Ichiro Suzuki, the first true Japanese superstar to play in Major League Baseball, retired Thursday following an emotional farewell game in Tokyo, Forbes reports. And with the outfielder bookending his career by finishing it where it began — in Japan — it is time to look back on how he changed baseball.
The first Japanese superstar
Ichiro isn’t the first Japanese baseball player to cross the Pacific and play in the majors — that would be Masanori Murakami, way back in 1964. But he is the first position player to do so. All other Japanese players who came before Ichiro in MLB, including Murakami and Hideo Nomo, were pitchers.
And he is also, by far, the best statistically. Based on his record, Ichiro would become the first true MLB superstar to come from Japan, per Bleacher Report writer Zachary D. Rymer.
“His stateside fame only grew as fans became more familiar with his ability to hit any pitch anywhere for any kind of hit.”
There is no doubt in Rymer’s mind that Ichiro will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame once he’s eligible. In fact, he’ll almost certainly be one of the rare players who makes it on the first ballot.
Knocking out base hits in the big homer era
At the beginning of his career in the United States, Major League Baseball was in the midst of a steroid crisis. Players such as Barry Bonds were routinely knocking far-flying homers out of the park, even as their accomplishments were tainted by the specter of steroids.
Ichiro, for his part, never had more than 15 homers in any season in his career, instead making a name for himself by hitting with laser-sharp precision. He would rack up singles and doubles en route to a.350 batting average in his first MLB season. “Hit ’em where they ain’t,” as Major League Baseball players of the Babe Ruth era would say.
We know it's not our sport, but Ichiro's greatness needs to be recognized. Congratulations on an amazing career, and best of luck in your next chapter. ????????????⚾️????#ThanksIchiro pic.twitter.com/FshnzEAkro
— FC Bayern US (@FCBayernUS) March 21, 2019
Inspiring younger players
Ichiro’s on-deck stretching routine was unique among players on both sides of the Pacific. Rymer writes that Ichiro may, in fact, go down in history as being known for his warm-ups as much as his actual prowess on the field. And he inspired younger players, at least around Seattle, writes S.L Price for Sports Illustrated.
“Ichiro’s on-deck gyrations have become a Seattle model of cool, with Little Leaguers everywhere trying to keep their faces blank while contorting like pretzels.”
Paving the way for more Japanese MLB players
Suzuki’s unqualified success in the majors proved one thing to MLB execs: Japanese baseball players are legit. Hideki Matsui, Kazuo Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi, Kenji Johjima, Akinori Iwamura, Kosuke Fukudome, Nori Aoki, and Munenori Kawasaki — many of them may not have made it here had it not been for Suzuki.
A cultural bridge between the U.S. and Japan
Japanese culture is often baffling to Westerners, and vice versa. Japanese professional baseball can be a world apart, as well. And while he may never have intended to be a cultural ambassador — as Robert Whitting wrote in 2004 — Ichiro did his part in connecting the two cultures, regardless.
“Japanese were once seen in the United States as a ‘faceless’ people obsessed with exporting cars and consumer electronics. The excellent play of the Japanese baseball players and their positive personalities have changed the American image of Japanese.”
Ichiro Suzuki retires with a career MLB batting average of.311, with 3,089 base hits and 780 RBI.