A superstar in his native Japan — one poll named him the most recognizable person in the country, outranking even the emperor — Suzuki got his first taste of major-league action when he worked out with the Mariners during spring training in 1999. Food poisoning limited him to just a few exhibition at-bats, but he made a triumphant return to American baseball in 2001 after the Seattle Mariners bought his rights from the Orix Blue Wave for over $13 million.
The Mariners’ unprecedented expenditure ($29 million, including Suzuki’s salary) proved to be a wise investment. Known simply as “Ichiro” to legions of adoring fans, the seven-time Japanese batting champ made an immediate impact with a 23-game hitting streak that fell just one game short of Joey Cora’s club record.
Aided in part by Major League Baseball’s decision to distribute All-Star ballots in Japan, Ichiro became the first player ever to top the All-Star balloting in his rookie season. The accolades continued after the season, when he garnered both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. Fred Lynn (in 1975) had previously been the only rookie so honored.
Suzuki’s first professional homer came on June 12, 1993 against future major-league hurler Hideo Nomo, then pitching for the Kinetsu Buffaloes. The following season, he won the first of his seven consecutive batting titles with a .385 average. In 1997, he set a Japanese record by stringing together 216 plate appearances without a strikeout.
Ichiro’s outstanding bat control bat evoked memories of Rod Carew, but Lou Piniella, Ichiro’s first American manager, said that Suzuki’s style of play reminded him most of Ralph Garr. The momentum from his swing propelled him towards first base even before he’d left the batters’ box, forcing infielders to rush their throws — even on routine grounders.
The subject of intense media coverage in Japan, Suzuki faced overwhelming scrutiny once he arrived in the States. One Japanese web publisher reportedly offered a $2 million bounty for anyone who could provide a picture of Ichiro in the buff, forcing Suzuki to change clothes in a secluded area of the Mariners’ locker room. Along with teammate Kazuhiro Sasaki, he called a brief media boycott in July, annoyed by the dozens of Japanese paparazzi following his every move.
A local Seattle restaurant eventually named a sushi roll after him, even though Ichiro had already revealed that his favorite food was “beef tongue”.