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Unorthodox at the plate, unpredictable on the bases, and unsurpassed in the field, Ichiro Suzuki is one of the best all-around players ever to pull on a major league uniform. Japan’s greatest star began his big-league career in 2001 by leading the American League in batting and has never looked back. By the time he joined the New York Yankees in 2012, Ichiro owned some of baseball’s most remarkable records. All that was missing from his résumé was a World Series ring. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Ichiro Suzuki was born on October 22, 1973 in Honshu, an island about 150 miles southwest of Tokyo, Japan. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) If Ichiro didn’t already possess an instinctive love of baseball, his father and mother—Nobuyuki and Yoshie—made sure he developed one. Indeed, they planned for him to become a professional baseball player as soon as he entered the world.

Nobuyuki pushed the hardest. He owned a small cooler repair factory in the town of Toyoyama, but he spent most of his free time watching and studying baseball. His favorite team was the Chunichi Dragons, who played in the nearby city of Nagoya. Ichiro received his first baseball and glove after his third birthday. To this day, he talks about the gifts as though they were treasures.

Ichiro joined Little League when he was 6-years-old, even though he was two years younger than the league’s minimum age. He skirted the rule thanks to his dad, who coached his team. The elder Suzuki signed up his son under an assumed name, and Ichiro was so talented that no one questioned the fact that he was by far the smallest boy in the league.

Nobuyuki tried to give Ichiro every advantage possible on the diamond. That included turning him into a left-handed hitter. Though Ichiro was a natural righty, he learned to bat from the opposite side of the plate to make best use of his speed. Nobuyuki also taught his son the mechanics of pitching and the value of fitness and proper eating habits. Every afternoon until he reached the 7th grade, Ichiro practiced with his father at a nearby field. A typical session included throwing from the pitcher’s mound and a long stretch of batting practice.

They also visited the batting cages together. The fastest machine threw 75 mph. By the time he was 12, Ichiro was setting up several feet in front of the plate to simulate faster pitching—and still getting good cuts. He began to think he might have a future in baseball after watching the star of the local high school team at the cages. He was a good five years older than Ichiro but didn’t seem that much better.

At home, Ichiro was instructed to load up on protein and vitamins. He was not allowed to eat anything until Nobuyuki approved it first. One of his dietary staples was a special muscle-building soup made by his aunt.

By the time Ichiro enrolled in seventh grade, he was the best young player in his area. He had a smooth swing with a big leg kick (borrowed from slugging star Kazunori Shinozuka), and his fastball was clocked at more than 80 mph. More impressive than his physical skills were his mental ones. Thanks to his father, Ichiro really understood the game. At the plate, he could adjust his batting approach to meet the demands of any situation. On the mound, he mastered the art of changing speed and hitting spots, which made his fastball untouchable.

In 1987, Ichiro enrolled at the Nagoya Electric High School. Better known as Aikodai Meiden, it was one of three first-rate schools in the Suzuki’s part of central Japan. Ichiro chose Meiden because it offered him the clearest path to professional baseball. The school’s coach, Go Nakamura, had established a reputation for preparing players for the pros. In all, Meiden had produced eleven Japanese major leaguers.

Nakamura looked past Ichiro’s exaggerated leg kick and saw the makings of a marvelous hitter. He ignored the boy’s small stature and saw a great pitcher. But like every teenager who goes into a big-time baseball program such as Nakamura’s, Ichiro had to fight for playing time—and earn the respect of his teammates. This meant doing the team’s laundry and cooking rice for his hungry teammates. There was so little time left for studying that Ichiro took to washing dirty uniforms in the pre-dawn hours, when everyone at school was asleep and all the machines were empty.

It was an imaginative solution to a problem faced by generations of high-school freshmen. And it was consistent with Ichiro’s approach to all things in life, both on and off the diamond. Japan’s baseball tradition diminishes the role of the individual and elevates the importance of the team, despite the fact that at its core baseball is a highly individual sport. This philosophy keeps the truly talented players from fully expressing their gifts, instead rewarding them for playing the same way as everyone else. Ichiro was taught outside of the sports mainstream, and thus was more like western athletes. If he thought there was a better way to do something, he did it—regardless of what his coaches and teammates thought.

By his sophomore season, Ichiro had established himself as a solid starter. By his senior year he was the best hitter and pitcher on the team. Led by Ichiro, Meiden gained national acclaim, and was invited to play in the Koushien tournament, Japan’s most prestigious amateur baseball event. Ichiro and his teammates acquitted themselves well, beating several larger schools, but lost before reaching the finals. Ichiro says he still regrets that Meiden never won the tournament.


 

 

 

 

 


Ichiro Suzuki, bobblehead doll

     
 

Ichiro graduated from high school in 1991. There was no doubt he was headed for a professional baseball career. Japanese scouts had been watching him for years. But Ichiro was already looking beyond his country’s major leagues. After watching former big leaguers such as Jim Paciorek, Larry Parrish, and Warren Cromartie enjoy productive careers in Japan, it occurred to him that someday he might like to try playing in North America.

ON THE RISE

From a talent standpoint, Ichiro had few peers among Japan’s top teenage players. Yet during the country’s 1991 baseball draft, one team after another passed on him. The reason was his size. Ichiro stood only 5-9 and weighed less than 160 pounds. Finally, the Orix Blue Wave, who played in the port city of Kobe, selected him in the fourth round. This was only the beginning of the disappointment that would mark Ichiro’s early pro career. When he arrived in camp, Orix manager Shozo Doi took one look at his body and waved him into the outfield. His pitching career was over. Once Doi saw Ichiro bat, he banished the youngster to the minors, convinced he would never hit with his unorthodox style.

Ichiro’s first pro season had its ups and downs. He played most of the year for the Blue Wave’s farm club in the Western League. There he encountered a hitting coach named Kenichiro Kawamura. This was, literally, a stroke of luck/ Kawamura knew instantly that with a little fine-tuning the teenager’s swing would work in the majors. Ichiro batted well over .300 all year and gained confidence in his abilities.

Injuries on the big club left Doi little choice but to call Ichiro up during the 1992 season. The Orix skipper played the rookie in 40 games and watched disapprovingly as he batted .253. Ichiro briefly considered changing his methods at the plate to make his manager happy but ultimately decided against it. This was his style, it worked, and he was going to stick with it. Despite limited success with the Blue Wave, Ichiro ended the year as the Western League’s batting champion and MVP. The following spring, Ichiro encountered the same resistance from Doi, who shipped him back to the minors. Recalled again, he produced a meager .188 average in just 64 at-bats.

Ichiro thought all he needed was playing time against top-flight competition. Orix officials agreed, and sent him to Hawaii in the winter of 1993 along with some other Blue Wave prospects to participate in a new league that brought together young players from both American and Japanese baseball. Ichiro played for the Hilo Stars and stung the ball at a .311 clip. The quality of players in the Hawaiian Winter League was high—Jason Giambi, a future American League MVP, won the batting championship. Ichiro’s average was good for fifth; he also finished among the leaders in RBIs. Hilo, meanwhile, won the league title.

Ichiro returned to Japan brimming with confidence but fearful of another conflict with Doi. Imagine his delight upon hearing the news that Doi was being replaced with Akira Ogi. On the first day of camp, the new manager told Ichiro that he was his everyday rightfielder. The 20-year-old responded with a season for the ages. He collected a record 210 hits, captured the batting crown with a .385 average, earned a Gold Glove for his defense, and was named the Pacific League MVP.

Ichiro’s numbers were awesome, but the most remarkable thing about the 1994 season was the way Japan embraced its newest superstar. Ichiro did everything differently than other players. He hit, ran, threw, walked, talked, and warmed up in his own way. In the past, Japanese fans would have found this very distasteful. But the wind was shifting in Japan—young people no longer felt the need to conform—and Ichiro was adopted as a sort of standard bearer for these changing times. The back of his uniform bore his first name instead of his last, making him seem more like a rock star than an athlete. Fans and the press (who are allowed much freer access to athletes in Japan) swarmed around him wherever he went. In one short season, Ichiro had become a bona fide phenomenon.

His star rose even higher the following season, when he led the Blue Wave to the Japan Series. The team’s home city of Kobe had been devastated by an earthquake in January of 1995. Thousands died, thousands more were homeless, and the people were in desperate need of something to cheer about. The players wore patches on their uniforms that read “Gambarou Kobe” (“Let’s Do Our Best for Kobe”), and they played their best baseball in years. Ichiro won the batting title again and was named Pacific League MVP. He also topped the circuit in hits, runs, total bases, on-base percentage, stolen bases and RBIs.

Kobe was transformed during the pennant race; the wave of civic pride that helped ease the after-effects of the earthquake crested as the team made it to the championship series. Unfortunately, the Yakult Swallows, champions of the Central League, were too strong for the Blue Wave, beating them 4 games to 1. However, Ichiro’s brilliant season had elevated him from youth cult status to national treasure. It wasn’t just teenagers who loved him; now it was everyone.

Ichiro won the batting title and MVP again in 1996, as the Blue Wave successfully defended their Pacific League pennant. This time, the team won the Japan Series, defeating the fabled Yomiuri Giants 4 games to 1. The clincher came in Kobe’s Green Stadium. Ichiro was a thorn in the Giants’ side throughout the five games, reaching base seven times and hitting a home run.

Larry Parrish, 1976 Topps
     
 

After the season, Ichiro played for a Japanese all-star team in an exhibition series against a group of touring major leaguers. American players had little respect for the brand of baseball being played in Japan and gave little credence to the possibility of a Japanese position player making it in the majors. That changed when they got a load of Ichiro. Most of the time he looked like the best player on the field—for either side. Catcher Mike Piazza told the local press that Ichiro could easily hold his own in the majors. As a result Ichiro’s status in Japan grew ever larger.

The 1997 season saw Ichiro win a fourth straight batting championship and reach a new personal high with 91 RBIs. During one stretch, he went 216 at-bats without striking out to set a new league mark. That fall, Ichiro again dazzled a team of American stars, stealing bases at will and batting well over .300.

Ichiro’s fame was through the roof. He was the wealthiest and most adored athlete in Japan. His marketing power was incredible. In fact, he canceled a lucrative deal with Nike to market his own line of clothing—and it quickly became the country’s top seller. The downside of fame and fortune, however, was beginning to take its toll. Privacy became a luxury that Ichiro rarely enjoyed. He could not leave his apartment without being followed. He could not eat at a restaurant without a wall of bodyguards between himself and the other diners. He and his girlfriend, television newswoman Yumiko Fukushima, found it impossible to have a normal date. When they decided to marry, they flew to Los Angeles under assumed names and had the ceremony performed there. They were afraid that a wedding in Japan would bring the country to a grinding halt.

Perhaps inevitably, Ichiro’s mind was beginning to wander on the field. He still won the batting championship in 1998 and led the league in hits, but his RBI and stolen base totals plummeted. When the Blue Wave failed to reach the postseason for the second year in a row, Ichiro started thinking more seriously about playing on the other side of the Pacific.

Like all Japanese players, Ichiro was under contract for a minimum of nine seasons. Though his salary was the richest in Japanese history, he was still counting the days when he could test his skills against true major leaguers. The Orix Corporation, the large leasing company that owned the Blue Wave, knew its young star had his heart set on playing in America. They were willing to let him go, as long as they were compensated. In 1999, they set in motion a plan that would make Ichiro and Orix both very wealthy.

That March, the company sent Ichiro and two other players—Nobuyuki Hoshino and Nobuyuki Ebisu—on loan to the Seattle Mariners. Publicly, Orix claimed it was simply a way to foster better relations between American and Japanese baseball. But everyone knew the truth: Ichiro was being marketed to the majors.

Ichiro had a blast during his stay with the Mariners. He learned a lot about life in the big leagues, got along with his teammates (with the help of an interpreter), and gained important insights on how he would have to mold his game to succeed in the majors. Specifically, Ichiro saw that he would have to cut down on his big leg kick; American hurlers were bigger, faster, and could throw more pitches for strikes than their Japanese counterparts. Over the next two years he would gradually shorten his stride.

Ichiro loved the relaxed atmosphere of the Mariners’ clubhouse and was a big fan of American baseball’s shorter practices. He also appreciated the fact that he could walk down the street without someone sticking a camera in his face. Deep down, he was convinced that this was where he belonged. Refreshed and rejuvenated, Ichiro rebounded with an excellent season in 1999. Though a wrist injury cut his year short by five weeks, he clubbed 21 homers and captured his sixth consecutive batting title.

This set the stage for the 2000 campaign. After the season, the team would “post” Ichiro. This meant that other teams would be invited to submit a sealed bid for the right to negotiate with him. The highest bidder would then have 24 hours to reach a contract agreement. Whether Ichiro stayed or left, Orix would keep the posting money, which in his case was likely to run into eight figures.

Ichiro gave Japanese baseball fans a memorable farewell season. He batted over .400 for the first half, until a strained rib cage muscle slowed him the rest of the way. He still ended up with a personal-best .387 average, which was good for a seventh batting championship.

MAKING HIS MARK


Mike Piazza, 1996 Pinnacle
     
 

On November 1, 2000, Orix notified Hiromori Kawashima, the commissioner of Japanese baseball, that it planned to post Ichiro. Kawashima then contacted Bud Selig to let him know that the bidding process would soon begin. Ichiro had hired an American agent, Tony Attanasio, to help with what can be a tricky situation. Attanasio informed interested teams that it would take more than money to sign his client. Ichiro and Yumiko wanted to live in a city with a solid Japanese community and play for a team that had a realistic shot at winning the World Series.

These requirements scared off most major-league organizations, leaving the Mariners, New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Anaheim Angels as the only clubs submitting bids. On November 9, Seattle was declared the winner with a bid of more than $13 million. Ichiro was thrilled. A three-year contract worth more than $14 million (plus an additional $9 million in incentives) was quickly hammered out, and Ichiro and his wife started packing for Seattle.

The couple arrived in December and stayed in a hotel while they got their bearings and looked for a place to live. Ichiro flew down to Arizona in January to get a head start on spring training. An enormous throng of Japanese reporters was already waiting for him.

Ichiro’s principle concern heading into spring training was to get his timing down at the plate. For several weeks, he concentrated on staying on top of the ball and growing accustomed to the different rhythm of American pitchers. Ichiro was not driving the ball but rather grounding it around the infield. Hits were few and far between in the early going, which made the Seattle brass a little nervous. Had the team committed $27 million to sign a slap hitter? Ichiro remained patient and started to round into form. Just when word was spreading among pitchers that the Japanese superstar was a weakling with the bat, he started rocketing line drives all over the place.

Back in Japan, a whole new brand of Ichiro-mania was building. Reports from the various newspaper, magazine, television and radio correspondents stationed in Arizona kept fans updated on every miniscule development. Seattle’s first game of the exhibition season, a charity event against the San Diego Padres, was televised live in Japan at five in the morning—creating a not-so-small army of bleary-eyed factory and office workers that day. For many fans, the 45-plus Mariner games the government planned to air on Japanese television were not enough. Many went to travel agencies for special “Ichiro Trips” to the U.S. cities where he was scheduled to play.

The Mariners opened the season against the Oakland A’s at home in Safeco Field. Seattle had lost its best player, Alex Rodriguez, to free agency, yet there was an air of confidence on the field and in the clubhouse. The Mariners sensed that they had a special player in their midst and could hardly wait to unleash him on the rest of the league.


Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 Upper Deck SP
     
 

The hits kept coming for Ichiro in May. After putting together early-season hitting streaks of 15 and 23 games, he was on pace to challenge the all-time mark of 257 hits, set by Hall of Famer George Sisler in 1920. And the victories kept coming for Seattle; with each win, the all-time record of 116 seemed less far away.

As the All-Star Game approached, Ichiro-mania had swept Seattle. Sushi joints were serving Ichi-rolls, and the seats behind the team’s new star were renamed “Area 51” after his number. That the team gave Ichiro the number that had once been worn by Randy Johnson was no coincidence. Fans were still angry about the trade that sent the Big Unit to the National League in 1998—as well as the subsequent departures of Junior Griffey and A-Rod—so this was a great way to show them that they were bringing in new superstars to “replace” them. Meanwhile, the rest of the country was discovering Ichiro. As All-Star balloting drew to a close, he was announced as the league’s top vote-getter. Ichiro was the first rookie outfielder since Tony Oliva in 1964 to crack the AL’s starting lineup. Ichiro got a hit in the All-Star Game, which was played in Seattle. Ironically, it came against Randy Johnson.

As the Mariners embarked upon the second half of the season, manager Lou Piniella began to rest his key players. Ichiro had not had a day off, so when his average began to slip in July, he was given a breather. Revitalized, Ichiro went on a 21-game hitting streak that lifted his average into the .350s.

Ichiro was having a great time. He was playing well, the team was winning, and he adored Seattle. The only problem was an old and familiar one: The Japanese media was getting out of control. Despite warnings from the team, they were hounding Ichiro all over the place. One magazine offered $2 million for a picture of him naked, so he could no longer dress with the other players in the locker room. Ichiro and Kaz Sasaki decided they would boycott the Japanese reporters. Without quotes from their two headline-makers, they suddenly realized their jobs might be in jeopardy, and things calmed down considerably.

Seattle ended the regular season with a record of 116-46 and won the division by 14 games. Although several Mariners had MVP-caliber seasons, Ichiro was unquestionably the engine that pulled the train. His stats were eye-popping. He won his eighth batting championship in eight years, led the majors with 75 multi-hit games and 56 steals, and had the highest average in baseball both with runners in scoring position (.445) and the bases loaded (.545). He obliterated the all-time record for hits by a rookie (242), and broke the AL mark for singles (192).

The perfect ending to this record-smashing season would have been a World Series ring. But baseball rarely works that way. The Mariners ran into trouble in the playoffs, first against the Indians and then against the Yankees. Seattle split the opening games of its Division Series with Cleveland, and then got torched in Game 3 by a score of 17-2. One loss away from elimination, the team pulled together and tied the series on a clutch, bases-loaded single by Ichiro in the seventh inning of Game 4. The Mariners pulled out Game 5, 3-1, to move on to the American League Championship Series. Ichiro, who banged out 12 hits, got his name in the books again with a record .600 average.

Seattle’s struggles continued, however, against pitching-rich New York in the ALCS. The Mariners dropped the first two games at home, then went to Yankee Stadium needing at least two wins to stay alive. They nearly evened the series, but the more experienced Yankees were just too tough, and Seattle went down in five games.

After the season came a cascade of honors and awards for Ichiro. He won a Gold Glove (he made just one error all year), took Rookie of the Year honors, and edged his old Hawaiian League foe, Jason Giambi, for the American League’s Most Valuable Player award.

On paper, Ichiro’s rookie year ranked among the greatest ever. The reality of it was arguably far more impressive. Ichiro wasn’t just learning a new league. He had to acclimate himself to an entirely new game, new culture, and new language. As always, he had confidence that his way was the right way, even when most baseball people (including for a time his own manager!) thought he would be a mere shadow of what he had been in Japan.


George Sisler, 1920sst
     
 

As expected, the fanfare and media crush surrounding Ichiro died down somewhat in 2002. This seemed to be just fine with the Japanese star, who picked up right where he left off. At the All-Star break, Ichiro was leading the AL in hitting with a .358 average. With a winter of video under their belts, opposing pitchers had adjusted their approach to Ichiro, but he in turn had adjusted to them. He was far more selective in 2002, drawing as many walks by late July as he had during his rookie campaign, and his on-base percentage was up significantly. His average continued to climb, at one point approaching the .400 mark.

Meanwhile, the first-place Mariners seemed ready for a big stretch run. The team looked similar to the squad that ran away with the AL West in 2001. Garcia and Moyer remained the aces of the starting staff, Sasaki anchored the bullpen, and Olerud, Boone, and Cameron comprised the heart of the batting order. Of the new faces in Seattle, Jeff Cirillo, Ruben Sierra, and Desi Relaford were the most prominent additions.

The final two months of 2002 did not play out as planned, however. Once again, Ichiro seemed to tire in August, but unlike the year before, he was unable to snap back into form and endured his first prolonged slump in the majors. Enemy hurlers began running fastballs in on his hands, taking away his ability to serve the ball to leftfield. There were a lot of lazy flies to right in August and September, and not enough grounders in the hole between short and third.

With fewer opportunities to run the bases, Ichiro’s production sagged. So too did the Mariners’ fortunes. The team lost its lead in the AL West, and Seattle fans watched in dismay as the A’s and Angels knocked them out of the playoff hunt.

Ichiro’s late-season woes were not immediately evident in his numbers. Even when he was dragging, he was still a terrific player, ending the year with a .321 batting average, 208 hits, 111 runs scored, and 31 steals. All, however, were below his rookie numbers. The silver lining was that Ichiro’s 68 walks more than doubled his 2001 total. He also played in 157 games—proving his durability over a long season.

The 2003 campaign was pretty much a mirror image for Ichiro and the Mariners. He started the year in a slump but picked up the pace come May. Over the next three months, Ichiro batted better than .370, scored 62 runs and stole 21 bases.

Not coincidentally, Seattle played its best baseball of the year during this stretch. Boone was putting up MVP-type numbers, while Randy Wynn, one of the new faces on the team, injected more speed into the lineup. The former Tampa Bay outfielder came over to the Mariners as part of an offseason deal that saw Piniella leave to run the Devil Rays. Bob Melvin was hired to replace him and seemed to push all the right buttons. He also got great efforts from Moyer and youngsters Gil Meche, Ryan Franklin and Joel Piniero.


AL Leaders, 2002 Upper Deck Vintage
     
 

But come August, after spending half the season atop the AL West, Seattle collapsed. Part of the problem was an injury to Sasaki that threw the bullpen into disarray. But a sluggish finish from Ichiro also contributed to the team’s woes. The Mariners dropped to second behind the A’s, then fell from the Wild Card race. Just as in 2002, Ichiro’s final stats—including a .312 batting average, 111 runs, eight triples and 34 steals—looked good on the surface. But his inability to sustain his scorching mid-summer tear raised some new questions about him.

Ichiro altered his approach in 2004. He knew enough about the U.S. game to see where he could be most productive, and had learned enough about himself as a major leaguer to pace himself through the 162-game schedule. The compromise Ichiro made was to concentrate on hitting hard grounders and serving up soft liners, while taking big cuts only in certain situations. This meant sacrificing his extra-base hit production, but it would leave him fresher when the dog days arrived.

Unfortunately for the Mariners, the dog days started before the All-Star break. Newcomers Scott Spiezio and Rich Aurilia did not contribute as hoped, and reliable veterans like Boone, Olerud and Edgar Martinez got off to sluggish starts. Without run support, Moyer, Garcia and Pineiro had trouble racking up victories, and the bullpen—now led by free agent Eddie Guardado—rarely got to do the job it was paid for. Meanwhile, the Angels, Rangers and A’s were all playing winning baseball, leaving little for the Mariners to do but win back a little lost respect.

Early in the year, Ichiro seemed to be having another typical season. He started slowly but caught fire in May, recording a 50-hit month to bring his average up into the mid .300s. The hits continued to come in bunches during July and August, with a couple of five-hit games. Hitting close to .500 in the second half and rarely walking, Ichiro began to close in on a record that had heretofore been considered unassailable: George Sisler’s 257 hits. He had made a run at the record as a rookie, but fell well short. This time, however, it seemed less likely Ichiro would wear down in September. He was feeling strong and was still locked in at the plate.

Obviously pleased that he wasn’t fading down the stretch, Ichiro actually loosened up in the clubhouse and truly seemed to be enjoying the game. He kept rolling singles through the infield, beating out choppers, and dumping hits in front of the outfielders, and as play entered the final week he passed the 250-hit mark.


Ichiro Suzuki, 2003 Topps
     
 

As is typically the case when a time-honored record falls, the critics started coming out of the woodwork. Ichiro’s detractors pointed to several instances when he laid down bunts in inappropriate game situations, and swung at pitches that would have been ball four—all presumably in his quest to surpass Sisler.

The debate was still raging when he passed Sisler on the final Friday of the season against the Rangers in Seattle. With Sisler’s daughter, Frances. and other family members in attendance, Ichiro chopped a first-inning single over Hank Blalock’s head for hit number 257. In the third inning, he grounded a ball up the middle against Ryan Drese for number 258. Ichiro added a third hit later in the game. He finished the season with 260 hits—including a record 223 singles—and won his second batting title with a .371 average.

In 2005, Ichiro found himself playing for new manager Mike Hargrove, a man who had once predicted he would be no better than fourth outfielder in the majors. Ichiro put together another fine season, reaching 1,000 career hits faster than anyone in history. He led the Mariners with 206 hits, 111 runs, a dozen triples and 33 stolen bases. His .303 average was tops among the regulars. The Mariners improved slightly, from 63 wins to 69, but newcomer Adrian Beltre failed to provide the big bat they needed in the middle of the lineup. The one bright spot was the emergence of teenager Felix Hernandez.

This group returned in 2007 and along with newcomer Jose Guillen to power the club to its first winning record in four years. Ichiro collected an AL-best 232 hits and batted .351 to finish second to Magglio Ordonez by 12 points. In the All-Star Game that summer, Ichiro became the first player to hit an inside-the-park homer in the Mid-Summer Classic. He was named MVP after going 3-for-3 in the AL’s 5–4 victory. A few weeks later, Ichiro signed a five-year contract extension, avoiding free agency.

The M’s went on to win 88 games in ’07, finishing six back of the Angels in the AL West and six behind the Yankees for the Wild Card. Midway through the season, Hargrove surprised everyone by announcing his retirement. The team was 45–33 when he left and played slightly better than .500 ball the rest of the way, under John McLaren. The Mariners actually were within a game of the Angels in August, but their season slipped away after they lost 15 of 17 games.

Unfortunately for Seattle fans, the wheels came completely off in 2008. The Mariners lost 101 games. Ichiro played up to his usual level, leading the league in hits again and collecting the 3,000th hit of his pro career. But with the exception of second baseman Jose Lopez, the entire team fell short of expectations. In 2009, new manager Don Wakamatsu brought a new attitude to Seattle, and the players agreed to wipe the slate clean. The Mariners rebounded to win 85 games, but they finished third in the AL West. Ichiro batted .352, finishing second in the batting race to Joe Mauer.


Adrian Beltre,
Black Book Partners archives
     
 

Ichiro was 36 when he began the 2010 campaign. He led the league in hits for the seventh time, and for the 10th straight season won a Gold Glove and was named an All-Star. However, those who had watched him over the past decade sensed his skills beginning to erode ever so slightly. The Mariners backslid to 101 losses, leading many fans to wonder whether their star outfielder would ever get a second shot at postseason play.

That would definitely not be the case in 2011, when Ichiro’s average dipped below .300 for the first time and he was left off the All-Star squad. Of his 184 his, only 40 went for extra bases. That being said, he was by far the most productive hitter on the team. Seattle nearly lost 100 games again, finishing with just 67 wins.

Ichiro continued his offensive decline in 2012 as the M’s languished in last place. With the team getting younger, suddenly Ichiro was seen as someone who might be blocking minor league talent. Understanding the situation, Ichiro approached Seattle ownership and let them know he would be amenable to a trade. This took a lot of heat off the Mariners, who would have been crucified by the fans if they were viewed as having dumped their most popular player.

With the Yankees in town for a July 23rd game, the two clubs got together and made the deal. Seattle received a pair of pitching prospects, DJ Mitchell and Danny Farquahar, and Ichiro donned a #31 New York jersey. As a Yankee, Ichiro was expected to supply the speed and outfield defense that injured Brett Gardner did in past seasons. He began his Yankee career batting eighth and playing left field, but the team soon moved him to right field and batted him all over the lineup.

Ichiro had a nice August and then heated up in September, batting .385 with nine steals. He helped the Yankees get into the playoffs, where they faced the Baltimore Orioles in the first round. With most of the lineup struggling—including Robinson Cano, who battedjust .091—Ichiro picked up several key hits as New York won in five games. In the decisive contest, he doubled home a run in a 3-1 victory. The ALCS agasint the Tigers turned out to be a disaster for the Yanks, who couldn’t muster any offense and were swept in four straight. Ichiro was the lone bright spot, hitting .353 with a homer.

The 2013 campaign was more notable for what happened off the field for the Yankees. Jeter was on the shelf as he recovered from an ankle injury suffered in the playoffs. Meanwhile, A-Rod became the focus on an MLB investigation into the Biogenesis Clinic in Florida that was accused of distributing performance enhancing drugs. Injuries to Curtis Granderson adn Mark Teixeira further complicated the situation for manager Joe Girardi. Still, New York found a winning formula and stayed in the playoff hunt.

Ichiro was one of several veterans who gave the Yanks leadership and clutch hitting. He was no longer the player who threatened to win a batting title, but his presence in the lineup was crucial to a team trying to keep its head above water. As the stretch run began, Ichiiro was hitting a respectable .270 with 18 steals. The biggest moment of the season came in late August in Toronto. In his first at-bat against the Blue Jays, Ichrio picked up career hit #4,000. In the annals of MLB history, only Ty Cobb and Pete Rose had reached this plateau. Granted, more than 1,200 of those knocks were collected overseas, but that did little to diminish the accomplishment.

With the book closed on his Seattle career, Ichiro’s final numbers as a Mariner are easily worth of the Hall of Fame: 1,844 games, 2,533 hits, 1,176 runs, 438 steals and a .322 average. He won 10 Gold Gloves, made 10 All-Star teams, and finished among the Top 10 in MVP voting four times. Barring injury, Ichiro will return to the postseason for the first time since the 2001 season. Not that he has anything left to prove, but as a member of the Yankee juggernaut, he may just walk away from baseball with that long-coveted championship ring.

ICHIRO THE PLAYER

Ichiro’s quirky hitting style enables him to time and adjust to almost any pitcher, get good hard swings, and spray hits from line to line. An excellent situational hitter, Ichiro has the power turn on a pitch and drive it into the seats. More often, he picks a hole and laces the ball through it. His bunting ability forces infielders to play closer, which means he can dump hits into shallow left.


Ichiro Suzuki,
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While other hitters adjust from game to game, Ichiro adjusts from pitch to pitch. Depending on the pitcher, the pitch, and the game situation, Ichiro can employ one of five distinct swings. He is particularly adept at banging fastballs into the turf with a swing that has him leaning toward first. On these strokes, he can make it down the line in 3.7 seconds, forcing infielders to make perfect plays.

Ichiro’s baserunning has often been as potent a weapon as his hitting. On the basepaths, Ichiro is quick and daring. Although he has lost some speed in his 30s, he is still a threat to steal on any pitch. This puts catchers under intense pressure, which sometimes leads to their calling for fastballs when off-speed pitches are in order. Obviously this benefits teammates hitting behind Ichiro in the lineup.

Ichiro’s defense is absolutely sensational. His arm is strong and accurate. He made a couple of highlight-reel throws to third early in his rookie season, and after that enemy runners stopped challenging his arm. Ichiro gets as good a jump on fly balls as anyone in the league, and never seems to take a bad angle. On short hits he charges the ball aggressively and always comes up ready to throw.

An overlooked part of Ichiro’s game is the impact he has on teammates. Early in his career, he only had to lead by example—and what an example he set through his work ethic and performance. Ichiro is now seen as a wise, old veteran. He always approached the game from a philosophical standpoint. But his Zen-like qualities have earned him even more respect as he has gotten older. That’s a bit easier to do when you’ve cemented your name as one the sports all-time greats.


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