Willie, Mickey, Duke, Stan, Jackie, Manny, Barry, Hank, Chipper, Sammy – all well known ballplayers, all known by their first names. However, none of them were bold enough to actually have their first names stitched onto the back of their jerseys like Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki…err, we mean Ichiro. Just Ichiro.
Ichiro has been just Ichiro since 1997, when a manger with the Orix Blue Wave suggested that Suzuki go by his first name, partly because Suzuki is a common sir name in Japan. The first-name-only concept caught on, and when Ichiro came to the United States to play for the Seattle Mariners in 2001, he wanted to continue the practice. At first, it raised a few eyebrows, but then again, what about the newcomer didn’t?
For one thing, Ichiro was the first position player from Japan to try to make it in the major leagues. The very first Japanese player who made the majors was Masanori Murakami, a left-handed reliever who pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964-65. The next Japanese player to leap across the Pacific wasn’t until Los Angles Dodgers Rookie of the Year Hideo Nomo did it in 1995.
Obviously being the first Japanese position player to don a major league uniform left Ichiro, a .353 career hitter and seven-time Pacific League batting champion, in uncharted territory.
Then there was his size – or rather, the lack thereof. He’s listed at 5-feet-9 and 172 pounds, but he appears even smaller than that. His appearance – with his mustache and the stubble on his chin – didn’t help matters either, considering he looked a bit like a Samurai warrior, at least to U.S. audiences.
Yet another one of Ichiro’s qualities that drew onlookers was his approach at the plate. He often looked like an archer ready to strike with a bow and arrow, instead of a batter ready to take on a 95mph fastball. Then when the pitch came, he had a leg kick that resembled more of a place kicker than a major league batter.
When Ichiro swung, however, it seemed like he couldn’t miss. A fastball at the eyes – swat! A curve ball bouncing a foot in front of the plate – smack! The guy seemed to put bat to ball with relative ease. He was such a naturally talented hitter that he treated baseball bats like an extension of himself.
Once people stopped looking at his oddball tendencies, they marveled at his electrifying play both in the field and on the base paths. He’s always been fast and can throw lasers virtually to any base. It’s no wonder he was the top vote getter in the All-Star balloting his first three years. Although yes, tons of votes came in from Japan, but Ichiro also led in paper balloting, which came mostly from fans at the major league ballparks.
In 2001, his first regular season with the Mariners, he led the junior circuit with a .350 batting average, got more hits (242) than anyone in 71 years, and won American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors. Ichiro was great and the team was even better, as the Mariners tied the 1906 Cubs’ record for most victories in a season with a 116. A World Series would have been the perfect culmination, but the M’s faltered against the Yankees in the ALCS.
The next season, Ichiro’s average tailed off to .321. The Mariners won 93 games, but finished 10 behind Oakland and six back in the wild card behind the eventual World Series champion Angels. The Mariners won 93 games again the following season, but finished two games out of the wild card.
In 2004, the Mariners went into the tank early and finished last, but Ichiro was able to provide a pennant fever atmosphere in the Emerald City. Throughout the final month, the talk of the town was whether Ichiro could catch the somewhat obscure record for hits in a season (257) set in 1920 by George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns. Ichiro passed Sisler on the third to last day of the season with a single in the third inning against the Rangers. Fireworks went off at Safeco Field in Seattle and celebrations broke out all over Japan.
In 2005, he slumped to .303 average but collected 200 hits, becoming the first player in major league history to start his career with a string of five straight 200-hit season. He pounded out 15 homers that year, which remains a career best.
Ichiro on the web
Seattle Mariners: official page
Seattle Mariners page; contains short bio, career stats, and links to recent video highlights.
Roto World page; contains career stats, and updates on impact as a fantasy player.
Ichiro Fan Girl
Put together by an obsessed Japanese fan with blog entries, links to videos and articles.
A site dedicated to collecting Ichiro cards and other memorabilia from around the world.
YouTube: Ichiro Suzuki
Various videos of the Mariners star, including an ad that pays homage to his batting stance.
Latest on Ichiro
In 2007, he finished second in the American League batting race with a .351 batting average as the Mariners contended for the playoff for the first since 2003. In July, Ichiro signed a contract extension through 2012.
News and commentaries
Seattle Times: Stroke of genius: Ichiro goes on hit parade
The Times wraps up Ichiro’s impressive first season in 2001.
Time Magazine: The Ichiro Paradox
In a 2002 article, S.L. Price profiles an American sports hero like no other.
ESPN The Magazine: East2West
This article examines the great feet that led to great feats.
On how his size:
“I'm not a big guy and hopefully kids could look at me and see that I'm not muscular and not physically imposing, that I'm just a regular guy. So if somebody with a regular body can get into the record books, kids can look at that. That would make me happy.”
“I'm told I either look bigger than I do on television or that I look smaller than I look on television. No one seems to think I look the same size."
On how his failings:
"In baseball, even the best hitters fail seven of ten times, and of those seven failures there are different reasons why. Some are personal failures, others are losses to the pitcher. You just get beat. In those personal failures, I felt I could have done better."
On how playing in the U.S. and Japan are the same:
"That is because baseball is baseball. It is not good or bad, but it is the same game. Only the way it is played different is inside the mind."