On this date sixteen years ago, the Mariners signed Nippon Professional Baseball superstar Ichiro Suzuki to a three-year major league contract. It was a historic move at the time, because the then 27-year old outfielder was the first position player signed by an MLB team from Japan. Ichiro’s legacy will forever be much more than that, as his quick rise to international superstardom would pave the way for an influx of talented players from Japan coming to the United States.
Although there had been some notable Japanese players in the majors before him, including Hideo Nomo and Mariners teammate Kazuhiro Sasaki, all had been pitchers. Ichiro brought a different kind of flair to the game and meteorically rose to become one of the best players in the majors, not unlike Nomo did in 1995. But Ichiro was an everyday player, which some would argue put him in the spotlight even more. It didn’t take long for his fame to spread, instantly becoming one of the game’s most beloved players in the United States, and possibly the most widely recognized in the world. He was playing for a Mariners team that would go on to tie a major league record for wins that year, with a lot of that success owed to Ichiro himself. Ichiro became just the second player to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same season, matching the feat achieved by Boston’s Fred Lynn in 1975. Three years later, he would break George Sisler’s long standing record for most hits in a single season.
You might remember that Ichiro set a couple more important milestones last season. On June 15th, he collected his 2,979th MLB hit, which combined with the 1,278 hits he accumulated in Japan, placed him one ahead of Pete Rose’s MLB total. While you can debate the validity of the record, it is an impressive feat nonetheless. Regardless, Ichiro may very well be the better all-around player of the two.
Then on August 7th, he collected his 3,000th big league hit in Colorado, solidifying his place in history as one of the greatest hitters of our generation. He is the only player in major league history to record 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons, which he accomplished in his first 10 MLB seasons (2001-2010). Throughout his career, Ichiro has also been an outstanding contributor on the baserunning and defensive sides of the game as well. He ranks 36th all-time with 508 stolen bases, while sustaining an 81% success rate. His .313 batting average is impressive on its own, but what’s remarkable is when you consider that half of his major league career has been past the age of 35. We can only guess how much better his MLB numbers would look had he started in his early 20s.
Ichiro’s a surefire Hall of Famer but, as mentioned earlier, his impact stretches far beyond his numbers. It’s an obvious challenge to be one of the first few players from your country to play in the major leagues. A different style of play and often a language barrier are some of the chief obstacles. Ichiro’s success has opened the door for many others from Japan and other Asian countries to give the major leagues a try, and many have since succeeded. Teams saw his talent and realized how great the talent pool was in Japan. In addition, Ichiro’s fame and popularity has as much to do with his personality as his baseball ability. While always a flashy player, there is a unique humbleness about the way he has always gone about his business and a deep respect for the game of baseball he possesses.
Never one to boast about his accomplishments, when Ichiro was offered the number 51 by the Mariners upon signing, he initially was reluctant to take Randy Johnson’s old number. He then made a promise to Johnson that he would not bring shame to it. It’s clear now that there is nothing to be ashamed of.