Ichiro Suzuki (鈴木一郎), usually known as イチロー (Ichiro), is a Japanese professional baseball player who gloriously concluded his pioneering career across Japan and the United States on March 21st 2019. For Japanese baseball fans, including myself, Ichiro is more than just an athlete — he is admired as a paragon of perseverance and charisma; as a man who always unflinchingly pursues what most people deem impossible. His extraordinary success across the ocean — breaking the 84-year-old record for hits in a single season of Major League Baseball in the U.S. — kept inspiring and enthralling a myriad of Japanese people until his retirement at the age of 45, as the then-oldest active position player in MLB. To date, his popularity has never waned and his name still appears in a variety of survey rankings in Japan, including “the most popular Japanese athletes”, “the most admirable Japanese people”, and even “the most ideal boss you would have”.
Ichiro’s Career in Japan
Ichiro started his professional career in the team Orix BlueWave (currently Orix Buffaloes) in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league in 1992. His watershed moment arrived in 1994, when he changed his registered name from 鈴木 (“Suzuki”), his surname, to イチロー (“Ichiro”), his first name in katakana. This move drew a great amount of attention due to its rarity and bizarreness — it was the very first time that a Japanese NPB player used his first name as a player’s name, and more peculiarly, in katakana characters, which are usually used for names of things or people of foreign origin. Since he was just one of the hundreds of unfledged young players at that time, his unique name displayed on the centre field screen prompted a lot of controversy and criticism.
He responded to those criticisms with his outstanding performance — during this season, he achieved the second-highest batting average in the history of NPB (.385) by producing 210 hits, which broke the record for hits in a single season at that time. Furthermore, not only the batting titles, did he also win his first Golden Glove award this year, an annual award granted to only nine players with the best fielding performance. His exceptional achievements brought much recognition to his unique household name — イチロー (Ichiro) —, which, as a result, received “Word of the Year Award” (流行語大賞) at the end of this year.
After this astonishing debut, Ichiro showed his unrivalled athleticism every year, winning the highest batting average titles and Golden Glove awards for 7 years in a row since 1994. With the unprecedented success in the Japanese baseball league, he finally made a decision to step up to the next stage in his career in 2001: he became the first Japanese position player in Major League Baseball in the United States.
Ichiro’s Career in the United States
In 2001, Ichiro signed with the Seattle Mariners and became the first Japanese position player in the history of Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States. Before the beginning of the season, a plethora of baseball fans, both Japanese and American, cast doubt on his success, deriding his body as “too feeble” to play among giant players in MLB, and belittling the Japanese baseball league as “the second/third tier of MLB”. One of the most ill-famed denunciations was made by the EPSN baseball broadcaster Rob Dibble, who audaciously declared on the air, “I will run naked through Times Square in the dead of winter if Ichiro wins the batting title”.
At the end of this year, New York City witnessed a miserable man running in a G-string with the name イチロー (Ichiro) exposed on his butt — Ichiro, defying the odds, earned the highest batting average (.350) with the highest number of hits (242), and the most stolen bases (56) in the league. The unknown rookie from Japan, after all, swept the major awards of the league this year, including Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove Award, Silver Slugger Award, and MVP. Most notably, he became the second player in MLB history who won Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season.
(Video: Ichiro’s “laser beam” to the 3rd base in his rookie year)
Mid to Late Career in MLB
Since his astonishing rookie year, Ichiro had been a perennial presence in MLB All-Star Games, achieving more than 200 hits and the Golden Glove Award every year from 2001 to 2010. For Japanese baseball fans including myself, it was a part of our daily lives to get thrilled at how many hits Ichiro got in a day, with almost all Japanese daily news programs featuring his incredible performance overseas. Americans also acclaimed the baseball virtuoso for his adept skills, by dubbing his bat “a magic wand” and his strong throw “laser beam”, and calling the right field of Safeco Field — the home ground of Seattle Mariners — “Area 51”, named after his uniform number (and likely borrowed from the name of the secret US Air Force base in Nevada).
The year 2004 witnessed the most exciting and shining moment throughout his glorious career in MLB: he produced 262 hits (with a batting average of .372) and broke George Sisler’s 84-year-old record for hits in a single season — something that people had never imagined to be achievable in the modern baseball era. As a matter of fact, Ichiro is the only player who played after 1930 and ranks in the top 10 players with the most hits in a single season. (Ichiro ranks 10th and 1st in 2001 and 2004, respectively)
His success story was not everlasting, however. In 2011, Ichiro could achieve neither more than 200 hits nor a .300 batting average for the first time in his MLB career. During that time, many of us believed that he must have been hiding his injuries or just got stuck in a one-time slump; and we never doubted that he would get back to “Ichiro” next year. However, the stark reality is that Ichiro had never achieved either 200 hits or a 0.300 batting average since then, and finally he retired from his career in 2019 at the age of 45, which was five years earlier than what he had declared as his planned retirement age. Despite all his stoic training, regimen and professionalism, he could not go against the decline in his power and skills, which had once enchanted millions of baseball fans around the globe. Personally, his retirement reminded me of the stark reality of life: there is nothing eternal in the world.
What Ichiro Means to Japanese Baseball Fans
In total, he produced 4367 hits throughout his professional career in Japan (1278 hits for 9 years) and the U.S (3089 hits for 19 years), and this number is registered by the Guinness World Record as the most base hits in professional baseball games in the world. When he broke this record, he said during the interview that he is really proud of himself for having achieved what people around him had laughed at and discarded as impossible, e.g. to be a professional baseball player; to achieve the highest batting average in MLB; just to name a few. His extraordinary success across the ocean has inspired a myriad of Japanese baseball fans, and shown us how important and beautiful it is to pursue our goals throughout our lives. As a Japanese baseball fan, I am deeply delighted and grateful for the fact that I was able to see and celebrate a great number of the special moments in his career.
Lastly, I hope that this article has given you some ideas of how much イチロー (Ichiro) means and what he has brought to Japanese people.
(PS) On August 27 2022, Ichiro became the 10th player inducted into the Seattle Mariners Hall of Fame. Now, we await the year 2025 when Ichiro is expected to join the National Baseball Hall of Fame in MLB.
(Tweet: Ichiro’s curtain call at his final game at the Tokyo Dome)
Words can’t describe the scene at the Tokyo Dome over 30 minutes after tonight’s game ended.
— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) March 21, 2019
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