Ichiro Suzuki was one of the most talented international baseball players to ever play in the Major Leagues. By the time he got to the United States in 2001, he was already one of the best players in the Japanese league Nippon Professional Baseball. Yet there were still questions on whether or not he would succeed in MLB due to his small size and the length of the MLB season. He quickly put those questions to rest as he went on to become only the second player in MLB history to earn the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the same season. He would go on to set records for most hits in a single season as well as consecutive 200-hit seasons. Despite playing nine seasons in Nippon before coming to MLB, he still managed to accumulate over 3,000 hits and a career MLB batting average of .311. His combined NPB and MLB stats make him number one in all-time career hits with over 4,300. He is already in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and will be eligible for the MLB Hall of Fame in 2025, and should be elected nearly unanimously.
Ichiro Suzuki grew up in Toyoyama, a city just outside of Nagoya, Japan’s third-largest city. When he was seven years old, Ichiro began playing baseball. In order to improve, he asked for his father’s help. They developed a workout routine that included throwing 50 pitches, taking 50 outfield fly balls, 50 infield ground balls, and 500 swings, 250 from a pitching machine and 250 from his father. By the time he was 12 years old, Ichiro had dedicated himself to becoming a professional baseball player and looked at his workouts as serious training and not just a game.
Nippon Professional Baseball
Ichiro made it to the pros in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball at age 18. At just 5’9” and 124lbs, some critics said that he was too small to be a professional athlete. His unorthodox hitting style also brought criticism. He made his NPB debut for the Orix Blue Wave in 1992, and although he had some success, spent the better part of his first two seasons in the minor leagues. Then, in 1994 the Orix Blue Wave hired a new manager who allowed Ichiro to play every day. He started off batting second but quickly moved up to leadoff to utilize his speed. Ichiro finished the 1994 season with a league-best .385 batting average and won his first of three consecutive MVP awards. In 1995 he led the Blue Wave to their first Pacific League pennant and in 1996 they beat the Central League champ Yomiuri Giants to win the Japan Series, the equivalent to the World Series in MLB. In 1996 Ichiro also won his third straight MVP award.
By 2000 Ichio was one year away from being eligible to play in the Major Leagues and used the posting system where MLB teams bid for the right to negotiate with foreign players. The Seattle Mariners bid $13 million and won the rights to sign Ichiro. He went on to sign a three-year, $14 million contract to play for Seattle and fulfill his dream of playing in the Major Leagues.
Major League Baseball
What a season 2001 was for Ichiro, the Seattle Mariners, and all of baseball. Ichiro played his rookie season as the starting right fielder and leadoff hitter for the Seattle Mariners. Despite his amazing NPB career that spanned nine seasons and included back-to-back-to-back MVP seasons, there was still question as to whether or not he could compete for the full 162 games MLB season (NPB was 130 games at that time.) His size and unique swing were also questioned. But he put all doubts to rest during his rookie campaign, finishing the year with 242 hits and a .350 batting average, both all-time records for a player’s first MLB season. His Mariners went on to win 116 games, which was an American League record and tied the 1906 Chicago Cubs for most all-time. The Mariners fell short of their ultimate goal, however, being trounced in the American League Championship Series by the New York Yankees, playing inspired baseball just months after September 11th, 2001. The Yankees ended up falling in seven games to the Diamondbacks on Luis Gonalez’s series-winning walk-off base hit, only the tenth series-winning walk-off in baseball history. For his amazing rookie season, Ichiro was named the American League Rookie of the Year as well as the league’s MVP, a feat that has only been done once before in baseball history.
Ichiro would go on to collect over 200 hits in a season for ten straight seasons, a major league record. In 2004 Ichiro knocked a record 262 base hits in a single season, breaking George Sisler’s record of 257 that had stood since 1920. Ichiro would end up playing 19 seasons in the major leagues, amazing longevity for any player. When you consider that he played nine seasons of professional ball before that and didn’t reach MLB until his age 27 season, his longevity is remarkable. Ichiro played 14 of his 19 MLB seasons with the Seattle Mariners and split time into the other six seasons between the New York Yankees and the Miami Marlins.
In his 19 year MLB career, Ichiro led the league in hits seven times. Although he only led the league in batting average twice, he batted over .300 11 times, including 10 years in a row to start his career. Ichiro was selected to the All-Star team 10 times, as well as won 10 Gold Glove Awards for outstanding defense in the outfield. Although not a home run hitter, he also won three Silver Slugger Awards during his career. He finished his career with over 500 MLB stolen bases.
There has never been a player in baseball history to perform at an elite level in two different professional leagues for as long as Ichiro did. He played his first professional baseball game at age 18 and his last professional game at age 45. It’s unlikely that we will ever see a better professional hitter than Ichiro Suzuki.
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