Japanese Baseball - Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro Suzuki's exploits in Major League Baseball have made him a legend in Japan. Oozing cool and style, he's captured the hearts of two baseball-crazy nations with acrobatic catches and a zen-like approach to batting.
Long before he was a star in the U.S., Suzuki was terrorizing NPB pitching staffs. Considered undersized, he was drafted in the fourth-round of the 2001 NPB draft by the Orix Blue Wave.
His unorthodox batting style (where he uses a pendulum-like motion to shift his leg forward as he swings) was heavily criticized by his first manager Shozo Doi. Because of this he was left to labor on the farm team for much of his first two seasons with the team.
He returned to the top team with the arrival of new manager Akira Ogi, who used the talented outfielder everyday in 1994.
Ichiro rewarded Ogi with a breakout season, collecting a league-record 210 hits while batting .385 with 13 home runs and 29 stolen bases to win the Pacific League MVP Award.
It was also during the 1994 season that he began using "Ichiro" on his jersey as opposed to his family name. This was at the behest of Ogi, who was trying to drum up support for the team and set his new superstar apart from the pack.
He would go on to win the next seven batting titles and collect two more MVP awards during his career in Japan.
Ichiro was a seven-time NPB all-star and won seven Gold Gloves in addition to winning the RBI and stolen base title in 1995 and the Japan Series MVP award in 1996.
Despite his success in Japan, Ichiro was never given the type of superstar status others such as Yomiuri Giants star Hideki Matsui enjoyed in Japan.
Ichiro moves to the US
After the 2000 season he used the posting system, which led to his eventual signing by the Seattle Mariners.
There was a lot of doubt surrounding the move as no Japanese position player had ever played in the major leagues and there was doubt he could stand up to the rigors of a 162-game season.
Those doubts were immediately quelled as Suzuki burst on the scene by batting .350 with eight home runs, 69 RBIs a rookie-record 242 hits and 56 stolen bases in 2001.
That season he was the first rookie to lead the majors in voting for the All-Star game and won both the American League Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards.
After solid seasons in 2002 and 2003, Suzuki had his breakout season in the summer of 2004.
In addition to breaking George Sisler's 84-year-old record for single hits in a season (Ichiro finished with 262, four more than the record), Suzuki batted .372 that season.
In Japan, fans were able to see the U.S. public's reaction to Ichiro's pursuit of the record. While chasing the mark, Suzuki was embraced by fans across the U.S. and cheered on by Sisler's family, who were in attendance when he broke the record.
This contrasted with the cool reception and underhanded tactics that were used when foreign ballplayers Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera challenged Sadaharu's Oh's single-season home run mark.
Ichiro continued to blossom in the majors over the following years and in 2009 broke Willie Keeler's 104-year-old record by recording his ninth consecutive 200-hit season.
Ichiro is a career .333 batter in the major leagues with 341 stolen bases and a .812 on-base percentage.
Ichiro & the World Baseball Classic
In addition on shining in the MLB, Ichiro helped lead Japan to a pair of World Baseball Classic titles. In 2006 he had 12 hits including a home run and four stolen bases to help Japan win the inaugural WBC title.
In 2009, Ichiro struggled mightily throughout the tournament but collected the game-winning hit during the 10th inning of the championship game against fierce rival South Korea.
"We were tied at 3-3 and faced the 10th inning," Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said after that game. "At the end, Ichiro hit the ball into center and we were able to score two runs. I believe that hit is something that I will never forget. It's an image imprinted in my mind."
Suzuki is one of only three MLB players to be inducted into Japan's Meikyukai (Golden Players Club). Japanese players are inducted into the prestigious club automatically after amassing 2,000 career hits, 200 wins or 250 saves either entirely in Japan or combined in the NPB and MLB.
Ichiro was the first major leaguer inducted and has since been joined by Hideki Matsui and Kazuo Matsui.
He's shown no signs of slowing down but when the day does come that he hangs up his spikes Suzuki is expected to become the first Japanese player inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.