The Making of a Legend: Ichiro Suzuki
Untraditional at the plate, unpredictable on the bases, and unparalleled in the field, Seattle Mariners player Ichiro Suzuki is one of the best all-around players to join major-league. This Japanese hero began his all-star; major-league career in 2001 with 242 hits in his first season with the Mariners leading the American-League in headfirst and has never looked back. By 2004, Suzuki had mastered his skills to perfection to suit the American game, launching a headlong rampage that on Friday, October 1st 2004 smashed George Sisler's 84-year record for hits by hitting his 258th hit of the season against the Texas Rangers. His “See Ball, Hit Ball” approach to the American game was unheard of until his arrival.
Ichiro Suzuki was born October 22nd 1973 in the city of Kasugai, (Aichi, Japan) but lived in the town of Toyoyama (Nishikasugai District, Aichi, Japan) to Nobuyuki and Yoshie Suzuki. Both his mother and father possessed a great passion in baseball and made sure he possessed one as well, they had certainly intended for him to become a professional baseball player the moment he entered the world. Their passion was so great that in fact the name Ichiro means “The first son” even though he was the second son to be born to Nobuyuki
He was pushed hardest by his father, who spent more time watching and coaching him than working at the cooler repair shop he owned. Ichiro received his first baseball glove on his third birthday; to this day he still speaks of these gifts as treasures. And by the age of four he was being put into batting drills to up to four hours a day.
At the age of six Ichiro managed to sneak into a little league team even though he was two years under the league's minimum age requirement, thanks to his father being the coach, he was signed in under an assumed name. His talent by far exceeded what people predicted of him so no one questioned the fact that he seemed to be the smallest boy on the team.
Ichiro was given any and every advantage by Nobuyuki to improve his game this included teaching him to be a left handed hitter even though he was a natural right, he learned to bat from the opposite end of the plate to best take advantage of his speed. Ichiro's mother taught him the mechanics of pitching and the value of fitness and proper eating habits to stay healthy, also each and every afternoon until he turned 13, Ichiro practiced with his father at in neighbouring field. A typical training session included a long stretch of batting and throwing from a pitching mound as well as speed training.
At the age of 12 his parents began to speculate that Ichiro may have a chance of becoming a professional. He used to practice at the batting cages; he was able to hit a 75mph ball from a machine and still moved forward several feet to simulate even faster throws. It was during this time that his mother passed the batting cages where he practiced; she saw the star of the local High School Baseball team practicing his batting and realised that her son's batting was better and faster than someone five years his senior.
When he was at home his mother instructed him to load up on vitamin, proteins and minerals, to help keep him healthy, she also had to personally approve of a food before the young Suzuki consumed it, one of his main dietary fundamentals was a special muscle building soup made by hand with organic ingredients by his aunt.
By the time he started junior high school Ichiro was by far the best player in the area. He had a smooth swing with a big leg kick (imitating from his slugging star Kazunori Shinozuka of the Yomiuri Giants) at the time his fastball was clocked at approximately 80mph. More extraordinary than his playing skills were his intellectual ones. Thanks to his father, Ichiro genuinely understood the game. At the plate he could adjust the approach of his batting to meet the demands of all situations. On the mound he mastered the art of changing speed and hitting spots; which made his fastball invulnerable. Ichiro later described it as being a lot like Star of the Giants a Japanese anime series about a young baseball prospect's difficult road to success; with rigorous training demanded by the father.
Ichiro enrolled at high school in the neighbouring city, Nagoya's Aikodai Meiden Kōkō in 1987. It was one of three top-rate schools in the Suzuki's part of central Japan. Ichiro chose Meiden because it presented him the swiftest path to professional baseball. The school's coach, Go Nakamura had set up a reputation for preparing players for the pros. In all, Meiden had produced eleven Japanese major leaguers. His father told Nakamura that “No matter how good Ichiro is, never praise him. We have to make him spiritually strong.” He was first predominantly positioned as a pitcher instead of an outfielder this was due to his remarkably fast arm. Nakamura saw beyond Ichiro's leg kick and speed, he saw the creation of a spectacular hitter. He ignored the Suzuki's small size and saw a great pitcher. But like every teenager who wanted to enter any big-time baseball program like Nakamura's, Ichiro had to fight for playing time and earn the respect of his teammates. To do this he had to undertake menial tasks such as doing the team's laundry and cooking rice for his hungry teammates. There was so little time left for studying that Ichiro used to wash the dirty uniforms before sunrise; when everyone at school was asleep and all the washing machines were empty.
Traditionally in Japan baseball diminishes the role of the individual player and increases the importance of the whole team, despite the fact that baseball at its core is a highly individual sport. This certain philosophy towards the sport kept the truly talented players from fully expressing themselves, instead rewarding them for playing the same way as everyone else. Ichiro was taught outside of the sports mainstream of Japanese Baseball by his father and thus was more like western athletes. If in his mind there was a better way of carrying out a task, he did it, regardless of the thoughts and opinions of his coach and team-mates this was consistent with Ichiro's approach to all things in life, both on and off the playing field.
By his sophomore season, Suzuki had been recognized as a solid starter and by his senior year he was the best hitter and pitcher on the team. Led by Ichiro, Aikodai Meiden Kōkō gained national approval and was invited to play in the Koushien Tournament, the most esteemed and influential amateur Baseball event in Japan. Ichiro and his teammates exonerated themselves well, beating several larger schools, but lost before reaching the finals. Until this day Suzuki says he still regrets that Aikodai Meiden Kōkō never won the tournament.
Ichiro finished from high school in 1991. There was no doubt he was headed for a professional baseball career. Japanese scouts had been watching him for years. But Ichiro was already looking beyond his country's major leagues. After watching former big leaguers such as Jim Paciorek, Larry Parrish, and Warren Cromartie enjoy productive careers in Japan, it occurred to him that someday he might like to try playing in North America.
オリックス・ブルーウェーブ, (Orix Blue Wave)
During the Japan's 1991 baseball draft, team after team passed Suzuki on. The grounds on which they passed him on were his size. Ichiro stood at barely 5' 9”, and weighed no more than 160 pounds. Finally, Pacific League team Orix Blue Wave, a team from the port city of Kobe, elected to choose him during in the fourth round. Unbeknown to him he was Troy and this offer began as his Trojan horse although things did later turn, this was the beginning of the disappointment that would mark his early professional career.
When Ichiro arrived to the training camp, Orix's manager, Shozo Doi, took one look at his body and drove him into the outfield. His pitching career was over. Once Doi saw Ichiro bat, he displaced the young Suzuki to the minors, convinced he would never hit with his unorthodox style of batting which was later nicknamed the 振り子打法, (“The Pendulum”) by his team mates, because of the pendulum-like movement of his leg, which shifted his weight forward as he swung the bat, this technique went against the conventional theory on hitting technique.
Ichiro's first season as a pro had many ups and downs, most of the year he played for the Blue Wave's farm club (Minor League) it is here that he first encountered a hitting coach named Kenichiro Kawamura. This was the point in which his career began to turn around, because Kawamura knew instantly that, with a few minor changes and a little enhancement, the youngster's swing would work most excellently in the majors. Ichiro batted well over an average of .300 all year, and gained confidence in his abilities.
Due to a player being injured in the “Big Team” Shozo Doi had very little choice but to put Suzuki in the 1992 season. The Orix boss played the rookie Ichiro in 40 games, and watched contemptuously as he batted a poor .253 during the season, his playing was so bat that Suzuki temporarily deliberated altering his methods at the plate to make his manager happy but in due course decided against it. This was his style, it worked, and he was going to stick with it. Despite his bare minimal success with the Blue Wave, Ichiro ended the year as the Japanese League's batting champion and MVP. The following spring, Ichiro encountered the same resistance from Doi, who sent him back to the minors. And then recalled him again, he produced a miserable .188 average in just 64 at bats during that season.
In Ichiro's opinion all he required was some playing time against some top class competition, to this, Orix official concurred. In winter 1993 Orix executive Suzuki along with other Blue Wave prospected players to Hawaii to participate in a new tournament league that brought together young players from both American and Japanese baseball leagues. Ichiro was placed in The Hilo Stars and almost always smacked the ball at an average of a .311 clip. Hawaiian Winter League player quality was extremely high, Jason Giambi, a future MVP for the American League, won the batting championship and overall Ichiro's average was still good to earn him fifth position; he also finished among the leaders in Runs Batted In. Meanwhile, his team The Hilo Stars won the league title.
Thanks to the Hawaii Winter League Suzuki returned to Japan overflowing with confidence and self-assurance but dreading that he may end up in another conflict with Shozo Doi. To his amusement he was informed upon his arrival that Doi was being replaced with Akira Ogi. On the first day of training with the new manager, Ichiro was told that he was exceptional as a right fielder. The 20-year-old responded with one of the greatest seasons in Orix history. He accumulated a record 210 hits, secured the batting crown with a .385 average, earned a Gold Glove for his defence, and was named the Pacific League MVP of the season