Last night, Ichiro Suzuki took the last major league swing he’ll ever take. (Maybe.)
The pitch was a 1–2 fastball, up and away. The Mariners were down 3–2 in the bottom of the 9th against the Oakland A’s. Men were on first and second.
Ichiro could have walked off the last game he ever played with a base hit the other way. But he struck out swinging. Maybe, if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have. The greatest contact hitter who ever lived, the best two strike hitter who ever lived, couldn’t catch up. A few years ago, Ichiro would have dropped that soft cheese into the left center gap and scored at least one run.
Or he’d have fouled it off — I once saw Ichiro foul off fifteen straight pitches. He could stay back and go the other way better than anyone you ever saw, except for maybe Tony Gwynn. The 5.5 hole was where both of them made their livings. The pitch was the perfect one to drop into that hole.
But it’s not a few years ago. So Ichiro, still handsome, but now gray at the temples, spun all the way around, hit air, dropped the head of the bat in the dirt.
He was as composed, elegant, and precise as ever. He studied the skinny, black Mizuno bat for a moment, turning it over in his hands, thinking about something. Then he strode deliberately back to the dugout, chin high, with the bat held in his left hand. Even from forty feet away, where I was sitting, it wasn’t obvious what he was thinking about. Now we know.
Like everything else Ichiro did on a baseball diamond, those actions were metronomic. Deliberate. Controlled. He’d done the same thing tens of thousands of times.
No player ever exercised more control over the most random sport, but Ichiro lost that incredible mastery at some point over the last couple years. He could no longer decide where the ball would go and put it there.
Ichiro used his remarkable intelligence and singular focus to implement those decisions. That part of him is still there. He is still as funny and insightful as he ever was, and hopefully just as ribald.
But the body that Ichiro stretched and strengthened and shaped over the course of his nearly thirty year career, in grueling offseasons and between pitches, wouldn’t do what he wanted. So Ichiro, just like he was with the bat in his youth on a fastball up and away, was decisive.
He retired. His will wouldn’t be defeated, not at this late stage of his career, not by anything, not even his own body.
One last time, Ichiro decided.