An iconic stroke, iconic glove, and an icon for an entire country, Ichiro was truly one of a kind. His career may be over, but his legacy will live on forever. What he contributed to the game of baseball is unmatched by any other athlete in the sport. He was a pioneer in bringing Japanese athletes to the MLB.
Not only was he a phenomenal ball player, but he was also a star at every level he played at. Ichiro’s career held value because he was more than just a Hall of Fame player. He brought a new culture to the league when he entered the MLB in 2001 and was able to shock the world with his immediate success proving that he could compete at the top level.
Major League Baseball was not the beginning of Ichiro’s baseball journey, as he played his first nine seasons of professional baseball in the NPB Pacific League in Japan. Ichiro played for the Orix BlueWave for all nine seasons in the NPB and his sensational play led him to the MLB.
His unorthodox swing was a driving force in his success despite looking very unconventional. This type of swing was not just foreign to the United States, as even his first manager Shōzō Doi, refused to accept the way he hit. His batting stance went against the traditional hitting style and was nicknamed the ‘pendulum’ because of the way his weight was distributed during his hitting motion. He never quite looked settled at the plate, but it worked, and the outcome ended up being fantastic results.
Ichiro was truly spectacular in every full season he played in the NPB, as he was a 7x All-Star, 7x Gold Glove winner, and won three Pacific League MVP awards. The best player in the NPB by a landslide with a career .353 batting average and over 1,200 hits. Ichiro had the credentials to shine at the Major League level and the Seattle Mariners gave him that opportunity.
Ichiro proved himself as soon as he entered Safeco Field in 2001 by helping revitalize the franchise after they lost two of their biggest sluggers in Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. in previous off-seasons. Ichiro was able to bring the franchise back to life with an amazing rookie season. He accumulated a rookie record 242 hits in one of the greatest first seasons to date, as he became the first player ever to win MVP, Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and start in an All-Star game all in one season.
The international phenomenon that was Ichiro surprisingly increased his popularity after leaving his home country. He became the first rookie ever to lead the All-Star ballot in votes mainly due to the support of the entire country of Japan.
Calling him beloved would be an understatement when discussing the relationship between the people of Japan and Ichiro. His historic season was not in vain either, as Ichiro helped the Mariners tie the MLB wins record with 116 that season.
As soon as Ichiro arrived, he helped jolt the team into unheard of territories. Despite not finishing the job by falling in the ALCS to the New York Yankees, it was still an incredible year that was highlighted by the rise of Ichiro. It is astonishing that this unbelievable season is still the last time the Mariners have made the postseason.
Despite never repeating that same level of team success, Ichiro continued to rack up his accolades with Seattle. For his first decade with the Mariners, he was a 10x All-Star, 10x Gold Glove winner, 3x Silver Slugger, 2x batting champion, and led the league in stolen bases in his infamous rookie season. He also became the first player to have ten consecutive seasons of 200+ hits.
The most noteworthy of seasons has to be Ichiro’s 2004 campaign where he broke the hits record. On October 1st, 2004, he broke George Sisler’s single season hits record of 257 with a classic Ichiro hit up the middle against the Texas Rangers. He finished the season with 262 hits in one of the most impressive offensive seasons in baseball history.
Because Ichiro entered the league at the age of 27, which is generally the age where players enter their prime, he was always at the top of his game. There was no learning curve that he struggled with, as he just played baseball in the style that he did, and it was not until his age started to get to him that teams could get him out.
Ichiro was a career .311 hitter with it taking until 2011 for him to even hit below the .300 mark. Prime Ichiro was remarkable, and it only raises the question of how many more records he could have broken had he entered the MLB earlier.
When combining all of Ichiro’s professional hits, he is the all-time leader with 4,367 between the NPB and MLB. He broke the record on June 15, 2016; however, crowning him as the ‘Hit King’ has been debatable. Since his Japanese hits are credited towards his total hit count, some people feel that they are not completely valid. Specifically, the man Ichiro passed being Pete Rose, who said “I’m not trying to take anything away from Ichiro, he’s had a Hall of Fame career, but the next thing you know, they’ll be counting his high-school hits.”
This argument is all based on perspective, and it is clear that Rose is trying to semi discredit Ichiro and emphasize how he is the ‘real’ hit leader. Though, when you look at Ichiro’s career as a whole, there is nothing illegitimate about what he has accomplished and it would not be hard to believe that he would have been able to replicate his success at the major league level if he had started at a younger age.
Ichiro was the literal MVP as soon as he entered the league; he would have definitely been a viable player had he began his major league journey at the age of 20/21 instead of 27. There is no denying that the competition is definitely better in the MLB compared to the NPB, but it is not a drastic difference.
One of the most significant differences between the two leagues are the dimensions of the ballparks. However, Ichiro was always a contact hitter, therefore slightly shorter fences may have not skewed his stats to the extreme degree that it may have a power hitter transitioning leagues.
Hitting a 90mph baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports and the fact that Ichiro was able to successfully make contact more than any other player at the professional level is incredible. No matter how you view records, the bottom-line is that Ichiro knew how to hit.
One of the only knocks on Ichiro’s baseball ledger is his lack of postseason success. He had made a splash in his rookie season, but did not make another playoff appearance with the Mariners. It was not until 2012 with the Yankees, while entering the twilight of his career that he made his second playoff appearance. This fact is less a detriment to Ichiro and says more to the teams that he was a part of.
Baseball is a true team game and unlike sports like basketball, one great player can not completely carry a team. In the limited postseason action that Ichiro did see, he fared well with a .346 batting average in 19 playoff games. Though this aspect of his career will always be one that is overlooked. It was most likely one of the primary reasons why he requested to be traded to the Yankees, as he was never able to consistently win and compete for championships.
Ichiro is one of the most influential players to ever pick up a baseball. He was a role model on and off the field. He inspired the next generation of athletes, and more importantly helped expand baseball from Japan to the United States. Because of Ichiro, players like Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, and Shohei Ohtani are now staples within the league.
He paved the way for more Asian diversity within the sport with only his pure love for the game. Ichiro is the reason why Japan still adores the sport of baseball to this day. He played marvelous 28 seasons of professional baseball and collected a lot of hits over the years. Ichiro left his mark on baseball history and Cooperstown will be waiting for him when the time comes.
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