Until Ichiro Suzuki joined the Seattle Mariners in 2001 with one of the most spectacular debut seasons in Major League history, there had not been a truly standout Japanese position player to make it in the big leagues.
Now as the end of his career approaches – no doubt too swiftly for him – the man best known by a single first name, like a Brazilian soccer player, will undoubtedly walk away with Hall of Fame credentials.
At the moment Ichiro is batting .303 at age 40 for the New York Yankees. Most of his fame was gleaned with the Mariners, beginning at age 27 when he entered the majors from his home country of Japan with a .350 average complemented by 242 hits and 56 stolen bases. Ichiro was selected as American League rookie of the year and Most Valuable Player that season.
The swift outfielder crashed through many barriers in 2001, not the least of which was a cultural one. Until Ichiro came along it was believed that Japanese hitters were closer in ability to AAA players than Major Leaguers. Suzuki’s triumphs made big-league scouts look harder at Japanese prospects, and not only pitchers.
There was a time when Major League Baseball caught some flak for employing the words “World Series” to describe its end-of-season championship because all of the players were from the United States. The fact was that for several decades just about all of the best baseball players in the world were from the U.S.
It is best remembered, too, that in a racist American society, the finest African-American players were relegated to playing in alternative competition, the Negro Leagues. Gradually, players of Latin American origin beat down the doors for acceptance. And at last, post-Jackie Robinson in 1947, dark-skinned Americans exploded on the scene.
In 2014, MLB players represent such countries as Taiwan, Australia, Canada, South Korea, Italy, and The Netherlands, as well as Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Panama. There are huge numbers of players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and about a dozen from Japan. The best players from these lands put the world in World Series.
A two-time batting champ who set the Major League single-season hits record with 262 in 2004 Ichiro is in the twilight of his career. Once the fastest man in the game he has lost a step in the outfield and on the base paths, though his speed is still adequate. A 10-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner, Suzuki has earned neither honor since 2010.
The most fascinating aspect of Ichiro’s career is wondering just how many hits he would have accumulated if he broke into the majors earlier. In his 14th season, and as of the Yankees’ first 89 games this year, Suzuki had 2,798 hits. He also collected 1,278 hits while playing professionally in Japan.
No official governing body is going to acknowledge a combined hits total in any other manner than anecdotally, but the anecdote is 4,076 hits and counting. Pete Rose is the Major League hits king with 4,256 and Ty Cobb is the only other big-leaguer to top 4,000 with his 4,191. Ichiro is in his own category.
Right now, for Ichiro Suzuki, the race is gathering 3,000 Major League hits before retirement. As the games and months pass, each at-bat will be precious. He will also need another season or two of .300 hitting to ensure job interest when his Yankee contract expires at the end of this season.
For the serious baseball fan, this will be drama worth watching.