Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In Defense of Ichiro

In 2001 a baseball player from Japan started his major league career with the Seattle Mariners. He was an instant hit. He's still so recognizable, he need go only by his first name. Ichiro.

When Ichiro Suzuki was named Rookie of the Year at the end of his first season with the Mariners, some MLB fans grumbled that he didn't deserve it because he had already spent ten seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball. Oh, he was named American League MVP in 2001, too.

Now he has spent ten MLB seasons dazzling baseball fans here and there with his amazing ability. As one of the most consistent players in the league, he continues to rack up hits and compile records; most recently he set the MLB record for most consecutive seasons (ten, every season he's been in MLB) with 200 or more hits. Yet, there are detractors. Jack Gallagher, a writer for The Japan Times, is one. On October 2, The Japan Times published a piece by Gallagher where he claims that Ichiro is over-hyped and that there is no comparison between him and Pete Rose, who also has ten career 200+ hit seasons (although not consecutively).

Marty Kuehnert, Senior Advisor to the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the NPB and long-time Japanese and U.S. baseball executive, was frustrated not only by Gallagher's negative opinions about Ichiro, but by the lack of a forum with which to publish a response. So, Marty turned to JapanBall. He and Bob Bavasi, the force behind JapanBall, have been friends for years, so of course, Bob was more than happy to offer the JapanBall newsletter as a platform. Still, it was important to take it further. As the administrator of the JapanBall Facebook page, I posted the full text of Marty's defense of Ichiro there. Brandon Siefken also posted it on his website, Jon Gat, an alumnus of the JapanBall tours, discussed it on his personal blog. I've decided to do the same here on shrinecastle.

Below is the full text of Marty Kuehnert's opinions regarding Ichiro Suzuki and his unprecedented skills as a baseball player at any level of the game. Before I get to that, however, I wanted to mention one more thing about Ichiro's ten consecutive seasons with 200 or more hits. Whose record did he break? His own.

By Marty Kuehnert, current Japanese pro baseball executive, former U.S. pro baseball executive, professor of Sports Management at Tohoku University and Sendai University, and former Japan Times sportswriter

Ichiro Suzuki's first year in Major League Baseball in 2001 was the most spectacular debut in the history of the game. He led the American League in hitting (.350) and in stolen bases (56), the first time a player had done this since the legendary Jackie Robinson in 1949 (.342, 37). He was a veritable magician with a bat and wound up leading the league with an all-time rookie record of 242 hits, the most hits by any Major Leaguer since 1930. 

It wasn't just his bat and legs that thrilled fans, however, but his glove work as well, reminiscent of Shoeless Joe Jackson, and his arm, likened to Roberto Clemente's cannon. The No. 51 "Ichiro" Mariners jersey became one of the biggest sellers across North America.  He became the first rookie to lead all players in voting for the All-Star Game, and when he was named A.L. MVP and Rookie of the Year (only the second player to be so honored after Boston's Fred Lynn in 1975), Asia could claim its first superstar on the world's sport stage. 

Everyone in North America knew Ichiro, and most true baseball fans loved him. But sadly, there were a few vocal detractors who said the speedster had too many infield hits, and hit too few homers. The waif from Japan was not a "real man" like the bash brothers Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds who were sending monstrous home run shots out of every stadium.  Ironically, however, Ichiro has turned out to be tougher than the multitude of MLB steroid juicers, as in the last 10 years he has played in more games than any other Major Leaguer --1,588. In his first eight seasons he missed only 16 games, the same number he missed in 2009 with his first trip to the Disabled List. This year, however, the Little Iron Man was back and was the only player in the A.L. to play in all 162 games, and one of only two Big Leaguers to play every day (the other, the Dodgers Matt Kemp).  Year after year Ichiro's legend has grown in North America, and other parts of the world, and fewer and fewer detractors find much negative to say about the number one export from Japan.  In 2008 I was in New York and had the opportunity to watch Ichiro play in Shea Stadium.  Mets GM Omar Minaya pointed out to me two things that totally set Ichiro apart from all other Major Leaguers.  "Marty," said Minaya, "When Ichiro comes to bat, all talking in both dugouts stops, and every player glues his eyes on Ichiro. They know he is special and every at bat can be a 'Could you believe it' experience. He is so talented with the bat and so quick. He has the respect of all his peers, like no other player I have ever seen."  And Minaya went on to share another tidbit. When Ichiro hit a double, and there was a pitching change, Minaya said, "Watch our second baseman and shortstop. They are going to go over and start talking to Ichi. They want to be his friend, and it happens to him in every ball park, with every team. They all want to get close to Ichiro. And most of them wish they could play the game half as well as he does."  This past week I saw a number of news stories which said that with his 10th season of 200 hits Ichiro had tied Pete Rose for the all-time lead in that category, which is such a misleading statement. Yes, both men lead the Major Leagues with 10, but Ichiro did it in 10 consecutive seasons from the start of his career, while Rose did it stretched out over 24 seasons. The consecutive streak was formerly held at eight years by Willie Keeler (1884-1901), which the incredible Ichiro passed last year with nine, 108 years after Wee Willie worked his magic.  How hard is it to get 200 hits in a year? The record for starting a career with consecutive 200 hit seasons was stuck at three with Lloyd Waner (1927-1929) and Johnny Pesky (1942-1944), until Ichiro streaked by all the way to 10. And who doubts whether the record will go to 11, 12 or even further? Will anyone ever break Ichiro's record? It is impossible to imagine.  Some unenlightened writers belittled Ichiro's MLB heroics, saying he already had 10 years of experience in Japan before he came to the Bigs. That spurious argument was answered very well by the Seattle Times writer Larry Stone in a recent article. "Who knows what the number (of hits) would be if Ichiro had joined the major leagues at the beginning of his natural prime?," wrote Stone. "For seven magnificent seasons, from the age of 20 to 26, he torched Japanese pitchers for averages of .385, .342, .356, .345, .358, .343, and .387."  Ichiro Suzuki has been in the Major Leagues for 10 glorious years. He has marked an unprecedented 200 hits in all of his first 10 seasons. He has been an unprecedented All-Star in his first 10 seasons, and surely be awarded an unprecedented 10th consecutive Golden Glove for fielding excellence. 

There have been more than 17,300 players play major league baseball. Not a single one of them has come close to Ichiro's incredible statistics and impact from their first year. He is in a class by himself -- a first ballot shoo-in Hall-of-Famer in BOTH the U.S. and Japan. He is not just a national baseball treasure, but an international treasure. Baseball fans, try to watch every remaining game that Ichiro plays. You will be watching history that will NEVER be duplicated. 



FHPromos said...

Thank for posting Marty Kuehnert's article on your blogpage. I agree that many people fail to see the greatness that is Ichiro. I find it hard to believe that Jack Gallagher would claim that Ichiro was overrated. His numbers speak for themselves regardless of the language the reader uses. I've tried to shed light on both Ichiro and the NPB on my blogpage: and at

I look forward to reading your blog. Keep up the good work.


shrinecastle said...

Thanks for your comments, FH. I realize that Jack Gallagher is entitled to his opinion, but I don't necessarily agree with him on this particular one. From talking to other people, I'm not alone in this.

Glad to see you're talking about Ichiro and NPB in your blog. I'll check back for more of your insight during the World Series.

Take care,