Ichiro Suzuki (鈴木一朗, Suzuki Ichirō, born October 22, 1973 in Nishikasugai, Japan) is the right fielder for the Seattle Mariners Major League Baseball team. He moved to the United States in 2001 after playing for seven years for the Orix Blue Wave in Japan's Pacific League. When the Blue Wave granted his release after the 2000 season, Ichiro signed a contract with the Mariners. He became the first Japanese-born everyday position player in the Major Leagues.
2004 was his most impressive season yet, as he set a new all-time, single-season Major League record with 262 hits.
At age seven, Ichiro joined his first baseball team and asked his father, Nobuyuki Suzuki (鈴木宣之 Suzuki Nobuyuki), to teach him to be a better player. The two began a daily routine which included:
- throwing 50 pitches
- hitting 200 pitches from Nobuyuki
- fielding 50 infield balls and 50 outfield balls, and
- hitting 250-300 pitches from a machine.
As a Little Leaguer, Ichiro had the word shūchū (集中 — "concentration") written on his glove. By age 12, he had set professional baseball as his goal and, while he apparently shared his father's vision, he did not enjoy their training sessions. Nobuyuki claimed, "Baseball was fun for both of us," but Ichiro later said, "It might have been fun for him, but for me it was a lot like 巨人の星(Kyojin no Hoshi)" (i.e., "Star of the Giants," a popular Japanese cartoon series that told of a young boy's difficult road (partially due to rigorous tranining demanded by the father) to success as a professional baseball player). According to Ichiro, "It bordered on hazing and I suffered a lot."
When Ichiro joined his junior high school baseball team, his father told the coach, "No matter how good Ichiro is, don't ever praise him. We have to make him spiritually strong." When he was ready to enter high school, Ichiro was selected by a school with a prestigious baseball program, Nagoya's Aikodai Meiden Kōkō, where, unlike as a professional, Ichiro was primarily a pitcher instead of an outfielder, owing to his exceptionally strong arm. Among the strength drills he performed in training there were hurling car tires and hitting wiffle balls with a heavy shovel. These exercises helped develop his wrists and hips, adding power and endurance to his thin frame. Yet, despite the production of outstanding numbers in high school, Ichiro was not drafted until the fourth and final round of the professional draft in November 1991 because many teams were put off by his small size, 5' 9", 120 pounds. (Whiting, 2004, pp. 2-12)
Career in Japan
Ichiro made his Pacific League debut in 1992 at the age of 18, but he spent most of his first two seasons with a farm team due to his manager's refusal to accept Ichiro's unorthodox swing. The swing, nicknamed 振り子打法 (furiko dahō) (i.e. "pendulum batting style" due to the pendulum-like motion of the leg, shifting the weight forward as he swung the bat), was considered to go against conventional baseball wisdom, which insisted that the weight must remain on the rear leg in order to hit the ball effectively. In 1994 he benefited from the arrival of a new manager who put him in the leadoff spot for the Blue Wave and allowed him to hit any way he wanted. He responded by setting a Japanese single-season record with 210 hits in 130 games for a then-Pacific League record .385 batting average and won the first of a record seven consecutive batting titles. He also hit 13 home runs and had 29 stolen bases, helping him to earn his first of three straight Pacific League Most Valuable Player awards.
It was during the 1994 season that he became known as "Ichiro" (イチロー Ichirō). Suzuki was the second most common surname in Japan, and his manager introduced the idea as a publicity stunt to help create a new image for what had been a relatively weak team, as well as a way to distinguish their rising star. Initially, Ichiro disliked and was embarrassed by the practice, but by the end of the season "Ichiro" was a household word and he was being flooded with endorsement offers. (Whiting, 2004, pp. 13-16)
In 1995 Ichiro led the Blue Wave to their first Pacific League pennant in 12 years. In addition to his second batting title, he led the league in RBIs with 80, hit 25 home runs, and stole 49 bases. By this time, the Japanese press had begun calling him the "Human Batting Machine." The following year, with Ichiro winning his third straight MVP award, the team defeated the Central League champion Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series. Following the 1996 season, playing in an exhibition series against a visiting team of Major League All-Stars kindled Ichiro's desire to travel to the United States to play in the Major Leagues.
In 2000, Ichiro was still a year away from being eligible for free agency, but the Blue Wave were no longer among Japan's best teams and would probably not be able to afford to keep him. In a move both charitable and practical, Manager Akira Ogi decided to release Ichiro from any obligations to the team and allow him to pursue his dream. After the 2000 season, in which Ichiro posted his highest batting average (.387), a Pacific League record, Seattle won a bidding war among Major League teams for the rights to negotiate with him on a contract. Ichiro signed a three-year, $14 million contract with the Mariners and became the first Japanese-born everyday position player in the Major Leagues.
In his nine seasons in Japan, Ichiro was a career .353 batter and, in addition to his hitting achievements, won seven Gold Glove Awards.
Career in the United States
Ichiro's move to the United States was viewed with great interest because he was the first Japanese position player to play regularly for a Major League Baseball team. Up to that point, only pitchers from Japan had been playing in the United States and, in the same way that many Japanese teams had considered the 18-year-old Ichiro too small to draft in 1992, many in the US believed he was too frail to succeed against Major League pitching or endure the longer 162-game season.
Not only did he prove he belonged, Ichiro had a remarkable 2001 season, accumulating 242 hits (the most by any player since 1930) and leading the league with a .350 batting average and 56 stolen bases. By mid-season, he had produced hitting streaks of 15 and 23 games, been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and created a media storm on both sides of the Pacific. In Seattle, ticket sales (and wins) were higher than ever, fans from Japan were taking $2,000 baseball tours to see the games, more than 150 Japanese reporters and photographers were clamoring for access, and "Ichirolls" were being sold at sushi stands in the ballpark. (Whiting, 2004, pp. 25-31)
Aided by Major League Baseball's decision to allow All-Star voting in Japan, Ichiro was the first rookie to lead all players in voting for the All-Star Game. At season's end, he won the American League Most Valuable Player and the Rookie of the Year awards, becoming only the second player in MLB history (after Fred Lynn) to receive both honors in the same season.
Ichiro was also a four-time Gold Glove winner from 2001 through 2004. His success has opened the door for other Japanese players like Yomiuri Giants slugger Hideki Matsui to enter the Major Leagues.
Continuing the custom he began in Japan, he uses his given name on the back of his uniform, instead of his surname, becoming the first player in Major League Baseball to do so since Vida Blue.
Ichiro's career is followed closely in his native Japan, with national television news programs covering each of his at-bats, and with special tour packages arranged for Japanese fans to visit the United States to view his games.
Record-setting 2004 season
Ichiro set a number of Major League records during the 2004 season:
- August 26: With a home run off of Kansas City Royals reliever Jeremy Affeldt, Ichiro became the first player in Major League history to reach 200 hits in each of his first four seasons.
- August 28: He became the first player in MLB history to have three 50-hit months in a single season.
- September 17: He broke the major league record with his 199th single of the season in the seventh. Ichiro bettered the modern (post-1900) record of 198 set by Lloyd Waner of Pittsburgh in 1927.
- October 1: Ichiro collected his 258th and 259th hits, breaking the record set by George Sisler with the St. Louis Browns in 1920. His 257th hit also set the Major League record for most hits over any four-year span, with 919.
- October 3: Ichiro completed the 2004 season with 262 hits and an MLB-leading .372 batting average. His 225 Singles in 2004 shattered the previous all-era record of 206, set by Wee Willie Keeler in 1898. Ichiro's 704 at bats fell one short of Willie Wilson's record of 705.
In addition to these records, Ichiro also started in the All-Star Game for the fourth consecutive year, and led all leadoff hitters in batting average, on base percentage, and on-base plus slugging.