TOKYO — Yusei Kikuchi, a 27-year-old left-handed pitcher with a 96-mph fastball, made his major league debut Thursday as the Seattle Mariners’ starting pitcher during the second game of their season-opening series at Japan’s Tokyo Dome against the Oakland Athletics. It was a historic moment — he became the first Japanese player to make his major league debut in his home country — but Kikuchi was still in the shadow of Japan’s biggest baseball star, Ichiro Suzuki.
Suzuki, who led the Japan Pacific League in batting seven times before joining the Mariners in 2001 and going on to win an American League MVP award, make 10 all-star appearances and collect 3,089 hits in the major leagues and 4,367 total between the United States and Japan, was the main attraction here. Then he announced his retirement Thursday after the Mariners won the second game in 12 innings, 5-4, a fitting end for a surefire Hall of Fame career.
"I have retired from baseball,'' he said through his interpreter. “I’m very thankful to the fans and to the Mariners and all the people who work for the Mariners. I’m very thankful to them.''
His exit in Tokyo allowed the country that adores him to shower him with love.
"He is not just a baseball player [in Japan]. He is like Madonna and Michael Jackson,’’ former teammate Shigetoshi Hasegawa said before the opening game. “This year the favorite athlete is this guy. Still. He is still huge here. And he’s 45 years old.’’
Suzuki left Thursday’s game after his final at-bat in the top of the eighth. His teammates hugged him on the field while fans roared. He waved and smiled in appreciation. Well after the game had ended, he circled the field, acknowledging the many who stayed to cheer him one last time.
"It doesn’t get better than tonight,'' Suzuki said. “Nothing can top what happened for me tonight. It doesn’t get better than this. There is no happiness more than this tonight.''
Suzuki always has said he wanted to continue playing until age 50, but his career has been in decline for years. He hit just .205 after re-signing with Seattle last season before being let go in early May. The team allowed him to return this season, mostly because of the opening games in Japan. He had a poor spring training, going 2 for 25, then went 0 for 6 in two exhibition games in Tokyo and 0 for 4 in the two regular season games.
"The original plan was we would go to Japan. That was what was promised,'' Suzuki said. “But toward the end of spring, I wasn’t able to produce, so I knew that this would be it for me.''
Regardless of his performance, Japanese fans went nuts for him here, not only when he played but even when he arrived at the airport. Many wore Ichiro jerseys. Five fans right above the Mariners dugout wore orange shirts with “Ichiro 3,000 Hits” printed on them. One woman held up a sign that read: “Ichiro is life.”
“I’m really happy he is my teammate,’’ said Kikuchi, who cited Suzuki as his favorite player. “I get to talk to him, but I still get nervous, and my heart starts beating."
These were Suzuki’s first games in Japan since Seattle and Oakland opened the 2012 season here and the fifth MLB opener in Japan overall — the others were in 2000, 2004 and 2008. And in Japan, baseball is huge, the country’s most popular sport.
Baseball got its start in the country in the 1870s after American schoolteachers brought the game to students. A few American college teams then began traveling to play Japan universities in the early 1900s, with the University of Washington becoming the first in 1908.
The Koshien high school baseball tournament started in 1915 and is still held in both the spring and summer. It is enormously popular, drawing sellout crowds and receiving as high as a 60 percent TV rating throughout Japan. Author Robert Whiting described the event as a combination of the Super Bowl and World Series.
Sadaharu Oh, Yu Darvish and Suzuki all played in the tournament, with Suzuki even pitching. Daisuke Matzusaka once threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning game, then tossed a no-hitter just two days later in the final. The Japanese also won the first two World Baseball Classics, with Suzuki driving in the winning run in the 2009 championship game against South Korea.
Japan’s professional league got started in 1935, a year after Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Lefty O’Doul and other major leaguers played there against amateur teams.
The first Japanese player in the American major leagues was Masanori “Mashi” Murakami, who pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964-65. There wasn’t another in MLB until Hideo Nomo signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, but now there have been nearly 60 Japanese players who have come over. But the most accomplished and popular — by far — is Suzuki.
Even though Japan will host the 2020 Olympics, with baseball returning to the Games after being dropped in 2012 and 2016 and not being included as a medal sport until 1992 (it was a demonstration sport in seven previous Olympics), Suzuki has said he is not interested in playing.
“No. This is the end for me,” he said Thursday of the possibility of suiting up for the Olympics. “We decided this would be the end for me in baseball.''
He isn’t entirely sure what he will do next. “It’s tough to think about it right now,” he said. “But all the things that I have learned, if I could share it with kids or major league players, if I can be of any help, that’s what I would like to do."
He will be missed, and not just in Japan. Mariners teammate Dee Gordon teared up when Ichiro left the game.
"Selfishly, I wanted him to keep playing,'' said Gordon, a two-time all-star himself. “That’s my boy, my friend. I’m going to miss him. I’m going to miss the offdays, getting to eat with him. Coming into the stadium after the season is over and he’s working out. I will miss our conversations. I’m going to miss him. The first day I met him I was star-struck.
“He was my favorite player.”
The same could be said for many in attendance for Thursday’s farewell, a country saying goodbye to the king of its most-loved sport.