A Superstar Like No Other: An Ode to the Unique Brilliance of Ichiro
Twenty years ago, a Japanese outfielder small in stature joined the Seattle Mariners and took the league by storm. From a historic rookie season to an unforgettable goodbye at the Tokyo Dome, we’re celebrating the career of the superstar known simply as Ichiro.
It has been just two and a half years since Ichiro Suzuki played in his last major-league game, but, of course, the world has packed a lot of stuff into those 30 months to distract us.
Some good stuff, plenty of bad. But what we wouldn’t give to see that slight, sauntering frame advance toward the batter’s box one more time, taking a practice golf swing, stretching this way and that, surveying the field for spaces left open by the defense, stepping into the box, doing a quick squat, and rotating the bat toward his victim du jour. This was one star as identifiable from his walk-up routine as from his uniform number.
Universally known by his first name, Ichiro’s career playing in the top-tier leagues in both his native Japan and the United States lasted from 1992 to 2019. Yes, you read that correctly: He played parts or all of 28 seasons. He debuted with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan’s Pacific League at age 18, and became a full-time player, and the league’s biggest star, at 20, when he batted .385 by stroking 210 hits in 130 games. In that same year, 1994, he earned the first of seven successive batting titles and the first of seven successive Golden Glove Awards. Following the 2000 season, Ichiro’s rights were purchased by the Seattle Mariners, and he left Japan for the challenge of playing in the major leagues of North America.
Suzuki joined a team that had fashioned a 91-71 record in 2000, the first time in the team’s 24-year history that it had finished 20 games above .500. It reached the American League Championship Series, losing in six games to the Yankees, who went on to win their third consecutive World Series. However, over the previous two off-seasons, Seattle had lost a pair of players, each of whom could have been considered the best (and most charismatic) in baseball at the time.
Center fielder Ken Griffey, Jr., heading into the final year of his contract, was traded to his hometown team, the Cincinnati Reds, following the 1999 season; then, shortstop Alex Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers for big free-agent money after the 2000 season. Manager Lou Piniella’s squad still included plenty of quality in designated hitter Edgar Martinez, first baseman John Olerud and second baseman Bret Boone, but teams are generally not built to absorb losses of the magnitude of Griffey and A-Rod in successive seasons.
The Mariners had paid heavily for Ichiro (a fee of more than $13 million to the Blue Wave for his rights, and then $14 million over three years to Ichiro). Piniella was somewhat skeptical, given his new player’s propensity for slapping pitches to the left side. Before one spring training game, he asked the lefty hitter if he ever drove the ball to the right side; Ichiro said sure, and pulled a long homer in his next at-bat. Suitably impressed, Piniella let Ichiro finish spring training in his own, studied manner, and he produced one of the greatest debut seasons that Major League Baseball had ever seen.
Ichiro collected 242 hits and stole 56 bases, leading the major leagues in each of those categories, and his .350 batting average paced the American League. That was the first of 10 consecutive seasons in which he batted over .300 and delivered over 200 hits, the latter achievement setting a major-league record for consecutive 200-hit seasons. In fact, in his first 10 seasons on this side of the Pacific, Ichiro matched the most 200-hit seasons by anyone in MLB history. (Pete Rose had 10 such seasons spread across his 24-year career.)
That stunning debut was the jumping-off point for the Mariners, who finished the season with 116 wins and 46 losses. The victory total tied the major-league single-season record set by the Cubs back in 1906. (It must be noted that when the Cubs did it, the schedule called for fewer games: their final record was 116-36.) And, like the 1906 Cubs, who lost the World Series to the crosstown White Sox, the 2001 Mariners came up short in the postseason, dropping the ALCS to the Yankees for a second straight year, this time in five games.
When Hideo Nomo joined the Dodgers in 1995 after having starred in Japan’s major leagues, it was decided that, despite his career in Japan, he was a rookie in Major League Baseball. Accordingly, Nomo won the National League’s rookie award. The same held true when Seattle’s Kazuhiro Sasaki won the AL rookie award in 2000. The designation of Nomo and Sasaki, and now Ichiro, as rookies was not without controversy. Those advancing one side of the rookie-eligibility argument felt it insulting and belittling to consider as a rookie someone who had starred for years in Nippon Professional Baseball. Those on the other side, which prevailed, felt that it didn’t matter what anyone did in any other league, if he hadn’t played in the North American big leagues, then he’d be a rookie when he made his MLB debut.
Ironically, as part of that winning argument, some advocates pointed to the early years of the annual rookie awards, which began in 1947, when six winners were deemed MLB rookies despite have played previously, some for several years, in the Negro Leagues. That argument rings especially hollow now that MLB has agreed that statistical performances in the Negro Leagues are part of the overall MLB statistical heritage.
Accordingly, Ichiro became only the second (and, to now, the last) MLB player to win a Rookie of the Year Award and a Most Valuable Player Award in the same season. Fred Lynn had done it with the Red Sox in 1975. (Both Ichiro and Lynn also won a Gold Glove Award in their first full season in The Show.)
As a player, Ichiro possessed the qualities that define stardom. Ability. Recognizability. Availability. Consistency. Let’s consider those last two qualities. You know the old football phrase, “The most important ability is availability?” Well, Suzuki played in 150 or more games in 12 of his first 13 seasons in the States, falling short only in 2009, when he played in 146 games. He played 155 or more games in 11 of those seasons, and played in more than 160 games in eight of them. In all, he played in 2,061 games from 2001-13, the highest 13-year total ever for a player starting with his first MLB season, and the highest 13-year total for any American League player at any point of his career.
In 2004, Ichiro outdid himself, and everyone else who has played big-league baseball, by banging out a single-season record 262 hits. (This excludes the 1887 season, when hit totals were elevated because, for that year only, walks were counted as hits.) The previous mark of 257 hits by George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns had stood since 1920. Ichiro started slowly that year, hitting just .255 with 26 hits in 23 games during April. But he finished like a tornado, batting .423 with 157 hits over 85 games starting on July 1. His season batting average of .372 remains the highest produced by any batting-average qualifier in the 21 seasons since Ichiro arrived in America in 2001.
Ichiro loved infield hits. He understood, appreciated and enhanced the philosophy of the nineteenth-century star player Wee Willie Keeler, who bragged that he liked to “hit ’em where they ain’t.” Keeler played at about 5-foot-5 and 140 pounds, making him even wee-er than Ichiro, but he amassed nearly 3,000 hits and was among the first 20 players elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1930s. In fact, it was Keeler’s record of eight straight 200-hit seasons that Ichiro erased with his 10 straight 200s. Ichiro, like Keeler a left-handed hitter, delighted in slapping a ball to the left side and beating the hurried throw to first by a frustrated shortstop or third baseman. Although he was a good bunter, he did not bunt excessively. He’d rather slap hits within the infield, or, should the opponents play their defense too close to the plate, just over the heads of muttering infielders.
This was a style of hitting unique to Suzuki among players of his generation. Remember, he arrived in the States at what is widely believed to be the peak of the era of performance-enhancing drugs. In 2000, the year before Ichiro signed with the Mariners, MLB players had averaged a record 2.34 home runs per game (a mark that would stand until 2017). Then, in Ichiro’s first year in Seattle, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, breaking Mark McGwire’s record set just three years earlier. But if you’re ever a contestant on Jeopardy! – regardless of who is the host – and the category is “Non-Bunt Infield Hits, One Season, Last 30 Years,” it would behoove you to buzz in quickly. There have been only four instances over that period in which a player produced at least 50 such hits in a season: Ichiro had 53 in 2001, 53 in 2004, 53 in 2009, and, slowing down a bit, 52 in 2010.
On July 23, 2012, with the Mariners looking to rebuild with younger players, they traded their great right fielder to the Yankees, who happened to be in town. As he approached home plate for the first time in a Yankees uniform, he received a 45-second standing ovation from the Seattle crowd, bowed twice in reply, and then singled to center and stole second. Over the rest of that season with the Yankees, he started more games in left field than in right, started far more in the eighth and ninth spots in the lineup than first or second, and didn’t even get to wear uniform No. 51 as he always had. (Bernie Williams used to wear it for the Yankees; not that it was officially retired or anything, but Bernie used to wear it.) Through it all, Ichiro batted .322 over 67 games with the Yankees that year.
After two more years with the Yankees, starting about two-thirds of the games, Ichiro became a free agent and signed with the Miami Marlins. He batted .256 over three years there in a part-time role, a stretch that was highlighted by a two-hit game at San Diego on June 15, 2016; his second of those hits, a ninth-inning double off Fernando Rodney, pushed his combined total of hits in top-tier leagues in both Japan and North America to 4,257 – one more hit than Pete Rose achieved in his MLB career.
Regardless of whether or not Ichiro’s combined total was recognized by MLB as having surpassed Rose’s record – and it was not – it was a monumental achievement. Most observers doubted that the quality of competition in Japan’s major leagues in the last decade of the 20th century was equivalent to that displayed in the corresponding leagues in the States. But then, consider that when Ichiro reached his combined total of 4,257 hits, one more than Rose, he had accumulated 946 fewer at-bats than Rose had in his career. (Suzuki finished his career with 4,367 hits in 13,553 at-bats – Japan plus North America – which is 111 more hits in exactly 500 fewer at-bats than Rose. Try going 111-for-minus-500. It’s not easy.)
Less than two months later, in a game in Denver on Aug. 7, 2016, Ichiro tripled against the right-field scoreboard off left-hander Chris Rusin for his 3,000th hit in MLB. He expressed his thoughts on the milestone following the game, through a translator.
“It hasn’t been too long since Japanese players have started to come over here to play in the major leagues,” he said. “There are still very few. I’ve been able to get some hits. We’re not there yet. There’s still more that we need to do as Japanese players. Hopefully this 3,000th hit will bring that bridge closer and maybe we’ll be able to have the Japanese players and have the fans understand Japanese baseball is good baseball. Hopefully this did that and brings that closer.”
Ichiro continued to set MLB records even when he was no longer an everyday player. In 2017, his final year with the Marlins, he became the first player ever to pinch-hit in as many as 100 games in a season (he finished with 109 appearances as a pinch-hitter). The Marlins had an option for another year, but declined, and the next spring Ichiro went back to the Mariners. But he played for little more than a month, before announcing that he would come off the active roster and move to a front-office position with the team.
That announcement came on May 3, 2018, a day before the Los Angeles Angels arrived in Seattle for the teams’ first meeting of the season. Along with familiar stars Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, the Angels came in with a much-hyped youngster, 23-year-old Shohei Ohtani, who had signed with the team the previous December after a brief but spectacular career playing with the Nippon Ham Fighters of NPB as a pitcher, outfielder and designated hitter. By the time Ohtani arrived in Seattle, he carried a batting average of .327 and had hit four home runs in his first 15 MLB games as a hitter, while he’d also earned two wins as a starting pitcher, striking out 12 in one seven-inning start.
Although not an active player, Ichiro was on the field in uniform prior to the game, and chatted amiably with the young and coming star during pre-game practice. Perhaps Ichiro had been thinking of players like Ohtani – well, there are few if any who are exactly like him – when he made those comments after his 3,000th MLB hit a few years earlier about the quality of Japanese baseball. In any event, Ohtani won the American League Rookie of the Year Award, joining Ichiro as the only position-players from Japan to win a Rookie of the Year Award in MLB. By three years later, as Ohtani was putting the finishing touches on a combined hitting-and-pitching season at levels never before seen, Ichiro’s comments seemed prophetic indeed.
Ichiro’s final bow as a major league player came the next spring, when the Mariners opened the MLB regular season with a pair of games against the Oakland Athletics at the Tokyo Dome, on March 20-21. Ichiro took spring training with the team and started both games in right field. Though he went hitless in five at-bats, more than 45,000 fans saluted him throughout each game.
That two-game goodbye, meaningful as it was to Ichiro and his legions of fans in his home country, will have the effect of delaying his eligibility for baseball’s Hall of Fame. The mandatory five-year wait period before becoming eligible for election to the Hall means that Ichiro will not be honored on the stage at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown before July of 2025.
It isn’t likely that anyone would mind if that slight, sauntering frame advanced toward the podium, took a practice golf swing, stretched this way and that, surveyed the crowd for the spaces left open by the throng of fans, stepped up, did a quick squat, and rotated an imaginary bat toward an imaginary victim.
And after his speech, would anyone really mind if he made the short trip over to Doubleday Field and slapped a couple of “infield singles” to the left side?
Research support provided by Evan Boyd and Sam Hovland. Design by Briggs Clinard.