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MLB tried, but it could never beat Ichiro

“He’s above average as a runner, and he has an above-average arm in right field. Still, I would see him as a fourth outfielder on a major league team.” — Mike Hargrove, MLB manager

When Ichiro Suzuki joined the Seattle Mariners on Nov. 30, 2000, expectations were somewhat limited. As the first Japanese position player to try his hand in the major leagues, there was no blueprint for Ichiro to follow. The statistical revolution that might have been able to contextualize his Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) statistics — if a .352 career average and seven batting titles needed contextualization, at any rate — was still only a glimmer. With no guidance for how to read the 27-year-old, observers were forced to fall back on what they knew: the hulking sluggers of baseball’s bygone steroid era. The sort of people, in other words, who could eat 5’10 Ichiro for breakfast and have plenty of room left for their daily eight bottles of amphetamines.

Seventeen years later, at the close of Ichiro’s career — the Mariners announced on May 3 the 44-year-old has left the playing squad to join the front office — it’s difficult to imagine popular doubt about Ichiro’s abilities. But the early skepticism wasn’t limited to the likes of Mike Hargrove. Ichiro was the Mariners’ big offseason addition, signed after the American League runners-up lost Hall-of-Fame-track shortstop Alex Rodriguez to the Texas Rangers. A direct replacement he was not: Rodriguez hit 41 home runs and drove in 132 runs in the 2000 season, finishing third in the MVP voting and driving the Mariners to the playoffs. In his nine seasons with the Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro had managed to homer a total of 118 times.

So what was he? Even midway through spring training, his own manager had very little idea. Ichiro warmed up for the season by going through a series of drills, and he refused to treat live games against real opposition any differently. So his teammates and managers were treated to a slew of weak ground balls to the left side as Ichiro slowly, methodically felt out the seam between third base and shortstop.

Skepticism would have been natural even with a relatively strong performance in spring training. But Ichiro’s technique was unorthodox and the results were disappointing, and eventually Mariners’ skipper Lou Piniella had enough.

He was hitting to left field a lot, and they were really shading him over, playing him almost like a right-handed pull hitter,” Piniella said. “I told him he needed to pull the ball, and he said, ‘No problem.’ The next at-bat, he hit one out of the park to right and said, ‘Are you happy now?’

I told Ichiro, ‘You can do whatever you want the rest of the year.’

What Ichiro wanted the rest of the year was to light Major League Baseball on fire. His .350 average led the Mariners to a 116-win season, and he was named American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, becoming just the second player in history to win both awards in the same season. His home plate routine became iconic, his arm legendary, and although the Mariners failed to turn their regular season dominance into a World Series ring, the Ichiro skeptics were bloodied and in hiding.

But they weren’t beaten. Humiliated by his performance on the field, they found avenues of attack elsewhere. His refusal to take press conferences in English, relying instead on an interpreter, were criticized ever more stridently. Savvy baseball minds called his hitting performance unprecedented and therefore unsustainable, declaring him a lucky fraud in the offseason, then pretending they hadn’t 200 hits later. Even his name was under attack, with announcers choosing to prove their anti-Ichiro bonafides by referring to him exclusively as “Suzuki.”

The incoherence between Ichiro’s obvious ability and the flailing attempts of his detractors to drag him down led to some truly weird scenes. The 2007 season saw Ichiro’s Mariners contract drawing to a close. Ichiro’s representatives and Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi managed to come to an agreement on a five-year extension worth $90 million, a deal more or less in line with a franchise player at the top of his game, and were immediately blasted by Florida Marlins president Dave Samson, who proclaimed the contract the “end of the world.”

It’s a joke. It’s inexcusable. It’s complete mismanagement. It can’t be true. I am speechless by that contract. I’m hoping that report is false, because there’s no chance a top-of-the-lineup guy — forget that, anybody — is worth that much ... It’ll take the sport down, that contract.

Bavasi’s response: “My mother always taught me that if the only thing you have to say is, ‘Fuck Dave Samson,’ then don’t say anything at all. So I’m not going to say anything at all.” has gone down in Mariners’ folklore. But that the situation was defused with poise on Seattle’s end obscures the strangeness of the situation arising in the first place. Paying Ichiro Suzuki — seven-time all-star, two-time batting champion, and holder of the MLB single-season hits record — like a superstar made perfect sense, because by almost any metric you chose he was one.

The heart of the trouble was that Ichiro neither looked nor acted like a star.

The United States was built on massive waves of immigration from across the world, and although the country as a whole has had a more fraught relationship with outsiders than it likes to think, the symbolism of the melting pot remains an important part of American culture and American pride. But while that harmonious metaphor has been seared into the mind of every high school student in the country, the assimilatory subtext has not.

The melting pot assimilates its members into an alloy, taking strength from newcomers but reducing them to the eigenculture. Immigrants should speak English, conform to the American dream of nuclear family and job fetishization, and live as fly-in-amber emblems of societal virtue. The country expects compliance from its imports, and is baffled — indeed shocked at a visceral level — when this compliance is withheld.

That confusion can manifest itself in curious ways, especially when those imports are also major public figures. When Ichiro took the league by storm, it wasn’t to Japanese baseball that the analysts turned. Instead of being the finest fruit of a contemporary tradition of the game, it was easier to consider him as an (American) anachronism.

From the early stages of Ichiro’s tenure with Seattle, it was common to treat him as an ambassador from the deep past. That association only strengthened when he took aim at one of baseball’s most ancient records, claiming the single-season hit crown from George Sisler in 2004. The record had stood untroubled for 84 seasons, a relic of the dead ball era. Ichiro’s free-slapping style recalled the early 1900s, realizing and perfecting a mode of baseball that had been dead for decades, neglected by the modern game’s heavy hitters.

Seattle Mariners v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The time-traveller interpretation of Ichiro, although amusing and vaguely romantic, manages to studiously ignore that Ichiro is a Japanese baseball player and embedded thoroughly within Asian baseball culture. Where the Major Leagues went for power, concentrating itself in the totemic forms of Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa, Japanese teams have remained focused on finesse and collaborative play. Ichiro, relentlessly focused on putting the ball in play, moving baserunners and terrorizing defenders with his speed, is a natural (albeit unusual) outcome of the style of play embraced in Japan.

For some, Ichiro’s style of play was a weakness, an acknowledgement he couldn’t keep up with the rest of MLB. This was more or less understandable: in general, slap hitters are slap hitters because they don’t have the strength to do more than gently tickle infielders when they try to pull the ball. But Ichiro himself quickly put the lie to those assumptions with astonishing batting practice displays, peppering Safeco Field’s lower right field seats at will.

His power played in games as well. When he wanted to go for a home run, Ichiro eschewed his usual swing, a gloriously perverse articulation of limbs that saw him sprinting out of the batters box as he guided bat to ball. His power swing was different, a vicious and controlled whip, hips pivoting perfectly to guide the ball over the fence. It was unusual, sure — it had to be to generate that much pop from a relatively slender frame — but it was more recognizably baseball than Ichiro’s typical offering.

But after having demonstrated he could play everyone else’s game, Ichiro went back to playing his, racking up singles and playing a right field out of science fiction. Even his outfield play was unorthodox. Ichiro could run down anything that moved, had an arm so thoroughly weaponized that for years only the fastest players in the league dared to run on it, and once ran straight up a wall to rob a home run. But there are no diving catches in his long highlight reel — Ichiro considered them as too physically risky to use as part of his repertoire. Even as one of baseball’s premier defenders, he did things his own way.

Ichiro did make adjustments to life in the big leagues, but even his concessions were in direct opposition to the Bondsian zeitgeist. Robert Whiting, reflecting on Ichiro’s career in a discussion with the Japan Times, points out that he actually moved away from the modern American ideal of a successful hitter after moving stateside:

The Americans didn’t see the Ichiro that played in Japan ... [I]n Japan, he hit a lot more line drives. In the States, (former Seattle manager Lou) Piniella told him to hit down on the ball, hit it on the ground and take advantage of his speed.

He was a different kind of hitter in the major leagues. I thought he was more interesting in Japan, actually, as a hitter. Because he hit more home runs and he hit a lot of line drives and a lot of extra base hits. In the States, he became an infield hits specialist, who was a hell of an outfielder.

Expectations off the field were likewise subverted. Ichiro learned English quickly — his All-Star Game speeches became the stuff of MLB legend — but he refused to conduct his rare press conferences in anything but Japanese. Even the translator-filtered answers he gave were in sublime opposition to the time-honored tradition of athlete-speak. Once asked (in the similarly time-honored tradition of journalistic banality) if he was looking forward to an upcoming trip to Cleveland, Ichiro gravely insisted that if he ever suggested he was looking forward to visiting Cleveland, he’d have to punch himself in the face for lying. It’s difficult to imagine any other major leaguer getting away with that, more difficult still to imagine anyone else straight-facedly pulling off “I hope he arouses the fire that’s dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul. I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger,” as Ichiro did when asked about facing off against compatriot Daisuke Matsuzaka for the first time.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

The concessions that he did make, forgoing some of the gap power he flashed in Japan to become a dedicated table-setter, briefly moving to center field when the Mariners’ weak outfield defense necessitated it, were made for the sake of the team. But he seemed totally disinterested in making himself comprehensible to his Major League audience. The mystery was partly of his own making and partly because that audience was incapable of imagining Ichiro’s world and therefore incapable of engaging him on his own terms. Ichiro had no interest in compromising himself for the sake of accessibility.

Not that he was always particularly accessible to his Japanese audience, either. Ichiro was famously media-shy even in his NPB days, which, although they now merely look like the prelude to his extraordinary career stateside, were impressive enough — .353/.421/.522, 1278 hits through his age 26 season — for him to be both the national sporting star and something of a fashion icon to boot.

Ichiro’s refusal to assimilate into American sporting culture brought him his fair share of enemies, and not just from the good people of Cleveland. The Mariners dropped off after their extraordinary 2001 season, first into fringe-but-failed contenders and then into their peculiar version of baseball hell, and blame naturally, although absurdly, fell on their best player’s shoulders. Ichiro criticism became something of a cottage industry. His aloofness was easy to frame as selfishness even as he gave everything for a failing franchise, and in 2008 matters got so out of hand that one of his teammates* was overheard talking about wanting to “knock him out.” It took the restoration of Ken Griffey Jr. to the organization to smooth things over.

*Given the general caliber of the 2008 Mariners, it’s reasonable to suspect that even had the unnamed teammate gone through with the attempt he’d have ended up missing entirely.

The defenders were always out in force too, of course, but it’s hard to avoid suspecting that most of them also missed the point. Ichiro didn’t just avoid English in conversations with the media in order give more precise, considered answers, and he didn’t just avoid diving plays in the outfield in order to minimize his injury risk.

Ichiro’s role as the first Japanese position player to make the big leagues placed the weight of his country’s baseball culture on his shoulders, and to compromise the way he played or acted in order to come more in line with American expectations on how star players should be would have constituted an admission of inferiority, not just on his part but on NPB’s. So instead, Ichiro defied his doubters, challenging MLB and its associated circus to beat him. It never did.

The Hall of Fame now beckons. Ichiro is a lock to go in eventually, and more probably than not on the first ballot. His value on the diamond has always been evident, but Ichiro’s impact goes beyond mere wins and runs. The combination of frenzied success and studied, elegant non-compliance forced baseball to accept Ichiro as he was and is. Rather than take the path of least resistance to the slugging norms of the early 2000s, Ichiro remained resolutely Ichiro, turning two-hoppers to shortstops into infield hits and driving pitchers crazy with the sort of wrist control more usually found in expert fencers.

Ichiro will doubtless be remembered as the man who threw open the door for Japanese imports in the Major Leagues, but if you’re not a Japanese player hoping to make a dent in the American game, his refusal to play everyone else’s game may be the most important part of his legacy. Ichiro’s weird style opened eyes to the possibility of different pathways to MLB success, paths which are still leading to fascinating, Shohei Ohtani-shaped treasures almost two decades later. His physical presence will be missed, but his impact won’t. Because Ichiro remains here to stay.


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