Seattle Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi grateful for his one chance to play with childhood idol Ichiro

Ichiro Suzuki played his final game in the majors at the Tokyo Dome on Thursday, at the same time Seattle’s newest Japanese star was making his MLB debut.

As Ichiro Suzuki took the last walk off the field of his baseball career on Thursday, there to greet him at the top of the Seattle Mariners dugout was a man who grew up idolizing him.

Before the Mariners played the Oakland Athletics in the second game of their season-opening series at the Tokyo Dome, the 45-year-old Ichiro announced that this was it for him. He was retiring after the game in front of the Japanese fans who revere him as a legend.

He finished his career going 0-for-4 at the plate before being pulled to start the bottom of the eighth inning.

Ichiro spent several minutes taking in the cheers of the adoring crowd and embracing his teammates. When it was Yusei Kikuchi’s turn to greet him, it was clear this was a moment that carried special meaning for the newest Japanese star to follow him to the majors.

Kikuchi could barely conceal his emotions as he hugged Ichiro on the dugout steps. Those emotions were still there when Kikuchi met with the media after the game, a 5-4 extra-inning win for the Mariners.

“I have a very happy time playing with him,” a teary-eyed Kikuchi said through an interpreter. “Ichiro told us it is a gift to play here. But for me, he gave me the greatest gift that I can play with him.”

Growing up, Kikuchi did the same thing as all Japanese baseball fans: adore Ichiro. “Since I was in third grade in primary school I took trains and buses to see ballgames,” he said. “I saw Ichiro back then. He was a superhero for me, and he was my adoration.”

The 27-year-old signed with the Mariners back in December after spending eight years pitching in Japan mostly because of the chance, however fleeting, to play with his childhood idol.

He finally got that opportunity on Thursday, making his first Major League start and giving up just one earned run on four hits while striking out three in 4.2 innings.

Kikuchi is new to Major League Baseball. Eighteen years ago it was Ichiro in the same position, a big star back in Japan, but a rookie having to plot his own way in the big leagues.

Ichiro went on to collect 4,367 career hits in both Japan and North America, the most in professional baseball history. Kikuchi knows he couldn’t find a better mentor in Ichiro, and took every opportunity throughout Spring Training this year to learn from him.

“It was the greatest gift for me to be able to spend time with him. I have learned a great deal from him,” he said. “Just looking at the way he practices. I would like to make the best use of this experience throughout my career.”

He may now be retired, but Ichiro will still be around the Mariners organization as a special adviser.

When he first arrived in Seattle in 2001 he paved the way for a new generation of Japanese stars to make the jump across the Pacific. Players like Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani have followed in his footsteps.

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Kikuchi is only the latest Japanese player to appear in the big leagues, but he now has something the others don’t. He was there as the man who they all look up to took his last bow as a professional ballplayer, in the country where his career started.

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