Ichiro Suzuki has millions of dedicated fans in his native Japan, with his image appearing in daily newspapers and smiling from billboards, coffee mugs, and T-shirts. There is even a museum dedicated to him. Known to his adoring public simply as "Ichiro," Ichiro Suzuki is more than just a baseball player; he is a national institution. Considered by many to be the greatest hitter in Japanese baseball history, Ichiro dominated the game in his homeland for nearly nine years until he was snapped up in 2001 to play professional baseball for the American League's Seattle Mariners. As a result, he became the first Japanese position player (meaning a nonpitcher) to be signed by a U.S. team. Since then the fleet-footed, left-handed outfielder has broken dozens of records and has garnered an enormous American following. In 2004, Ichiro had his hottest streak ever, finishing the year by breaking a record that had stood untouched for eighty-four years: scoring the most hits in a single season. He is called a "hitting machine" by sportswriters. This is no exaggeration, since according to Leigh Montville of Sports Illustrated, "Any pitch, any time, any place, any situation—you throw it, Ichiro will hit it."
Ichiro Suzuki was born on October 22, 1973, in Kasugai, Japan. Ichiro's father, Nobuyuki, was determined that Ichiro, who he thought had a natural talent for baseball, would play the sport, and play it well. The elder Suzuki made it clear from the beginning that his son was special. In fact, the name Ichiro means "first boy," even though he was actually the second boy born to the family. From the time he was three years old, Ichiro was practicing in his backyard with a tiny bat and ball, and by elementary school, Nobuyuki, who was a former high school ballplayer himself, was putting his son through batting drills for up to four hours per day.
In high school Ichiro already displayed a dedication to the game that he would become known for as an adult. It was a tradition at Nagoya Electric High School that freshman players were responsible for washing the uniforms of the seniors, so to make sure he had plenty of time for practice Ichiro would get up at 3:00 AM to do laundry. The young batter also maintained a rigorous class schedule and excelled academically. By his senior year Ichiro was a familiar face at Japan's National High School Baseball Tournament, known as Koshien. Upon graduation from high school in 1991, he was drafted to play professional ball for the Pacific League's BlueWave, a team owned by the Japanese leasing company Orix.
During his first year with the BlueWave, Ichiro devoted himself to perfecting his game. As S. L. Price of Sports Illustrated
"I'm unique. I'm a very rare kind of player."
commented, "He spent most of his free time in the batting cage, with teammates coming and going from breakfast, lunch, nap, dinner to the endless tattoo of his bat on ball." Ichiro also developed a very unique batting stance that included lifting his right leg and swinging it back and forth like a pendulum. His hours of practice proved to be worth it; Ichiro quickly became known as a slasher at the plate, hitting line drives to the corners of every ballpark in every game.
During his seven full seasons playing for the BlueWave, the left-handed hitter racked up an impressive record: Each season he hit between .342 and .387 and averaged twenty-nine doubles, seventeen home runs, and twenty-eight stolen bases. He also earned seven batting titles and set a national record for getting to first base in fifty-seven consecutive games. Ichiro was named Most Valuable Player three times, and in 1998 he was key to leading the BlueWave to their first Pacific League pennant.
Ichiro's prowess in the batting box quickly helped make him the most well-known and celebrated person in Japan, but it was his style that catapulted him to mythic proportions. With a lean, teenager-like physique, spiky hair, and a penchant for wearing sunglasses and his baseball cap backwards, the five-foot-nine Ichiro was not the typical, conservative Japanese player. He especially appealed to younger fans, who viewed him as something of a rock star. Ichiro soon became a one-man industry, with his own line of sports apparel, including colorful Nike Air Max sneakers that were snatched up by the millions.
Another suggested reason for Ichiro's popularity was his notoriety for being tight-lipped in interviews. "He is a man of few words, so he doesn't talk so much," noted Michael Knisley of Sporting News. "And the more mysterious he acts, the more mystique he has." According to Jeff Pearlman of Sports Illustrated, the reason for Ichiro's reserve was more practical: If he thinks he has not contributed to a game he feels there is simply nothing to say. The fashionably dressed hitter may have been aloof with the press, but he obviously enjoyed playing to, and sometimes with, the crowd. In fact, during game lulls Ichiro was known to play catch with fans sitting in the right-field stands.
Ichiro reached the pinnacle of fame when, in 2000, his father built a four-story museum in Nagoya, Japan, dedicated solely to his celebrated son. Nearly three thousand articles are on display chronicling the life and times of Ichiro, which is amazing considering he was only twenty-four when the museum opened. Items include his childhood Nintendo game cartridges, baseball jerseys, report cards, nearly one hundred scrapbooks containing news clippings—and even Ichiro's dental retainer. According to the museum manager, who spoke with Jim Caple of ESPN.com, "When Ichiro was a child his father told Ichiro's mother, 'He is going to be a great athlete. We must keep everything."'
Although he was a star in Japan, Ichiro had been setting his sights on American baseball since the spring of 1999, when he spent two weeks in spring training with the Seattle Mariners. In 2000 he announced to Orix that once his full nine years playing pro ball in Japan was up, which it would be in 2001, he was going to consider offers from other teams, including those from the United States. Aware that Ichiro's departure was unavoidable, and faced with business losses, Orix decided to "post" Ichiro, meaning they put Ichiro on the auction block. The Mariners beat out other hopeful franchises, and on November 9, 2000, offered Orix more than $13 million for a thirty-day window to negotiate with Ichiro. On November 18, the powerhouse hitter signed a three-year deal with Seattle worth a reported $15-$20 million. He became the first Japanese position player to sign with a U.S. baseball team.
Ichiro may have been eager to play American ball, but he claimed the decision to leave Japan was a hard one. "Inever said it was easy for me," he revealed to John Rawlings of Sporting News. "But it wasn't interesting anymore. People have twisted that very often. As the better pitchers left my league, it wasn't fun." Ichiro also claimed to be both hesitant and excited about his move. As he told Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated, "Sometimes I am nervous, sometimes anxious, but Iwant to challenge a new world." Ichiro began to adapt to his new life by asking in his contract for English lessons for himself and his wife, Japanese television personality Yumiko Fukushima. He also made it clear that, just as he had in Japan, he wanted to be recognized by his first name only. In May 2001 Ichiro became the first and only U.S. player to wear a baseball jersey bearing only a first name.
The Mariners did not regret opening their purse for their Japanese import. By the end of his first season Ichiro was known, according to Rick Reilly, as "the fastest man in baseball with the best outfield arm playing for the winningest team." He posted a .357 batting average, with fifty-six stolen bases, leading the major leagues in both categories. Ichiro also became only the second player to be voted American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season. Over the next three years the Japanese slugger continued to be the most successful and consistent leadoff hitter in U.S. baseball. "Idon't think you can pitch him one way," New York Yankees's manager Joe Torre commented to Jeff Pearlman. "You can go in and out, up and down and he makes the adjustment. You can get ahead of the count, and Ichiro still seems relaxed. He doesn't seem to have any weaknesses."
Ichiro's clear focus and intense concentration contributed to such comments, and his many rituals clearly intrigued American fans and members of the press. Sportswriters reported on his exercise regimen, which included a constant stretching and rolling of shoulders when he is in the outfield between pitches; a massage before each game; and methodically rubbing his feet with a wooden stick in the locker room. According to Ichiro, and according to Eastern medicine, healthy feet are key to a healthy body. A wooden stick helps massage certain points on the foot that supposedly improve such things as flexibility and circulation.
Ichiro also believes that mental preparation is equally important to physical preparation. Before each game he watches a tape of his opposing pitchers, and after each game he spends time by himself with only his handcrafted glove for company. Ichiro carefully wipes away any dirt from the glove, rubs in a protective cream, and checks all the lacings. As he explained to Brad Lefton of Sporting News, "The glove is directly connected to the game. There's a special meaning in reflecting back on your day's work while paying homage to a piece of equipment that helped you. So while Icare for my glove, Ialso reflect back on my mistakes and try to identify the causes."
Mistakes did not come often for Ichiro, although he did experience a bit of a slump in 2003, when he finished the year with a disappointing-for-him .257 average. A refreshed Ichiro, however, was back in action in 2004, and as the season progressed he broke record after record. Nicknamed Wizard by his
When Ichiro Suzuki hit his way into sports history he also put the spotlight on another player who had almost been forgotten in the shadows: George Sisler. Sisler is considered by many to be one of the greatest first basemen of all time and perhaps the most legendary player in the history of the St. Louis Browns. He had a fifteen-year batting average of .340; he was a swift base runner; and he was known for his acrobatic fielding. But Sisler was also a quiet and modest man whose reputation was eclipsed by some of his more charismatic contemporaries such as Ty Cobb (1886–1961) and Babe Ruth (1895–1948).
George Harold Sisler was born on March 24, 1893, in Manchester, Ohio, but spent his early years in Nimisila, a tiny coal-mining town just south of Akron. From early on, baseball was his life. When he was fourteen Sisler moved to Akron in order to pitch for Akron Central High School. While still in high school he signed a contract to play professional ball, which would take effect as soon as he graduated. Sisler's father, however, urged him to pursue his education first, so in 1910 he enrolled at the University of Michigan (U of M) in Ann Arbor. During his years at U of M Sisler emerged as one of the top college ballplayers in the country, and although he graduated in 1915 with a degree in mechanical engineering he decided to turn pro, signing with the American League's St. Louis Browns.
Sisler began his career as a pitcher, but because he was too good with a bat to be limited to hitting once every four days, he soon took over at first base. From 1915 until 1922 Sisler maintained a .374 batting average, reaching .407 in 1920 and peaking at .420 in 1922, a record that no one has since approached. "Gorgeous George," as he was known to his fans, continued to rack up record after record, and in 1920 he was at the pinnacle of his career, reaching the single-season record of 257 hits that remained untouched until 2004. Sisler also achieved career bests of 19 home runs, 18 triples, 49 doubles, 122 runs batted in, and 137 runs scored. According to sports historian Bill James, who spoke with Dave Kindred of Sporting News, in 1920 Sisler was "about as great of a player as you can be."
Unfortunately the baseball legend's career was cut short in 1923 after he suffered a bout of sinusitis (a severe sinus infection), which caused double vision for a time and forced him to sit out the entire season. Sisler continued to play for the Browns until 1928, when he was traded to the Washington Senators. After appearing in only twenty games Washington turned his contract over to the Boston Braves, who kept Sisler on the roster until 1930. Although he performed admirably, Sisler never quite achieved his former glory, and he considered 1923 to be his last true year in baseball. After playing briefly in the minor leagues for two years Sisler retired in 1932. He left professional baseball for the next ten years, but returned to the major leagues in 1943 to scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers. From 1951 through 1965 Sisler served as a scout and hitting instructor for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He died on March 26, 1973, at the age of eighty.
Two of Sisler's sons, Dick and Dave, played major league ball in the 1950s, and a third son, George Jr., served as an executive in the minor leagues. Five members of the Sisler family were on hand when Ichiro Suzuki broke Gorgeous George's eighty-four-year-old record. As Sisler's grandson, Bo Drochelman, told Bob Sherwin of the Seattle Times, "My grandfather really respected the game of baseball. He cherished it and played every minute to the hilt.
teammates he proved he had magic in his feet, his glove, and especially his bat. Ichiro became one of only eleven players to have four consecutive 200-hit seasons, and as the playoffs drew closer speculations were flying that he would beat the single-season hitting record of 257 set in 1920 by George Sisler (1893–1973) of the St. Louis Browns.
On October 1, 2004, before a sold-out crowd, Ichiro tied the record during the first inning of the Mariners-Texas Rangers game. During the third inning he rocketed a line drive to left field and secured his place in baseball history. The stands erupted; fireworks soared over the ballpark; and teammates and fans gave Ichiro a two-minute standing ovation as he
Considering he was only thirty years old when he broke Sisler's record, many predicted that there was much more ahead in Ichiro's future. By mid-2005 he had already broken at least two more batting records: On June 14 he became only the third major league player in history to hit one thousand runs in less than seven hundred games; and on July 30 Ichiro reached his 1,058th hit, the most any player has achieved in their first five-seasons of play. Don Baylor, the hitting coach for the Mariners, forecast that his star right-fielder would possibly break an unprecedented .400 batting average by season's end if he started the year at .350; as of July 2005 Ichiro was batting .385. The modest Mariner, as usual, was cautious when speaking to the press about the hype. As he told Phil Rogers of ChicagoSports.com, "Idon't know if I'll ever do it. I just want to be a player people say has a chance." For a man who S. L. Price claims has become an "an omnipresent cultural icon," that is definitely an understatement.
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Lefton, Brad. "In Focus: Mariners Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki's Mental Preparation Is as Big a Part of His Game as His Blazing Speed and Powerful Throwing Arm." The Sporting News (March 10, 2003): pp. 10–14.
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Sherwin, Bob. "Hits-tory! Ichiro Breaks Sisler's Record." The Seattle Times (October 2, 2004). http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/mariners/2002052125_ichiroheads02.html (accessed on August 23, 2005).