On October 1, 2004, Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki (b. 1973) hits three singles to break an 84-year-old major league record and electrify a packed house at Safeco Field. That night he tops by two the 257 hits made by George Sisler (1893-1973) in 1920. Ichiro -- as he prefers to be called and is widely known -- goes on to finish the season with 262 hits. His record is hailed as the greatest individual achievement in Mariners history.
An Elite Import
When he joined the Mariners in 2001, Ichiro was the first Japanese baseball player other than pitchers to make the U.S. major leagues. He had won seven consecutive batting championships as a member of the Orix Blue Wave and was a national celebrity in Japan.
In the spring of 1998, Jim Colborn (b. 1946), a former Orix coach who was the Mariners’ director of Pacific Rim scouting, flew him to Seattle to see the Kingdome, where the Mariners played, and then to their Arizona spring training complex, where he worked out with the team. Ichiro realized he could compete on a major league level and simultaneously escape the constant hounding by fans and media that came with his rock-star status in Japan. After his 2000 season, he declared his eligibility for U.S. teams. The Mariners paid Orix $13 million for the right to negotiate with him. Ichiro was eager, but didn’t come cheap. The Mariners signed him to a three-year contract for $14 million plus incentives worth an additional $5 million. That put the total price, including Orix’s fee, at $32 million -- a hefty sum considering his pioneer status.
One hundred Japanese media members followed Ichiro to Mariners spring training, documenting his every move. It was quickly apparent that he was a rare talent and a marketing boon on both sides of the Pacific. Before he played a game, his photo graced the cover of the Mariners Team Store brochure, which promoted M’s merchandise in Japanese as well as English. Japanese television broadcaster NHK announced it would show all 81 Mariners home games in high-definition television. Fans from Japan flocked to Seattle, planning vacations around Mariners games.
Ichiro did not disappoint. Installed as the Mariners’ lead-off hitter and right fielder from Day One, he had an instant impact. He batted .336 in his first month, helping the Mariners win 20 games, the most ever by any team in April. The superstars that powered the Mariners in the mid- to late-1990s were gone, but the 2001 squad made up for lack of muscle with timely hits and kept winning at an unprecedented rate. Ichiro, a slender 5-foot-9 jitterbug, was setting the pace.
A Unique Talent
His speed rattled opposing infielders. He was so fast that even routine ground balls were potential base hits. And once on base, he was a threat to steal the next base, which tended to distract the pitcher. His speed also allowed him to cover great distances in the field. Any questions about his arm strength were answered early in the season, when an Oakland base runner tried to advance from first base to third on a single to right field. Ichiro’s throw arrived like a laser beam, easily beating the runner and causing wide eyes among both players and spectators. Opponents were reluctant to test his arm again.
His control of the bat was even more extraordinary. He could hit the ball out of the park during batting practice, but in games often went for a surer thing -- slapping singles into gaps between fielders. As Mariners manager Lou Piniella said, "He doesn’t hit. He serves, like a tennis player" (Thiel, 213).
Hitting and defense aside, Ichiro had a certain mystique. Besides speaking to the media only through an interpreter, he often gave cryptic, almost Zen-like answers. He seemed imperturbable on the field, rarely showing emotion. He also had unique, unwavering rituals. Waiting in the on-deck circle for his turn to hit, he went into a deep squat and twisted side to side. Once in the batter’s box, before each pitch, he planted his feet and slowly raised his black bat, holding it high and perpendicular to the ground with his right hand as if he were aiming through it at the pitcher, then tugged at his right sleeve before taking his stance. Off the field, he dressed modishly, wore expensive sunglasses, listened to hip-hop music, and seemed the embodiment of cool.
His popularity skyrocketed. In four months, he went from virtual unknown among American baseball followers to No. 1 in fan balloting to pick players for the All-Star Game. He got 3.4 million votes.
Breaking the Record
Ichiro’s first season was an astounding success. While the Mariners were winning a record 116 games, he led the major leagues in both hitting (with a .350 average) and stolen bases (56). The only player to do that in the previous 50 years was the legendary Jackie Robinson (1919-1972). Ichiro’s dazzling debut earned him awards as both American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.
By 2004, the Mariners were a struggling team, but Ichiro added suspense to their final month. He was closing in on one of baseball’s oldest records -- 257 hits in a season, set by George Sisler, a first baseman for the St. Louis Browns, in 1920. Heading into a game with the Texas Rangers on October 1, Ichiro had 256. Some 45,573 came to Safeco Field anticipating an historic moment. Also attending were 150 Japanese media people and five members of Sisler’s family, including his 81-year-old daughter. Ichiro singled in the first inning to tie the record, and singled again in the third to break it. Fireworks exploded over the field and the game was stopped by a five-minute standing ovation, the fans chanting "I-Chi-Ro! I-Chi-Ro!" His teammates poured out of the dugout to congratulate him.
Showing rare emotion, Ichiro tipped his hat repeatedly to the crowd and then trotted over to the front row seats of Sisler’s relatives. He shook hands with them and bowed in respect. The Rangers infielders, grinning, bowed to him, Finally the game resumed, but only after the ball, first base, and Ichiro’s bat were removed for shipment to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ichiro got one more hit that night, pushing the record to 259. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was among those sending congratulations. (The Mariners won the game, 8-3.)
Ichiro finished the season with 262 hits and a .372 batting average, best in the majors. He added a quiet footnote five years later when he was in St. Louis for his ninth All-Star appearance. Taking advantage of the opportunity, he slipped away from the media and visited Sisler’s grave. He paid his respects and left flowers for a man he never knew but couldn’t forget.