This year marks the 20th anniversary of Ichiro Suzuki’s debut season in Major League Baseball – a season that would have lasting impact on the game of baseball, the United States, Japan and Ichiro’s legacy.
Tributes have been rolling in for the Japanese hero. The tributes are well deserved as Ichiro’s 2001 campaign was a truly remarkable one, filled with grand achievements. Those included leading Seattle to a division title with an all-time season-wins record of 116, a mark that still stands today.
Ichiro won the American League batting crown that year with a .350 batting average – regardless of defensive alignment spraying hits all over the field, including a record number of infield singles. He was selected as the American League’s most valuable player.
As New York Yankees manager Joe Torre memorably remarked after his team had defeated Seattle in the American League Championship Series: “Ichiro was impossible to defend against. He could hit the ball anywhere. His presence in the leadoff spot was the key to Seattle’s offense.”
One of Ichiro’s most memorable feats was making a laser beam throw from right field to nail Oakland baserunner Terrence Long, who was attempting to reach third base from first base. That feat is now remembered simply as “the Throw.” A Mariners broadcaster famously described it as being like “something out of Star Wars.”
Every game Ichiro played was telecast live nationwide back in Japan on public broadcaster NHK – and was shown on outdoor Jumbotron in cities around the country, drawing large crowds, often early in the morning.
Ichiro’s success also ignited a huge spike in tourism. Flying to Seattle from Japan to watch Ichiro play became the thing to do, a status symbol even. Airline and hotel reservations in the Seattle-Tacoma area rose 20%.
The level of interest on the part of the Japanese press reached insane levels. Post-game reports in the Japanese media highlighted Ichiro’s performance. At times, the coverage did not even include the game results at all, so fixated was everyone on the Japanese hero even down to the tiniest detail.
A writer approached a Mariners coach and startled him by saying “Yesterday Ichiro swung the bat 213 times in practice. Today it is only 196. What is the problem?”
The Mariners gave credentials to a total of 166 reporters from Japan, many of them assigned to follow Ichiro’s every move. Reporters staked out Ichiro’s condo and sifted through his garbage.
When a Japanese pictorial scandal magazine offered $1 million for a photo of Ichiro in the nude, photographers took to hiding out in the bushes surrounding Ichiro’s property. (Ichiro declined an offer from an insouciant fellow Mariner to take a snapshot of him in the altogether and split the money.)
ESPN reporter Jim Caple observed that this was what it would have been like if Princess Di had played baseball.
Ichiro’s pre-game workout, inspired by a martial arts type dedication, was so intense that players from the visiting team would watch it in awe. They had never seen a major leaguer work that hard in before a game. His teammates marveled at the way he treated his bat – like a Shinto treasure – keeping it beside him at a special spot on the bench; storing it in a humidor and placing it in the overhead compartment of an airplane rather than in the baggage compartment on road trips.
Seattle second baseman Brett Boone often made fun of Ichiro for “polishing his glove and making sure it was clean and pristine,” while the infielder tossed his own leather on the dugout steps between innings. “I used to tease him, ‘Who cares if your glove is clean? Mine’s just as good as yours,’” Boone is quoted in a September article by Jake Kring-Schreifels in the Ringer as saying. “He used to tell me, ‘Boone, you do not respect your equipment.’”
In 1995, Hideo Nomo showed Americans that Japanese pitchers were good enough for the MLB when he found a loophole in the rules, went to the USA, signed with the Dodgers and became the starting pitcher in the All-Star game that year, also winning the Rookie of the Year award and starting a craze called “Nomomania.”
But there remained some questions about the skill and durability of Japanese position players. Many thought Ichiro was too frail to effectively compete in MLB.
Ichiro’s success ended that discussion, of course, opening the door for other position players from Japan and helping further deplete an inferiority complex Japanese had long held when it came to sports. By playing every day, he expanded on Hideo Nomo’s contributions to the reputation of the Japanese game.
“These Japanese athletes had taken the Japanese sports inferiority complex – the sense that the Japanese are not physically or experientially ready for world competition – and proved it wrong,” as the writer Midori Masujima has put it. “I believe that these athletes are not just about athletic talent. I believe that they represent a new way of thinking, a new philosophy that has arisen within Japanese society – and that this new philosophy will have a tremendous influence.”
“I think Japan’s athletes can inspire such hope in the Japanese people,” Masujima wrote. “Not only are they standing shoulder to shoulder with their overseas peers, in some cases they are leading the way.”
Ichiro’s success inspired a raft of players to follow, including Hideki Matsui, 2009 World Series MVP, Kosuke Fukudome, Kenji Johjima, Tadahito Iguchi and Shohei Ohtani.
He also inspired a dramatic rise in MLB scouts visiting Japan.
Ichiro went on to have a Hall of Fame career – 10 straight seasons over .300, 10 straight seasons with over 200 hits, with a grand total of over 3,000 career hits. He also led Japan to victory in the first World Baseball Classic in 2006 – and in the second one in 2009, as well, with a memorable 10th inning sayonara single in the final.
Ichiro won’t be eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame until 2025. But for now let’s take the time to remember and celebrate what he did in that fabulous 2001 campaign.
Robert Whiting is the author of The Meaning of Ichiro (2003). His most recent book is Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys … and Baseball.