By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
On Aug. 27, famed Seattle Mariners player Ichiro Suzuki was inducted into the Mariners’ Hall of Fame, the tenth on that list and the first Asian. Amidst many celebratory events over that weekend, Nisei Veterans Committee (NVC) hosted a panel just a few hours prior to the induction, “The Impact of Ichiro on Both Sides of the Pacific,” at which those who knew Ichiro well, and were instrumental in his coming to Seattle, talked about his legacy.
In the meeting hall at NVC, it felt like you were at the ballpark. Fans streamed in wearing their Mariners gear (mostly specific to Ichiro) and carrying Ichiro memorabilia, in the hopes of getting an autograph from one of the Mariners management. Hot dogs and chips were served, and even the Mariners Moose mascot showed up for a few minutes to clown around with the audience.
Players like Ichiro are our heroes, as much as Gilgamesh, Musashi, or Mulan. Whether you like baseball or not, there is no denying his mastery of the sport. Just like ancestors long ago that sat around the fire to listen to stories, we love to hear Ichiro’s exploits. How many seasons did he have over 200 hits? Ten in a row. How many All-Star games was he in? Also 10. Most hits in one season? 262. The all-time high, breaking Pete Rose’s record. (There was a feud at the time, as Rose said Ichiro’s Japan hits didn’t count—but that was then.) 4,257 was the record against Rose’s 4,256 in 2016. When Ichiro retired in 2019, his total was 4,387.
The point of the gathering was to pay tribute to and gain a better understanding of Ichiro’s impact on Japanese relations with the United States. NVC Commander Mike Yaguchi put on his best “sports announcer” voice to introduce moderator Lori Matsukawa, retired KING 5 anchor, and Japan’s Consul General in Seattle, Hisao Inagaki.
“Even if you are not familiar with baseball, you have probably heard about Ichiro,” said Inagaki, who admitted he had not known the full extent of Ichiro’s influence and achievements. The audience was also given a refresher by Bob Whiting, who wrote a book specifically about Ichiro called, in short, “The Meaning of Ichiro.”
Due to Ichiro’s influence and his “cool factor,” as Inagaki described it, more Japanese players have since been brought to the United States, and Americans’ concept of the Japanese in general has altered for the better. In return, Ichiro’s success here made American baseball even more popular in Japan.
“I think Ichiro deserves credit for promoting the United States-Japan baseball exchange,” said Inagaki, who pointed out that this year of Ichiro’s induction into the Mariners’ Hall of Fame is also, fittingly, the 150-year anniversary of American baseball’s introduction to Japan.
“Through baseball, Ichiro has promoted grassroots-level cultural exchange between Japan and the United States,” Inagaki went on. “He has laid the foundation for today’s deep cultural and economic ties and has promoted the friendship between Japan and the United States.”
No small kudos for the man who, when he came to Seattle, was called out for his stature, his unusual “crooked” stance, and for not speaking English (former Mariners international scout, Ted Heid, defended Ichiro by explaining that he knows English; he just doesn’t want to make mistakes). People wondered, could he hit the way fans and players in the U.S. liked? When Ichiro joined the Mariners, there were no “position players” from Japan, only pitchers, as Americans held the misbelief that “Japanese batters did not have what it takes,” shared Whiting. Put it this way, Ichiro hit a 90-mile-an hour pitch at age 15, and it just got better from there. The Mariners saw the magic in Ichiro, and so did then owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi, who insisted to Chuck Armstrong, former Mariners president, that “if we did not sign Ichiro, we were all fired.”
Ichiro had what was described as “an explosive rookie year” in Seattle.
“Ichiro hit the ground running, literally, in 2001,” said Alvin Davis, 1997 Mariners Hall of Fame recipient. “All of us got used to the idea of having this greatness in the Seattle Mariners very quickly.” Ichiro went on to break multiple records. But he wasn’t a prima donna. He was a team player, exhibiting what the Japanese call “wa,” the spirit of togetherness.
“He would do anything you asked him to do…He was a very humble player and humble man,” said former Mariners manager and first Asian American Major League Baseball manager, Don Wakamatsu. “Even today…he works with the young kids. He’s out there…trying to give back…Most Hall of Famers aren’t out there doing what he’s doing. That just shows his character and the love and dedication he had for his game. I don’t think I’ll ever see it again in my lifetime.”
We relish hearing that our heroes are superhuman—but we also like to know how they are human. Everyone in attendance could have listened to Ichiro’s achievements on repeat for hours, yet the highlight of the gathering was the storytelling and love of the game—and of Ichiro—that shone on everyone’s faces.
Heid, who once acted as Ichiro’s interpreter, humorously related a time when he wrongly called a “go ahead” home run, a “sayonara” home run, the incorrect term. “You have got to be a better translator,” Ichiro frankly told him, to which Heid, taking the diplomatic liberty that interpreter’s often take, told the press instead how “excited” Ichiro was. Meanwhile, Japanese media present were wondering if Heid was “going to quit the next day” (no, he didn’t). Wakamatsu called Ichiro “poetry in motion,” and Armstrong told of a time Ichiro hit a home run to win against the Yankees because “that’s what we needed.”
The room was full of Ichiro admirers, young and old, such as owner of 84 Yesler restaurant, Sam Takahashi, who sported his “lucky” Ichiro cap. It was poignantly evident how much Ichiro and Mariners baseball mean to Seattle, when another fan asked what was the process in Ichiro’s leaving the Mariners in 2012? In a Mariners jersey and cap, he theorized, and Armstrong confirmed, Ichiro had been seeking—and deserved—a chance to play in the World Series, which was not in the cards for the Mariners at that time. (Ichiro returned and was with the Mariners when he retired).
“It was traumatic to fans when Ichiro was traded to the New York Yankees,” said the questioner, who added that Ichiro was “embedded deep in the hearts of all the fans.”
This was never truer than later that night when the fans chanted Ichiro’s name at the Mariners Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“You can’t achieve your dreams all at once,” Ichiro has said. “You accumulate small things and one day you will be able to achieve unbelievable power.”
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.