This is the 12th in a series on influential figures in the Heisei Era, which began in 1989 and will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30. In Heisei, Japan was roiled by economic excess and stagnation, as well as a struggle for political and social reform. This series explores those who left their imprint along the way.
Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella had seen enough.
His new outfielder Ichiro Suzuki hadn’t been putting up great numbers during the spring of 2001, at least not commensurate with the combined $27 million it took to sign him out of Japan over the winter of 2000.
His signing had been met with skepticism, including from Piniella himself. There had been Japanese pitchers in Major League Baseball before, but never a position player, and this one didn’t look the part to the baseball men. He was skinny and had an odd batting stance. In Japan, he’d used a funky, pendulum-like leg kick to tear up that league, but this was MLB.
On this particular day, in Peoria, Arizona, Ichiro was poking weakly hit balls to the left side of the field.
“He was hitting to left field a lot, and they were really shading him over, playing him almost like a right-handed pull hitter,” Piniella told Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone in July 2001. “I told him he needed to pull the ball, and he said, ‘No problem.’ The next at-bat, he hit one out of the park to right and said, ‘Are you happy now?’
“I told Ichiro, ‘You can do whatever you want the rest of the year.’ ”
Ichiro spent the rest of 2001 — after which he was crowned the American League’s MVP and Rookie of the Year — similarly opening eyes across the baseball world.
He would become one of the most important players of the Heisei Era, which is slated to end at the end of this month, in Japan as well as in the United States. When he walked off the field for the final time on March 21 at Tokyo Dome, he drew the curtain on a career that began with doubts and ended all but certain of a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame one day.
“I love baseball, that has never changed,” Ichiro said after his final game.
Ichiro played from 1992 to 2019, finishing with 3,089 hits for the Mariners, New York Yankees and Miami Marlins in MLB and 1,278 in Japan with the Orix BlueWave. His combined total of 4,367 is the most in history. When he passed former MLB great Pete Rose for that distinction with his 4,257th hit, in 2016, the feat was recognized by Guinness World Records.
He finished with 242 hits in his first MLB season, the most by any rookie ever. He ended 2004 with 262, the most by anyone in a single season. Those years were part of a run of 10 straight (2001-2010) with at least 200 hits, something else no other major leaguer has ever achieved.
He was a virtuoso in the outfield, too, winning seven straight Golden Gloves in Japan from 1994 to2000 and 10 consecutive AL Gold Gloves in MLB from 2001 to 2010. The defining highlight of his career was arguably when, nine days after his MLB debut, he threw out the Oakland Athletics’ Terrance Long at third base with his iconic “laser beam” throw from right field.
“A Hall of Famer in both places,” said current A’s manager Bob Melvin, who managed Ichiro in 2003 and 2004. “He’s the kind of guy you don’t want to come up in a big situation. He’s had a flair for the dramatic over his career.”
That was evident in 2009 at Dodger Stadium, when Ichiro lined a tiebreaking two-run single up the middle that gave Samurai Japan the lead over South Korea in the 10th inning of the World Baseball Classic final. That was three years after he helped lead Japan to the inaugural title.
Ichiro tried to conjure up one final bit of magic during his last game and give fans at Tokyo Dome the hit they so desperately wanted to see. While he came up short, the crowd showered him with cheers after the game in appreciation of an illustrious career.
“Some people think I don’t have emotions, but you’d be surprised,” Ichiro said after the game. “I went into that last one thinking the best result would be to get a hit, but it didn’t turn out like that. But they still stayed at the stadium. I’m not going to, but I felt like it’d be OK to die then. … I thought that was the kind of time you use that expression.”
Ichiro Suzuki was many things to many people. He was something MLB fans had never seen before.
“There’s never been anybody with a swing like his or a skillset exactly like his in baseball,” longtime Mariners fan Dave Palm said. “So he’s been really fun to watch over the years.”
He wore his first name on his uniform and the way he held his bat out toward the mound and adjusted his sleeve was an oddity that became one baseball’s most recognized sights — the Mariners once even devoted an entire commercial to his famous at-bat routine.
He was stoic at times and in others he, according to writer Jeff Passan, gave rousing, hilarious, profanity-laced pep talks before All-Star Games. In 2014, Brad Lefton wrote of how Ichiro had learned Spanish and often joked and talked trash with Latin players.
He carried his bats around in humidors and treated his equipment as extensions of himself. People often used words like “Zen” when talking about Ichiro, because of his focus and discipline.
“He’s a great role model for us and for everyone of all ages, especially the younger generation, just the way he prepares and the way he goes about his business,” said the Mariners’ All-Star outfielder Mitch Haniger. “He’s a true professional who we can all learn from.”
For many MLB players, he was an inspiration.
“I’ve been around him five years, he hasn’t wavered or changed a bit,” said Seattle infielder Dee Gordon. “That’s a big part of it. Definitely inspiring, especially for myself being a smaller guy like he is, it shows me that I have to work my behind off every day.”
In Japan he was revered. To the Japanese children who grew up watching him play in MLB, he was proof that it could be done. His success in the U.S. planted seeds all over Japan, some of which grew into players like the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani and the New York Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka, among many others.
Ichiro was also a source of pride for Japan as a whole. So much so that the Japanese government tried to give him the People’s Honor Award twice while he was playing, in 2001 and 2004, and again after his retirement. Ichiro declined each time.
“It really gave new respect for Japanese. It gave them, I think, a sense of self-worth,” Robert Whiting, best-selling author of “You’ve Gotta have Wa” and “The Meaning of Ichiro,” told The Japan Times in an interview last year. “Because they’d been too often viewed as these faceless robots who could only make products.”
Ichiro also altered the way some Americans thought of Japanese. On the baseball diamond, he proved Japanese position players could indeed play in MLB, opening the door for others to follow. Clubs that were reluctant to sign a Japanese nonpitcher before Ichiro have been scouring Japan for the next Ichiro ever since.
When he first became a professional in Japan, Ichiro wasn’t all that popular. His first manager with the BlueWave was Shozo Doi, a former infielder who had played for the Yomiuri Giants for 14 seasons.
Doi, who took the helm in 1991, wasn’t a fan of Ichiro’s batting style, especially the leg kick, and kept the outfielder confined to the farm for most of his first two seasons.
Ichiro was rescued by new Orix manager Akira Ogi in 1994. Unlike Doi, Ogi was ready to unleash Ichiro upon the world. It was also Ogi who convinced the player to change the name on his uniform from “Suzuki” to “Ichiro.”
Ichiro immediately won the next three Pacific League MVP awards and numerous other accolades. In 1995 he helped Orix win the pennant. In 1996 he helped deliver a Japan Series triumph.
In Japan, he’d been overshadowed by the star power of Hideki Matsui and the Yomiuri Giants. But after moving to MLB in 2001, his fame at home was second to none.
Abroad, it took MLB fans a little while to buy in.
“The American fans were really hard on me at the beginning,” Ichiro said. “They’d often tell me to go back to Japan during the 2001 camp in America.
“However, they show you respect after you put up results. I don’t know how to assess that, but you can say they can change their minds quickly.”
On the last night of his career, he spoke of how moving to America and becoming a foreigner had changed the way he saw things and his understanding of other people.
“It seemed like it took a long time for him to warm up to our cheering style, it’s so different than it is (in Japan),” said Seattle fan Amy Franz, who became famous for tracking Ichiro’s run to 262 hits in 2004 on her “Ichimeter” sign, the original of which is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“The Seattle fan base, everybody just respects him so much for what he’s done, what he does for the sport and how much he respects the sport,” Franz said.
As for what’s next, that’s anybody’s guess.
“First of all, what will become of katakana Ichiro (his name is often written in the syllabary used predominately for foreign words in Japanese),” he pondered.
“Maybe it will become the former Ichiro. I wonder what will happen. It’s the former Ichiro, but it’s Ichiro, what do you do when you write it? What will I be … definitely not a manager. That’s for sure.”
Did you know . . . ?
- Ichiro pitched in high school and during an NPB All-Star Game in 1996. He made one such appearance in MLB, allowing a run on two doubles in an inning for the Miami Marlins on Oct. 4, 2015. “I’ll never talk bad about a pitcher ever again,” he said afterward.
- Ichiro and his wife, Yumiko, have a Shiba named Ikkyu, and the star often speaks of his love for the dog. On the night of his retirement, Ichiro said he was surprised Ikkyu made it until the end of his career and said the dog, which he joked is “becoming a grandpa,” helps motivate him to keep going.
- After Ichiro set the single-season record for hits in MLB with 262 in 2004, he simultaneously held the marks in both NPB (210 hits, set in 1994) and MLB until Matt Murton broke his record in Japan in 2010.
- Ichiro was 45 years and 149 days old when he started in right field for the Mariners in the MLB season opener at Tokyo Dome on March 20. That made him just the second position player, and seventh overall, aged 45 or older to start on Opening Day.