he or we should be saddened by that. In a career that provided so many thrills, he gave us a final one for which it was worth stopping the clock.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Original Greaser Bob
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Original Greaser Bob

Somethings don’t translate well to TV viewing like prime Ichiro home to first on infield hits to the 2b.