On April 2, 2001, a few hours apart in Denver and Seattle, the major league careers of fraternal twins were born. Albert Pujols made his debut that afternoon for the St. Louis Cardinals at Coors Field. Later that night, at Safeco Field, Ichiro Suzuki made his for the Seattle Mariners.
More than 15,000 players had been entered into the official record before Pujols and Suzuki, and almost 4,000 have followed. Few have ever made as much impact.
On Thursday morning, both were still playing — Pujols the active leader in home runs, Suzuki the active leader in hits. By midafternoon, though, as Pujols prepared to chase his 3,000th career hit with the Angels in Anaheim, Calif., Suzuki was not an active player anymore.
In a carefully crafted news release that did not mention the word retirement, the Mariners announced that Suzuki was “transitioning to the role of Special Assistant to the Chairman.” Thursday’s agreement covers only this season, but the Mariners said it would “preclude him from returning to the active roster in 2018.” The Mariners open next season in Japan, which would be a storybook setting for Suzuki to make a comeback or play one last time.
Suzuki, who turns 45 in October, was the second oldest player in the majors after Bartolo Colon, the Texas Rangers pitcher who turns 45 this month. Suzuki was hitting .205 (9 for 44) with no extra-base hits this season, after re-signing with Seattle in March after five and a half seasons with the Yankees and the Miami Marlins.
The Mariners said Suzuki would continue to be around the team at home and on the road, serving as a mentor for teammates and helping with hitting, base running and outfield defense.
“We really don’t want him to change anything that he’s doing right now,” General Manager Jerry Dipoto said in a statement, “with the exception that he will not be playing in games.”
Suzuki has collected 3,089 hits in the majors (for a .311 average), after compiling 1,278 hits for the Orix Blue Wave in Japan from 1992 through 2000. His debut for Seattle was a rousing success: He won his league’s Rookie of the Year award, as Pujols did, and was also named most valuable player.
Pujols has been an M.V.P., too, winning for St. Louis in 2005, 2008 and 2009. Both players have made 10 All-Star teams and won multiple Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger Awards. Suzuki has two batting titles, Pujols one. Neither has ever struck out more than 93 times in a season. They are part of the last generation of hitters who despised striking out, before it became relatively acceptable.
“Let’s say it’s 0-2 and you get a fastball and a guy takes a huge hack — I’m not like that,” Suzuki said last spring, through an interpreter. “I’m looking to get the ball in play. That’s just the way I am, the style that I have become. Some guys may not be like that. But you’ve got to think, ‘What is the pitcher going to do to me here?’ You have to use your head.”
Suzuki has always done that, with a deep appreciation for the history of his craft. The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., enchants him — he has been at least six times — and he has visited the graves of the Hall of Famers George Sisler, in St. Louis, and Wee Willie Keeler, in Queens. Suzuki broke Sisler’s single-season hits record in 2004, with 262, and broke Keeler’s record of consecutive seasons with 200 hits. Keeler had a seven-year streak from 1894 through 1901, a century before Suzuki started a 10-year run.
Inevitably, the pace slowed, and now it has halted — for the rest of this season, anyway. Nobody plays forever. Even the majors’ career hits leader, Pete Rose, struck out in his final at-bat, at age 45, against San Diego’s Goose Gossage in 1986. Suzuki’s last at-bat this season was a strikeout against Oakland’s Blake Treinen on Wednesday.
Few could have known, at that moment, that Suzuki might never hit again. But as Pujols explained in an interview last spring, players never really leave on their own terms.
“You don’t retire, the game retires you,” Pujols said. “You don’t choose to retire. The game lets you know when it’s time for you to walk out, and that’s how I look at it. The day that I feel I can’t compete anymore, it doesn’t matter how much money I’ve got left on my contract — that’s not the personality that I carry, that’s not who I am — I think it’s time to walk out.”
Pujols, 38, has not reached that point. He entered Thursday’s game hitting .248 with a career-low .266 on-base percentage, but he also had six home runs and 15 runs batted in, boosting his career totals to 620 (seventh on the career list) and 1,933 (ninth).
“He’s one of those guys that every generation, as the game goes on, those players — no matter when they played — would have been just fine,” the Angels’ Chris Young told my colleague Billy Witz last week. “Albert Pujols has been playing 20 years, and the game is different, but he’s still playing great.”
That is debatable, considering Pujols offers little value anymore on defense or on the bases, and no longer seems feared by pitchers, who have walked him only three times this season. His pursuit of 3,000 hits would probably command more attention had he stayed in St. Louis, but he left in December 2011, when the Angels overwhelmed him with a 10-year, $240 million contract that runs through 2021.
The Angels have not won a playoff game with Pujols, but with Mike Trout in his prime and Shohei Ohtani showing extraordinary promise as a hitter and pitcher, they have hope. Pujols has already won two titles, and will soon become the first player ever with 3,000 hits and 600 homers to go with multiple championships.
His legacy is secure, but as long as he keeps playing, Pujols will keep changing the final numbers to be engraved on his Hall of Fame plaque. Suzuki’s, alas, are frozen — at least for now, and maybe for good.