Here’s to my favorite Yankee — 40 years old and nearly at the end of the line.
What a fabulous career, over 20 years playing at the highest level of pro baseball, always performing with great skill and consistency, both as a hitter (over 3,000 hits, a lifetime batting average over .300) and in the field (winning Gold Gloves for defensive excellence). He is likely a first ballot Hall of Famer a few years hence.
And perhaps just as important has been the way he plays the game — everyone agrees he plays the game right. And his behavior off the field has been without a hint of impropriety, despite enormous media attention.
Who is this paragon of the diamond? Not Derek Jeter!
I’m writing about Jeter’s Yankee teammate, Ichiro Suzuki.
I’m not sure we fully realize how extraordinary Ichiro has been. Before being traded to the Yanks two years ago, he played in Seattle for 11 full seasons, out West in a time zone when games are played while we’re snoozing. Without question, this visitor from Japan is one of the all-time greats in the long history of the game, along with his Yankee teammate at shortstop.
Ichiro is already in Japan’s Hall of Fame, so remarkable was his abbreviated career there in his homeland. In Japan, he amassed 1,278 hits and a .358 career batting average in nine seasons, before leaving for America at age 27. He still holds many Japanese major league records, including most hits in a season, 210 (in a 130 game schedule).
In seven full seasons for the Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro won the batting title in all seven years, the Most Valuable Player award three times, and earned a Golden Glove award for defensive excellence seven times.
As Suzuki is the second most common name in Japan, the Blue Wave decided to capitalize on his immense popularity and stitched just his first name on his uniform jersey, and he became known mononymously as “Ichiro.”
With no more dragons to slay in Japan, Ichiro decided after the 2000 season to bring his talents to America as the first Japanese position player to play in Major League Baseball (the Yanks’ outfielder Hideki Matsui, “Godzilla,” arrived two years later).
His entry into the American majors was attended by considerable fanfare — and some skepticism. Former major league pitcher and radio jock Rob Dibble declared that he would tattoo Ichiro’s name (in Japanese characters) on his butt and run naked through Times Square if Ichiro won the batting title in the MLB in his first year.
May you never have to look at Dibble’s backside, but there is indeed a tattoo there — and the naked run did occur, more or less. The New York police nixed the nudity, so Dibble ran about Times Square in a Victoria’s Secret thong on a cold and wet December night in 2001.
Not only did Ichiro win the batting title with a .350 average and 242 hits, but he started in the All-Star game in July (coming in first in the fan balloting), stole 56 bases to lead the league, won both the league’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, and earned the first of ten consecutive Gold Gloves playing right field for the Mariners.
Fred Lynn of the Red Sox is the only other player to win both the Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season (1975). The Mariners tied the 1906 Cubs for wins in a season in 2001 with 116 (against just 46 losses). That’s an auspicious debut.
In 2004, after two more 200 hit seasons, Ichiro broke George Sisler’s 84 year-old record for most hits in a season with 262, becoming the single-season hit leader in both the U.S. and Japan.
Batting lead-off for the Mariners, Ichiro had ten consecutive seasons with over 200 hits, surpassing Willie Keeler’s major league record of eight straight seasons (1894-1901). If you count Ichiro’s hits in Japan, he has over 4,000 career hits (1,278 in Japan; 2,805 in the MLB), trailing only Pete Rose and Ty Cobb all-time.
He has played with Ripken-like durability, despite his size (5’9”, 160 pounds). From 2001-2012, he played in an average of 157 (of 162) games a year and had over 700 plate appearances in ten seasons: in four of those seasons with the Mariners, he played in every game, and in four other years he took but a single game off the whole year.
His general manager in Seattle, Hall of Famer Pat Gillick, said of Ichiro, “I don’t know that I’ve run into an athlete or a player so committed and passionate about the game as Ichiro. He’s a pure hitter.” Despite being known as a batting technician, “hitting ’em where they ain’t,” like Wee Willie Keeler, Ichiro has hit 35 lead-off home runs.
Prominent sports journalist (Vermont’s own) Buster Olney cited in a 2013 piece the “many talent evaluators” who marveled at Ichiro’s “unique set of skills: the exceptional hand-eye coordination; the superlative speed; the complete devotion to his craft.”
So, as his Yankee teammate, Jeter, takes his victory lap this season, give a tip of the cap to that slender Asian fellow in right field, one of the greatest to ever play this consummate American game.