Across the Seams: Long Live Baseball’s True Hit King
I debated if I was going to write this. Not because I wasn’t sure if it was relevant, or because I didn’t want to, but because I thought I might get carried away. I can see myself writing over 10,000 words, forgetting to watch my beloved Zags win their NCAA tournament game, and—realistically—missing my entire bachelor party this weekend because I’m frantically typing an ode to one of the most legendary, unforgettable baseball players of all time over a keyboard covered in tears—both happy and sad.
But, here I am, getting started on it anyway knowing that I may have to finish it in the car on the way to my party, which, if a bachelor party is about doing what makes me the happiest, feels perfectly fitting.
Ichiro Suzuki spent his final two games donning a Seattle Mariners jersey, playing in right field in front of a frenzied crowd in his home country of Japan. The pitcher for the Mariners was 27-year-old Japanese sensation Yusei Kikuchi, who was just nine years old when Ichiro debuted in the Major Leagues and wasn’t even one when 18-year-old Ichiro was getting started with the Orix Blue Wave in the Japanese Pacific League in 1992.
Across Kikuchi’s lifespan, Ichiro compiled a staggering 4,280 hits—24 more than the legendary Pete Rose—making Ichiro the true hit king of America’s (and now, because of him, the world’s) pastime.
But Ichiro’s influence ranged far, far beyond his ability to poke the ball anywhere to get a hit. He was proof that position players could succeed across the Pacific Ocean, showing every little baseball-bat-wielding kid from Tokyo to Hiroshima that they too could come to New York or Los Angeles (or Seattle) and become a superstar. These kids didn’t look up to players like Albert Pujols or Ken Griffey Jr.; they had their own idol now: a small, speedy man with a poised demeanor, a unique batting stance, a fun-to-watch stretching routine in the outfield, and the right arm of a Greek (or Japanese?) god. Former Oakland Athletics outfielder Terrence Long discovered this fact just a few weeks into Ichiro’s MLB career, when Ichiro gunned down Long at third base with a throw so beautiful that the video of it, along with the call by legendary broadcaster Dave Niehaus, could have won an Oscar.
Ichiro paved the way for more players than we will ever know and his influence will be felt for generations after his career ends. Hideki Matsui was perhaps the next most notable Japanese superstar, but players like So Taguchi, Akinori Iwamura, Nori Aoki, and Munenori Kawasaki all made their big-league dreams a reality thanks to Ichiro’s journey. That’s just the position players; there were numerous pitchers who came over as well. While it is probably fair to attribute their success to Hideo Nomo, many of the new Japanese arms, including Hisashi Iwakuma, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and of course Shohei Ohtani, have mentioned Ichiro as a major influence on their journey to the big leagues.
Growing up in Oregon, I rooted for the Detroit Tigers simply because my Dad was from there. But the only games we got on TV were Mariners games and it was hard not to fall in love with Ichiro. The first big-league game I ever went to was during that magical 2001 season. Although the Mariners won 10-1 on home runs from Mike Cameron and Bret Boone, I was captivated watching Ichiro in the outfield.
That season, one could argue, is one of the most important single seasons in baseball history. So few believed that Ichiro’s skills would translate the way that they did. Rob Dibble, then a prominent commentator on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, said he’d run naked through Times Square if Ichiro won the batting title—believing that the talent gap between Japanese and MLB pitching was so dramatic that Ichiro wouldn’t succeed. Ichiro hit .350 and won the batting title, leading a defeated Dibble to run through the streets of New York in nothing but a thong and a fresh tattoo of Ichiro’s name in Japanese. Ichiro was the Rookie of the Year and the MVP, beginning his unprecedented run among baseball’s elite.
Ichiro made ten straight All-Star games, won ten straight Gold Gloves, three Silver Slugger awards, and two batting titles: one of which rewarded his blistering .372 average in 2004. That season, he recorded 262 hits, an MLB record that may never be broken.
The memories of Ichiro are nearly impossible to summarize. The throw to nab Long is near the top of many lists, as is his inside-the-park home run in the 2007 All-Star game, and of course his Spiderman catch, where he jumped onto the wall, held himself there, and hauled in the catch from well over the wall. There’s also the walk-off home run off Mariano Rivera, the time he beat Randy Johnson to first base in his first All-Star game, and all of his iconic hits: the one that broke the single-season hit record, number 3,000, and number 4,257 to pass Rose as the all-time hit king.
Ichiro will be missed by a baseball community that is desperate for a marketable, era-definining superstar. Mike Trout is the kind of talent this sport needs, but perhaps Shohei Ohtani, once he is healthy enough to take the mound, will become the new face of the MLB thanks to his personality and extremely rare abilities in both pitching and hitting.
If he does, it won’t be any secret whose influence helped get him there.
(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)