April 18th, 2009 12:00 EST
Ichiro Breaks Japanese Professional Baseball's Hits Record
In 1995, Ichiro Suzuki was 21 years old and still a rising star for the Pacific League`s Blue Wave in his native country of Japan. While being eschewed for his highly unorthodox swing when he first arrived in the league at 18, managers, fans, and the press learned not to question the results of his nuanced stroke. By the closing of the 1995 regular season, Suzuki produced his third consecutive MVP campaign with a league-setting .342 BA, 25 HR, 80 RBI, and 49 stolen bases and led the Blue Wave to their first Pacific League pennant since 1983.
And the extolations came from all corners of the widely popular Japanese Professional baseball circuit.
Legendary outfielder Isao Harimoto, who played for the Toei Flyers, the Yomiuri Giants, and the Lotte Orions en route to becoming Japan`s all-time leader in hits with 3085, predicted Suzuki would shatter his record that had stood for over 15 years then.
Ichiro Suzuki called him "crazy" for his outlandish claim.
But MLB`s 2001 Rookie of the Year and MVP tipped his cap to Harimoto for becoming an oracle to his excellence during the Seattle Mariners` game against the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday night. Ichiro went into the Thursday night game with 3,085 hits between his years in Japan and in Major League Baseball.
He had 1,278 hits in the nine years he spent in the Pacific League, while accruing 1,808 in his eight-plus seasons in Seattle. In his first eight full seasons in American professional baseball, Suzuki has been an eight-time All Star and Gold Glove winning outfielder.
Typical of his single-slapping hitting style, Ichiro lined a single into right field in the fourth inning, effectively surpassing the previous mark and solidifying his place atop the list of Japan`s homegrown all-time hitting leaders.
The now 68-year-old Harimoto was in attendance as Suzuki smacked the single off Angels` starter Joe Saunders which broke his record. After seeing the one-hopper bounce into the rightfielder`s glove, Harimoto smiled and gave Ichiro the thumbs-up while the new record-holder saluted the Seattle faithful that stood in respect.
After the game, an interpreter spoke for Suzuki: "Mr. Harimoto, in 1995 - 14 years ago! - told me, `The only guy who could break my record is you.` For him to have the vision of the future, for him to say that to a player that has only one year under his belt, I`m amazed! I thought, `What`s this crazy man saying?`"
But it became clear that Suzuki was on his way as he led the Pacific League in batting average for a Japanese-record seven straight seasons during the 1990`s. So as the prize came within his grasp, he admitted that the burden seemed overwhelming at times.
"Because I am good at math, so I understand when something is far and when it`s getting close. At times, I wish I wasn`t so good in math," he said.
Though he seemed unsure of reaching his goal before last year, when he became only the second major leaguer to have 200 hits in eight consecutive seasons in history (the other being Hall of Famer Willie Keeler from 1894-1901), he knew Harimoto might be right in the end.
The event has developed into a sensation in Japan, and a television station even flew Harimoto to Seattle so he could witness Suzuki tie and perhaps break his record.
Ichiro said on Wednesday: "For Mr. Harimoto to make the trip all the way here from Japan for the game, it`s probably the first and last time. That as special meaning to me."
Harimoto was there on Wednesday, when Suzuki made his season debut after missing the end of last year due to a bleeding ulcer. With three men on, Suzuki turned on a pitch, sending into the bleachers for his first grand slam in six years an his 3,085th hit of his career.
Following the riveting display from Suzuki, Harimoto`s interpreter said: "That`s pretty much Ichiro - the greatest of Ichiro"
Much like Harimoto, Japan broadcast the Thursday night game in its entirety in the late morning and replayed it in the early afternoon.
The game`s officiators retrieved the ball, before the field recommenced play. To cap off his achievement, Suzuki scored from third off a ground out by Adrian Beltre, giving Seattle the 1-0 lead, in a game that the Mariners eventually lost 5-1 to the Angels.
Seattle fans rose from their seats to give Harimoto a standing ovation after the inning, to which Harimoto in turn stood at attention and bowed with due respect.
"Mr. Harimoto was planning to go home (Friday)," Suzuki began, about the stress to perform. "If I didn`t get the record today, I would have worried about what he`d do with his plane ticket. So I had that kind of pressure on me."