Ichiro: No need for last names or subtitles, Part 1

“I’m told I either look bigger than I do on television or that I look smaller than I look on television. No one seems to think I look the same size.” —Ichiro Suzuki, 2001

Ichiro digs into the batter’s box and prepares himself. He circles his bat and arms counter-clockwise across his body and over his head, ending with his right arm held aloft and his bat perpendicular to the ground. He has gone through these motions countless times before—the exact same routine in the exact same way. But this time the feeling in the stadium is slightly different. As he tugs on the right shoulder of his jersey the crowd starts to cheer in anticipation. There’s an electricity in the air. It’s the feeling of tens of thousands of people all wanting to see history. Ichiro is part of that multitude yet also apart from it. He has been in this position many times over. He has made history so many times before that milestones for him are now almost commonplace. He is cool, composed, relaxed and ready.

But for the fans watching, waiting and hoping to see something special, they are holding their breath with every pitch.

Over the last few seasons it seems like people have forgotten just how special a player Ichiro really is. True, he’s not as fast as he once was, his hair has greyed and his face has a few more wrinkles, but even now, at 42, there’s still a smoothness to his game—a precision—that attests to his innate skill and ability.

The catcher behind the plate bends into his crouch and Ichiro gets set into his stance. His only movement is the slight swirl of his elbows as he waggles the bat behind his head.

The start to Ichiro’s professional career was not particularly auspicious. In part due to his small size he was not drafted until the final round of the 1991 Nippon Professional Baseball draft by the Orix BlueWave. For the next two seasons he bounced between the minors and NPB before finally settling in as a starter in 1994. That year he made his first of seven all-star teams and won his first of seven Best Nine awards, first of seven Gold Gloves, first of seven batting titles, first of three Pacific League MVPs and his first of three Japanese Sportsman of the Year awards. He later added to his honours by winning the Japan Series title in 1996.

Chris Rusin, the Colorado Rockies lefty pitcher, waits for his batterymate to set his glove. He’s ready to duel the great Ichiro.

After the 2000 season Ichiro was sold to the Seattle Mariners for $13 million and would be- come the first Japanese position player in the major leagues. Despite the success of Japanese pitchers such as Hideo Nomo and Kazuhiro Sasaki, many writers, commentators and baseball executives were skeptical that a Japanese position player could make an impact at the major league level. They believed that Japanese players wouldn’t have the power needed to compete in the major leagues and that major league pitching would eat them alive.

The crowd quiets just a little. They hope to see history made but it’s not a sure thing. Ichiro has been struggling these last few weeks and is 0–3 tonight. Might the wait for his 3,000th hit stretch into another night, another game?

For this story, at least, the wait will stretch into next issue. Join us next month for Part 2 of “Ichiro: No need for last names or subtitles” where we once again unpack the man, the myth and the living legend that is Ichiro.

Interesting Ichiro

  • Ichiro’s nickname is “The Wizard.”
  • When given the number 51 by the Mariners, Ichiro called the player who formerly had that number, Randy Johnson, and promised that he would not “bring shame” to the uniform.
  • The character “Kyoshiro” in the Japanese manga Major is based on his likeness.
  • Once, to sneak out of his house past reporters and photographers to meet a date, Ichiro had friends roll him in a carpet and put it in the back of a pickup truck before being driven away.
  • He was the star of a Japanese showcalled Ichiro Versus where Ichiro and a celebrity guest were given a word or phrase and had to say the first thing that popped into their heads.
  • Before every all-star game Ichiro would go on a profanity-filled rant/speech/stand- up comedy routine that would leave his teammates in stitches. David Ortiz credits the speeches with why the American League won the all-star game every year between 2003 and 2009.

D’arcy Mulligan has written about video games for gaming websites, sports for his blog, and cats anywhere and everywhere he can. He once spent his entire life’s savings on beer at the ball game. It was a very good pint.