- DH, OF, RF, CF
- October 22, 1973
- 5' 11"
- 170 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 4-02-2001 with SEA
- Allstar Selections:
- 2001 GG, 2001 MVP, 2001 ROOK, 2001 SS, 2002 GG, 2003 GG, 2004 GG, 2005 GG, 2006 GG, 2007 AsMVP, 2007 GG, 2007 SS, 2008 GG, 2009 GG, 2009 SS, 2010 GG
One of baseball's finest all-around players since the turn of the century has been Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. A two-time American League batting champion, Suzuki batted over .300 and collected more than 200 hits in each of his first nine seasons, accumulating in the process more base hits than any other player in the history of the game over a comparable time frame. The speedy outfielder also scored more than 100 runs and stole more than 30 bases in each of his first eight years in the league, after excelling in the Japanese professional leagues for nearly a decade.
Born in Kasugai, Japan on October 22, 1973, Ichiro Suzuki began playing baseball at the age of seven. After joining his first little league team, Suzuki asked his father, Nobuyuki Suzuki, to help him become a better player. It was a request the younger Suzuki later regretted at times. While Suzuki's father later claimed, "Baseball was fun for both of us," Ichiro suggested, "It might have been fun for him, but for me it was a lot like Star of the Giants," a popular Japanese animated series about a young baseball prospect's difficult road to success, with rigorous training demanded by the father. The younger Suzuki added, "It bordered on hazing, and I suffered a lot."
Ichiro initially enjoyed learning the game from his father. The two began a daily routine that included throwing 50 pitches, fielding 50 balls in the infield and another 50 in the outfield, and hitting 500 pitches, 250 from a pitching machine and 250 from his father. But Ichiro derived much less pleasure from the sport by the time he turned 12, since the strict workout regimen his father devised for him caused the youngster to dedicate himself to pursuing a career in professional baseball at a relatively early age. In addition to Ichiro's daily training sessions with his father, he built strength and stamina by hurling car tires and hitting Wiffle balls with a heavy shovel. Furthermore, Ichiro's father rarely complimented him since he believed that doing so might weaken his son's resolve. When Ichiro joined his high school baseball team, the elder Suzuki told the coach, "No matter how good Ichiro is, don't ever praise him. We have to make him spiritually strong."
All the training and hard work paid huge dividends for Suzuki during a high school career in which he posted a cumulative .505 batting average. Nevertheless, his small size of only 5'9 ½" and 124 pounds discouraged teams from selecting him prior to the fourth and final round of the professional draft in November of 1991.
Ichiro began his professional career with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan's Pacific League at the age of 18 in 1992. He spent most of his first two seasons in the team's farm system since Blue Wave manager Shozo Doi refused to accept his unorthodox swing, which somewhat resembled the movement of a pendulum. The motion of the lefthanded-hitting Ichiro's front leg tended to shift his weight forward as he swung the bat, thereby going against conventional hitting theory. However, after Akira Ogi took over as Orix manager in 1994, he inserted Suzuki at the top of his batting order and made him the team's everyday rightfielder. Ichiro subsequently rewarded the faith his manager placed in him by winning the league's next seven batting titles, while also capturing three straight Pacific League MVP awards.
Suzuki began using his given name, "Ichiro," instead of his family name on the back of his uniform shortly after he earned a starting spot in the Blue Wave lineup. Since the name of Suzuki is so common in Japan, his manager introduced the idea as a way of creating publicity for the team's rising star. Although Ichiro disliked the practice at first, he eventually learned to embrace it, gaining iconic-like status in his homeland equal to that of a rock star. After Suzuki eventually began playing in the United States, his agent Tony Attanasio noted, "When you mail Ichiro something from the States, you only have to use that name on the address and he gets it (in Japan). He's that big."
A series of exhibition games played against a visiting team of Major League All-Stars at the conclusion of the 1996 campaign sparked in Ichiro an interest to travel to the United States to play in the Major Leagues. Four years later, Japanese baseball's greatest position player was still a year away from becoming a free agent. However, believing they would be unable to sign him at season's end, the Blue Wave allowed Ichiro to negotiate with Major League clubs. The star outfielder used the posting system, enabling the Seattle Mariners to win a bidding war that resulted in Ichiro signing a three-year deal with the team for $14 million. Suzuki ended his nine-year career in Japan with 1,278 hits, a .353 batting average, and seven Gold Glove Awards.
Ichiro continued to excel after he joined the Mariners in 2001, surprising the American public with the depth of his all-around skills. Although Major League scouts fully expected Suzuki to be a solid hitter, they very much underestimated the totality of his ability, in much the same way that the Japanese teams questioned him a decade earlier. Ichiro's slender 5'11", 170-pound frame caused many people in the United States to consider him too frail to succeed against Major League pitching. And his tremendous running speed and powerful throwing arm surprised to some degree even the most knowledgeable American scouts.
Ichiro ended up taking the United States by storm, scoring 127 runs, leading the American League with a .350 batting average, 242 hits, and 56 stolen bases, and helping the Mariners establish a new league record by winning 116 games during the regular season. Ichiro's outstanding performance earned him A.L. MVP and Rookie of the Year honors, and also the first of nine consecutive Gold Gloves.
Suzuki followed his magnificent rookie season with solid years in both 2002 and 2003, posting batting averages of .321 and .312, respectively, and combining for 222 runs scored, 420 hits, and 65 stolen bases. He then had his greatest season in 2004, leading the league with a .372 batting average and 262 hits, breaking in the process George Sisler's 84-year-old major league record for most hits in a season (257 in 1920). On July 28th of that year, Bruce Jenkins wrote a piece in The San Francisco Chronicle in which he discussed Ichiro's all-around greatness as a ballplayer:
"There's nobody like Ichiro in either league – now or ever. He exists strictly within his own world, playing a game 100 percent unfamiliar to everyone else. The game has known plenty of 'slap' hitters, but none who sacrifice so much natural ability for the sake of the art. Maury Wills wasn't going to do anything but hit singles. Matty Alou wasn't a slugger in disguise. Ichiro, a man of wondrous strength, puts on impressive power-hitting displays almost nightly in batting practice. And he'll go deep occasionally in games, looking very much like someone who could do it again, often. Mostly, though, Ichiro is death by handkerchief. In the first inning, with lefty Mark Redman nibbling on the outside corner, Ichiro sliced a ground ball single between third and short. Next time up, with the A's perhaps leaning that way again, he singled through the other side of the diamond. The man lives for hits, little tiny ones, and the glory of standing atop the world in that category. Every spring, scouts or media types write him off, swearing that opposing pitchers have found the key, and they are embarrassingly wrong."
After collecting his record-breaking 258th hit in the season's 159th game, Ichiro displayed his appreciation for the history of the game by visiting briefly in the stands with Francis Sisler Drochelman, the daughter of the former St. Louis Browns first baseman. Five years later, Ichiro visited Sisler's grave while in St. Louis for the annual All-Star Game. He later told reporters, "There's not many chances to come to St. Louis. In 2004, it was the first time I crossed paths with him, and his family generously came all the way to Seattle. Above all, it was a chance. I wanted to do that for a grand upperclassman of the baseball world. I think it's only natural for someone to want to do that, to express my feelings in that way. I'm not sure if he's happy about it."
Ichiro has continued to excel in the six seasons since 2004, batting over .300 each year, compiling more than 200 hits five times, and scoring more than 100 runs and stealing more than 30 bases four times each. He was particularly effective in 2007 and 2009. In the first of those years, Suzuki batted .351, scored 111 runs, and led the league with 238 hits. Two years later, he batted .352 and topped the circuit in hits for the sixth time, amassing a total of 225 safeties during the season. As of this writing, Ichiro is on pace to surpass 200 hits for a record tenth straight season. His 2,175 hits are the most compiled by any player in his first 10 seasons, and his .331 career batting average is the second-highest among active players. In addition to winning a Gold Glove each year, Ichiro has been named to the American League All-Star team each season since he entered the league.
Prior to 2007, the only stumbling block as to whether or not Ichiro eventually gained admittance to the Baseball Hall of Fame appeared to be if he wished to continue playing baseball in the United States once his contract with Seattle expired at the end of the season. However, that obstacle was removed after he signed an extension with the Mariners early in the year.
Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge is one who seems to feel Ichiro deserves to have his name mentioned with the all-time greats. Inge marveled, "I wish you could put a camera at third base to see how he hits the ball and see the way it deceives you. You can call some guys' infield hits cheap, but not his. He has amazing technique."