In recognition of Ichiro Suzuki’s remarkable career, which includes his 4,000th career hit on Wednesday for the New York Yankees, here is a story I wrote for The Rafu Shimpo (Los Angeles’ English-Japanese newspaper) in the spring of 1999. At the time, Ichiro was a guest player for the Seattle Mariners.
As it appeared in The Rafu Shimpo…
Headline: Ichiro yearning for chance to play in major leagues
Secondary headline: The Orix BlueWave star, considered the top all-around player in Japan, could someday be the first non-pitcher to make it in the U.S.
By ED M. ODEVEN
PEORIA, Ariz. — The big question isn’t if Ichiro Suzuki has what it takes to be a major league ballplayer. The big question is when the Japanese superstar will get the opportunity to do so.
After Suzuki’s short spring training stay in Arizona, the consensus among those at the Seattle Mariners training complex was unanimous: Suzuki can be a successful major leaguer.
Unfortunately, for Suzuki, who simply prefers to be called Ichiro, that’s easier said than done, because the talented 25-year-old outfielder has three years remaining on his contract with the Orix BlueWave.
And there is uncertainty surrounding his future, especially over whether the Pacific League team will allow Suzuki to pursue his dream of playing in the United States once his current contract expires.
Suzuki appeared in two games for the Mariners while in Arizona. Last Thursday, the speedy Japanese all-star batted leadoff and was Seattle’s starting right fielder in an 11-4 exhibition victory over the San Diego Padres.
In his North American debut, Suzuki went 1 for 4 with a single, a run scored and a stolen base. He scored the Mariners’ first run in the first inning after reaching first base on an error and stealing second base.
Although he had pregame jitters, Suzuki settled down and relished his experience.
“Before the game, the other players told me just to enjoy myself. I did,” said Suzuki, whose .350 batting average is the highest all-time in Japan.
“I had been looking forward for so long to playing here, to play alongside Ken Griffey, that I was prepared for it, and it was exciting as I had expected it to be.”
Suzuki’s second outing was cut short due to an upset stomach Saturday. He left the game after the second inning and was replaced in the Seattle lineup by veteran Butch Huskey.
Suzuki struck out on a called third strike in the first inning and flied out to short left field in the second. He felt too ill to play in Sunday’s game.
“Of course I’m disappointed that I couldn’t play (more),” he told about 50 members of the Japanese media in a crowded room for a mid-game press conference.
“In two games I couldn’t show everything.”
Yet even with limited playing time for the Mariners, Suzuki discovered there are areas of his game that can use improvement.
“I found things that I need to do to be a better baseball player,” he said, adding that major league players possess a quality lacking with the typical Japanese player.
“(Here), every player in every game and every practice is hyper and really energized. That’s impressive. I need to show more energy.”
He may have only had limited opportunities to showcase his skills, but Suzuki certainly made a good first impression with the folks in the Seattle organization.
“He’s impressed us. He’s got excellent baseball skills,” Mariners manager Lou Piniella said. “He’s a good hitter, an excellent hitter, actually. He’s a very adroit outfielder. He’s got a good throwing arm (and) good fielding mechanics. He can run and steal a base. So he’s got all the tools.”
Superstar Ken Griffey Jr. agreed.
“He can play. He’s got all the tools,” said Griffey, who has slugged 56 home runs in back-to-back seasons. “He has a great arm. He can run. He can hit. He can throw. He’s got it all.”
And how. Suzuki, considered the finest all-around player in Japan, has won five consecutive batting titles in just five full seasons in the Pacific League.
He became the first Japanese to get 200 hits in a 130-game season (210 in 1994).
Asked whether Suzuki has the ability to play in the major leagues, Piniella and Griffey concurred that Suzuki can do it, mentioning the only setback he’d have would be getting used to America.
“The biggest adjustment he’s going to have is staying in the U.S.,” Griffey said.
Said Piniella: “He could do very well here on the major league level. He puts the ball in play. He’s a good hitter. He plays the outfield well and he can run.
“But yeah, it takes the Puerto Rican kids time to adjust here. (And) it takes the Venezuelan kids time to adjust here. So, I’m sure that he would adjust.”
Once Suzuki gets adjusted, “I think he can be a productive player in the first or second spot in the lineup used more as a speed player, hitting and running, bunting once in a while, getting on base like (a Quentin McCracken) type of player,” said Piniella, referring to the Tampa Bay Devil Ray outfielder.
The three-time MVP said he enjoyed training with the Mariners and playing in two games with Griffey who he “likes so much.”
Still, he is obligated to play for the BlueWave for three more seasons.
In the meantime, Suzuki patiently longs for the day when he’ll be able to pursue his dream of playing in the major leagues.
In three years, he said he wants to play for any major league team. But the Mariners are “one of my top teams.”
Chuck Armstrong, president and chief operating officer of the Mariners, said his club’s good relationship with Orix hinders any future negotiations to lure Suzuki to Seattle.
“We have a friendly working agreement,” Armstrong explained. “And just as I wouldn’t want them to come and take one of our players, we are not planning to take one of their star players.
“If something should work, obviously, it would be some kind of mutual cooperation thing. (But right now), that’s not what we have in mind.”