There were a lot of people in Japan who awoke early April 3, 2001 (the night of April 2 in the U.S.), with a mix of anticipation and wonder as they watched new Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki’s first game in the major leagues. Ichiro was hitless after three at-bats. Then, in the seventh, he grounded a ball back up he middle past Oakland Athletics pitcher TJ Mathews, who stabbed at it with his glove, and shortstop Miguel Tejada for a single.
Japanese fans have been along for the ride ever since, from Ichiro’s time with the Mariners, Yankees, and now as a 42-year-old with the Marlins, celebrating each milestone reached. They were cheering again on Monday morning in Japan (Sunday afternoon in Denver, where the Marlins faced the Colorado Rockies), when Ichiro hit a triple to record the 3,000th hit of his MLB career, one of the most celebrated accomplishments in a sport that values history like none other.
“It’s a remarkable feat, one that should guarantee Ichiro a first-ballot spot in the Hall of Fame,” longtime Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone said in an email to The Japan Times. “To do so despite such a late start to his MLB career necessitated an astonishing run of 200-hit seasons (and well over 200 in many cases), and also a surge at the end of his career when most players have hung it up. It’s a monument of skill and endurance that stamps him as one of the greatest ever.”
Ichiro currently has 2,444 singles, 350 doubles 93 triples and 113 home runs in the majors. He’s the 30th player to join the 3,000-hit club. Of those eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame, only Rafael Palmeiro is on the outside. Palmeiro reached 3,000 while playing for the Baltimore Orioles July, 15, 2005, in a game against the Mariners — with Ichiro in right field. Palmeiro tested positive for an anabolic steroid days later, and the ensuing controversy has followed him since and kept him out of the Hall.
Unlike Palmeiro, and Pete Rose (the Hit King with 4,256) who is ineligible for induction, Ichiro will be enshrined in the Hall one day. The star, renowned for his wizardry with a bat, the gracefulness with which he patrols the outfield and way he carries himself, will be the first Japanese to get that honor, which will mark a significant moment in the history of the game.
In June, Chris Cwik, a writer for Yahoo Sports’ Big League Stew, posed an interesting question on Twitter. Cwik asked, “Is it an exaggeration to say Ichiro was the most important baseball player of the 2000s?”
Considering his impact in Japan, and in bridging the gap between East and West, it’s certainly a question worth pondering.
“Before (Hideo) Nomo there was never anybody Americans could name as being some Japanese they really looked up to,” said best-selling author Robert Whiting. “They couldn’t tell you the prime minister’s name, who the top actors were or even the baseball players. It just wasn’t on their radar.
“Then Nomo came along. He inspired ‘Nomomania,’ but he only pitched once every five days. Ichiro came along and he was an everyday player, and he was the first MVP. So he just elevated that to another level.
“It really gave new respect for Japanese, it gave them, I think, a sense of self-worth. Because they’d been too often viewed as these faceless robots who could only make products. There were famous Japanese products all around the world, but there were no famous Japanese people other than an arthouse movie director like (Akira) Kurosawa, who had a limited following. There was nobody on a national scale, in the States anyway.”
In his first season as a regular with the Orix BlueWave, in 1994, after manager Shozo Doi had been replaced with Akira Ogi, Ichiro set the NPB single-season record with 210 hits in 130 games.
He went on to hit .353 with a .943 on-base plus slugging percentage in nine seasons in Japan. He was the Pacific League MVP from 1994-96 and won seven batting titles among a long list of other accolades.
Still, Ichiro played in the considerable shadow of the Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s most popular team, and their slugger Hideki Matsui, the biggest star of the era.
“He thought he was better, and it bothered him that Matsui got more attention, got more media exposure, because he was on the Giants,” Whiting said.
The Giants filled Tokyo Dome and were mainstays on television, while the BlueWave struggled for a piece of the pie. “Elvis Presley could’ve come back to life and played in the BlueWave outfield and the result would’ve no doubt remained the same. Such was the enduring allure of the magical Kyojin name,” Whiting wrote in his 2004 book, “The meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastime.”
Whiting elaborated further in a telephone conversation with The Japan Times.
“After he’d broken the single-season hits record here in Japan, you could see him in advertisements on television and billboards in Tokyo, but his games were almost never on nationwide TV,” Whiting said. “It was always the Giants. He was really upset about that. After several seasons at Orix, the stadium was only half-full, so he made this famous quote about ‘I could hit .400 and they still wouldn’t come.’ ”
The situation changed once Ichiro began to succeed in North America.
“Once he went to the States, and he was Rookie of the Year and he won the batting title and MVP, then it was all Ichiro all the time, on NHK anyway,” Whiting said. “Matsui probably wouldn’t have gone to the States if it hadn’t been for Ichiro, which was kind of ironic. Ichiro went first and that kind of put pressure on Matsui to go. He kind of one-upped him.”
Despite Ichiro’s NPB numbers, there were doubts when he signed with the Mariners before the 2001 season. Bobby Valentine, who had just managed the New York Mets to a World Series appearance in 2000, was an early believer, having seen Ichiro up close as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995. Many others remained skeptical.
“Expectations were not super high — in a best-case scenario, maybe he’d be a solid leadoff hitter and push .300,” Stone said of the general feeling.
Among those early skeptics was Seattle manager Lou Piniella.
“I can vouch for the fact that Lou Piniella shared that skepticism,” Stone said. “I was in spring training when Ichiro was hitting everything the other way, and Piniella was wondering if this guy could drive the ball. So he challenged Ichiro one day in Peoria, Ariz., to show him he could pull the ball. Ichiro hit four rockets to right field, including, if I recall correctly, a home run. That’s when Lou was won over.”
As Piniella remembered it during a recent conference call, according to Kyodo News, “‘He rounds the bases, steps on home plate and says, ‘Happy now?’
“So I said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ I recognized that this was a special talent.”
Ichiro has been an MLB All-Star 10 times and set an MLB record with 10 consecutive seasons with at least 200 hits. In the middle of that run, in 2004, he recorded 262 hits to break George Sisler’s 84-year-old MLB single-season mark of 257. Ichiro is also just the sixth player with at least 3,000 hits and 500 steals.
“He was born to be doing what he’s doing,” said former Montreal Expos and Yomiuri Giants star Warren Cromartie. “Japan should honor him. Japan should be very proud of Ichiro. It’s not easy, what he did.”
Even Ichiro’s batting routine has become iconic, especially the way he holds his bat vertically, with his arm extended toward the pitcher’s mound, before falling into his batting stance.
“I love Ichiro,” Gar Ryness, a California native better known as the Batting Stance Guy, said in a email to The Japan Times. Ryness is somewhat of an expert on batting stances. He’s made a name for himself for his accurate portrayals of players’ stances. In 2010, he wrote a book, “Batting Stance Guy: A Love Letter to Baseball.” He’s often stopped by fans, and even MLB players, and asked to mimic a stance. Once, he was even approached by Ichiro, who wanted to see Dante Bichette’s stance.
“He might be the smoothest player ever,” Ryness wrote. “He’s got style for days. His on deck and pre-swing ritual is incredibly elaborate but done in such a quiet, careful and fluid way that it only seems weird when you really start to think about it.”
Ichiro’s rise changed the way the world viewed Japanese baseball (and Japan in general) and caused a warming of Japanese attitudes toward MLB. This helped fully open the door for Japanese stars such as Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and a host of others to head abroad.
Globally, Ichiro may well be the most important baseball player of the 2000s. In Japan, he’ll be remembered as one of the most important athletes ever.
“I think everybody realizes he’ll be the first Japanese baseball player ever to enter the Hall of Fame,” Whiting said. “That’s a really big deal for Japanese fans. He’s just sort of single-handedly elevated the American perception of the Japanese player, of Japanese in general.”