When Ichiro retires in a few years, they’ll talk about his numbers. That’s what they always do—the enlightened fans, the modern sportswriters, all of those folks determined to settle arguments empirically, with none of that “you just had to see him play” BS that plagued our forebears. Inevitably, you’ll hear some smart people question not only whether Ichiro’s numbers (most of them accumulated while he was wearing a Seattle Mariners uniform) qualify him for entrance into the Hall of Fame, but whether he was even any good in the first place.
He could hit, of course, but after that his numbers kinda stink, granted. His OPS—for the uninitiated, a simple way to factor in a hitter’s ability to get on base and hit for power—was .783 in Seattle, which is OK, but not near that of, say, Albert Pujols’s career line (1.026). His on-base percentage was .366, which is above average, but not earth-shattering, especially when you consider his batting average was .322. Basically, he hit singles, a lot of singles, which allowed him to break the not-often-referenced but longstanding record for hits in 2004. Problem was, that year his OPS was “only” .869, thanks to 225 of those hits being singles. If you believe the early aughts gospel of Moneyball—which stated, in part, that a walk is just as good as a single, and home runs are way, way better than singles—then Ichiro was kind of a lousy hitter, or at least an overvalued one. He was the anti-Moneyball player, swinging at everything, legging out infield single after infield single, risking precious outs on attempts to steal bases.
Most of the time, he would have needed to be a lot better to make his team relevant. The Mariners are a franchise whose highlights are: 1) That time they got hot at the end of the season and won a contested first-round playoff series, before getting bounced handily in the second round; and 2) Ichiro’s first year, when the team won a flukey, record-tying 116 games en route to, again, getting beat in the second round of the playoffs. Ichiro never got any career-defining and stat-overriding World Series moments because he never got the chance to play in one; no one wearing a Mariners uniform ever has.
You can’t blame Ichiro for wanting to win for once, and he’ll get a chance to do that now with the Yankees. And if he’s only a small cog on a championship team, well, it’s still a championship team. Later he’ll become a Hall of Fame argument, then eventually an answer to a couple of trivia questions—the single-season hits record-holder, one of two guys (so far) who were Rookies of the Year and MVPs at the same time.
By that time, if you run into me and happen to mention Ichiro, you’ll have to listen to one of those “you just had to see him play” mouthfuls, because, fuck, you had to see him fucking play. Fact is, you can’t reduce Ichiro to numbers. You could, though, reduce him to a series of moments when he did things that were simply impossible. The Throw. Any of his catches. On paper, those were just outs, maybe a bump to his UZR or whatever defensive stat is in vogue at the moment. But fuck your paper. Baseball is entertainment, and Ichiro was as great an entertainer as any player in the modern era. (What’s batting average if not a hollow, incredibly entertaining star?) Seattle fans came out to Safeco Field in record numbers to watch him work not because of his middling power numbers but because on any given night he could throw a baseball on a frozen rope 200 feet, or stretch up and snag, Willie Mays-style, a fly ball that should have been out of reach, or squib something to the shortstop and somehow wind up on base. He did all this regularly, and if he didn’t do it anything grandkid-telling worthy that night, he would just do what he normally did—a couple of hits, a steal, a bit of pitcher-baiting while he takes a long lead at first, that iconic bat-held-out-at-arms-length thing he does before each pitch. In a sports town like Seattle, full of long-suffering fans who wish, but never root, for a playoff berth, having a reason to watch the home team is no small thing.
Ichiro was such an icon in Seattle that he acquired a sheen usually reserved for Texas high school quarterbacks. Folks were nearly convinced he could hit for power “if only he wanted to,” and he didn’t want to trade home runs for singles because he thought singles were a purer, more noble achievement, or something. Ridiculous? Sure, but it’s the kind of thing people say about you when you’re a one-name-only baseball icon towering above an otherwise blah franchise.
These days, Ichiro may no longer be good enough to bring fans into the seats, though that doesn’t matter for the Yankees, who don’t exactly have an attendance problem. At 38, he’ll be, at best, a decent bat and a strong fielder, and one who holds no special place in local pinstriped hearts. Why should he? All he did was hit singles. But he was special in Seattle in a way that few players are. By the numbers, it’s possible to argue he was overrated and not that good, but no number is ever going to convince me he wasn’t great.