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 many Japanese people, including myself, Ichiro is more than just an athlete — he is admired as a paragon of perseverance and charisma, as a man who always strives to unflinchingly pursue what most people deem impossible. His extraordinary success across the ocean — breaking an 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 he retired at the age of 45, as the oldest active position player at that time in MLB. Up until today, his popularity has never waned and his name appears in a variety of survey rankings in Japan, such as ‘the most popular Japanese athletes’, ‘the most admirable Japanese people’, and ‘the most ideal boss you would have’.
Career in Japan
Ichiro started his professional career 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 action drew a great amount of attention due to its rarity and bizarreness; it was the very first time that a Japanese player in NPB used his first name as a player’s name, and more peculiarly, in katakana characters, which are usually used for the names of things or people of foreign origin. Because he was then one of the hundreds of unfledged young players, his unique name displayed on the centre field screen prompted a lot of controversy and criticism.
He responded to the criticisms by showing his astounding performance — during this season, he achieved the second-highest batting average in the history of NPB with producing 210 hits, which broke the record then for hits in a single season. Furthermore, not only the batting titles, he also won the Golden Glove award this year, an annual award granted to nine players with the best fielding performance. His exceptional achievements brought much recognition to his unique household name, ‘イチロー’, which, as a result, received ‘Word of the Year Award’ (‘流行語大賞’) at the end of the year.
After making this astonishing debut, Ichiro displayed his unrivalled athleticism every year, winning the highest batting average titles and Golden Glove awards for 7 years in a row since in 1994. With the unprecedented success in Japan, he finally determined to step up to the next stage in his career: he became the first Japanese position player of the Major League Baseball in the United States in 2001.
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 people and Americans, cast doubt on his success; they derided his body as ‘too feeble’ to play among the giant players in MLB, and also belittled the Japanese baseball league as ‘the second or 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 most hits, highest batting average and the most stolen bases 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 this astonishing rookie year, Ichiro had been a perennial presence in MLB All-Star Games, with achieving more than 200 hits and the Golden Glove Award every year from 2001 to 2010. For many baseball fans in Japan, it was a part of their daily lives to be excited at how many hits Ichiro got in a day, and almost all the daily news programs in Japan featured his performance. People in the U.S. also acclaimed the baseball virtuoso for his adept skills, dubbing his bat ‘magic wand’ and his strong throw ‘laser beam’. His Gold Glove fielding led the right field of Safeco Field, the home ground of Seattle Mariners, to be called ‘Area 51’ after his uniform number. Throughout his glorious career in MLB, the most exciting and shining moment came in 2004, when he produced 262 hits and broke George Sisler’s 84-year-old record for hits in a single season — something that people never dreamed possible in the modern baseball era. As a matter of fact, Ichiro is recorded as the only MLB player who played after 1930 and ranked among the top 10 players with the most hits in a season; Ichiro ranked 1st and 10th in 2004 and 2001, respectively.
Unfortunately, his success story was not everlasting. In 2011, people were very shocked to see that Ichiro could not achieve more than 200 hits or 0.300 batting average for the first time in his MLB career. During that time, many people believed that he was secretly injured or just stuck in a one-time slump, hoping he would get back to ‘Ichiro’ next year. In reality, however, we never saw him achieve neither 200 hits nor 0.300 batting average again until he retired in 2019 at the age of 45, which was five years earlier than what he aimed to finish playing at. With all his stoic training, regimen and professionalism, it was inevitable that he lost his power and skills, which once enchanted millions of baseball fans around the globe. His retirement reminded us of the stark reality of life: everything is ephemeral in the world.
In total, he amassed 4367 hits throughout his professional career in Japan (1278 hits for 9 years) and the U.S (3089 hits for 19 years), and that number is registered by the Guinness World Record as the most base hits in professional baseball games in the world. When he broke the record, he said during the interview that he was proud of having achieved what people around him laughed at the improbability of — to become 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 people, and shown us how important and beautiful it is to pursue our goals in our lives. As a baseball fan, I am very delighted that I was able to witness and celebrate a great number of those special moments in Ichiro’s pioneering career. I hope that this post has given you some ideas about how much イチロー (Ichiro) means to us, Japanese people.
(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