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In the Time of Ichiro

Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki

Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki John Huet

The other, much smaller but still important pool of talent that baseball turned to besides Latin America came from the East – Korea, Taiwan, and especially Japan, where the sport had flourished since the 1930s. By the twenty-first century 10 Japanese pitchers had already played for big-league clubs, some of them, such as the baffling Hideo Nomo, with considerable success. But no Japanese position player had ever appeared in the majors.

Little league Japanese player at bat

Little league Japanese player at bat Aflo

Little League, Japan

Little League, Japan Aflo

Japan would lead with its best, a slender, intense right fielder who would go against the entire grain of what the American game was becoming. Ichiro Suzuki, the son of a factory manager from Aichi, was a throwback, a player who hit with limited power but who slapped base hits to every field, beat out infield grounders, ran down long flies, and threw out anyone who dared to challenge his arm.

Ichiro's father had been so certain that his son would become a great player that he saved the boy's toys, shoes, and even his retainer, for a museum he planned to open one day in his honor. He drilled his son relentlessly for three to four hours a day, 360 days a year, even when freezing temperatures left the boy's hands too numb to grip the bat. "The only way to…succeed," Ichiro's father once said, "is to suffer and persevere."

Ichiro was a natural right-hander but his father taught him to hit exclusively from the left side of the plate so that he could begin each at-bat two steps closer to first base. And under his father's tutelage, he developed an unorthodox stance that put the full weight of his body behind each swing, and which he insisted on retaining as he progressed through every level of the game.

By the time he was 18, Ichiro – simply "Ichiro," as everyone would come to call him – was ready for Japan's Pacific League. By the time he was 20 he had broken the league record for hits, and he would go on to win seven straight batting titles and seven Gold Glove awards, and become the country's highest paid player.

The Seattle Mariners saw an opportunity. The Mariners had a new ballpark but they had lost stars Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, and the brilliant young shortstop Alex Rodriguez to free agency. Nintendo, the Japanese company that had become the club's new owner, hoped that Ichiro might attract a following among Asian-Americans in the Pacific Northwest, and after the 2000 season they paid his Japanese team, the Orix Blue Wave, $13 million for the right to sign him.

They would not be disappointed. In Seattle, Ichiro remained a model of consistency and discipline, taking himself through the same demanding warm-up drill before each game and using breathing techniques to heighten concentration in the batter's box. Yet his reliability and his general excellence extended to every aspect of the game.  In his first month with the Mariners, he cut down a speedy Terrence Long of the Athletics trying to take third base, and his new city fell in love.

"That throw," wrote the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "needs to be framed and hung on the wall at Louvre, next to the Mona Lisa."

Japanese fan watches Ichiro get his 258th hit of the 2004 season, breaking an 84 year old record

Japanese fan watches Ichiro get his 258th hit of the 2004 season, breaking an 84 year old record AP Photo/Junji Kurokawa

The Mariners began to win as almost no team ever had before. By the end of the 2001 season, they had tied the Cubs' 95-year-old record of 116 wins in the regular season. Ichiro led the American League in at-bats, hits, batting average, and stolen bases, and became the first man in 26 years to be voted both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.

Back in Japan, he was a national obsession. Japanese newspapers and television stations sent over a legion of reporters who covered his every move. Mariners games were broadcast twice a day in Japan, and drew more viewers than the country's previous baseball obsession, Tokyo's revered Yomiuri Giants.

"Ichiro," declared Japan's prime minister, "makes me proud to be…Japanese."

It was only the beginning. Ichiro would go on to compile nine consecutive 200-hit seasons, breaking a record set by Wee Willie Keeler back in 1901. In 2004 he collected 262 hits, breaking George Sisler's 1920 mark for most hits in a single season. As they watched these ancient records fall, American teams rushed to sign more of Japan's leading stars, including outfielder Kosuke Fukudome; infielder Kaz Matsui, and pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kazuhiro Sasaki, and Seiko Fukujima. Yet perhaps the greatest tribute to Ichiro was when the great Tokyo Giants centerfielder, Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui signed with the Yankees and turned in an excellent first season in the American League in 2003. Unlike Ichiro, though, Matsui did not win Rookie of the Year honors. The American baseball writers who decided the award felt that if Matsui had been playing in a Japanese league, he was no longer in the minors. Neither flashy nor flamboyant, Matsui would still become a favorite of New York's boisterous fans. In 2009, his last season with the Yankees, he drove in six runs in the final game of the World Series against the Phillies, clinching the championship for his team, and the MVP award for himself.

Doug Glanville discusses the internationalization of baseball

"That's a great thing about globalization, that people can take this thing that you played with and invented and maybe to some degree spoiled with whatever's going on here," pointed out editor Gary Hoenig, "and it can go to an entirely different place and be recreated and re-grown as if it's [a] hybrid flower of some kind and come back and show you the game maybe in a different way and maybe in a way it used to be that you hadn't thought of in a long time."

Yet as often happens with globalization, too, the opening up of another culture, another economy, did not come without a high cost. The exodus of Ichiro and so many other outstanding Japanese players made America's major league more popular than ever on both sides of the Pacific. But it badly destabilized Japan's own leagues, just as the movement of black players into the majors after Jackie Robinson had undermined the old Negro Leagues. How the Japanese leagues could remain viable was an open question, but what was certain was that Asian players had shown they could hold their own and more against the best baseball players in the world.

Excerpt from Baseball: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (with a new chapter by Kevin Baker).

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