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CHAPTER 1A New EraAs Ichiro Suzuki walked to the plate in the seventh inning of the Seattle Mariners' opening day game against Oakland on April 2, it would have been natural for him to be a little nervous. Although he had won seven consecutive batting titles in Japan, his major league career was only six innings old. He had been to bat three times and still had not gotten the ball out of the infield.The first position player from Japan ever to play in a major league game, Ichiro-already known in the United States only by his first name, the one on top of the number 51 on the back of his jersey-had prepared himself for the pressure and scrutiny he would be under. This game was being televised live back to Japan on two networks. Millions of people were watching. It was on the radio. Those who couldn't watch were listening. A record crowd had filled Safeco Field, many of the fans wearing Ichiro replica jerseys as they left their homes in the Seattle area's large Japanese community.Despite his success in Japan, Ichiro knew there were people in both the United States and his homeland who doubted whether he could be a successfulplayer in the major leagues. Others wondered too but were cheering and hoping that he would make it. He knew that for whatever reason, there probably were people rooting against him, hoping he would fail. He knew his career, or even his season, certainly would not be defined by what he did in his first game.Inside, however, he hoped that this would be the at-bat when he would deliver his first major league hit. After all, the Mariners needed to rally. They trailed 4 to 2. Reliever T. J. Mathews was on the mound for the A's.As television cameras rolled and thousands in the stands tried to snap a picture, Ichiro calmly bounced a single into center field for his first major league hit. The ball was taken out of play.Ichiro could not help but hear the cheers as he stood on first base, but he forced his mind to concentrate on the task at hand--trying to win the game. He later scored on a hit by Edgar Martinez as the Mariners tied the game, then won it in the eighth. In that inning Ichiro contributed a key bunt single.One of the players watching and cheering from the Seattle bullpen was relief pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki, who only a year earlier had made his major league debut after a long career in Japan. With the Mariners ahead, he came out of the bullpen and retired the A's in the ninth to preserve the victory."I'm sure there will be some celebrations goingon," Ichiro said about the reaction to the win in Japan. "I was very glad I could contribute. I want to be here for a long time. What I felt tonight I will never forget."
Baseball has been played in Japan for almost as many years as it has been played in the United States. Nevertheless, it took more than a hundred years before Ichiro became the first Japanese nonpitcher to play in a major league game. The next day outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo made his debut with the New York Mets.Both men faced not only the personal challenge of trying to succeed against the best players in the world but the added pressure of knowing an entire country was watching them."Imagine Mark McGwire going to Japan," said one Japanese television coordinator. "That's how big Ichiro is. It's big."When Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese player in American baseball as a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965, it was viewed as an anomaly. It was thirty years before another Japanese player tried to make the jump to the major leagues; Hideo Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.Other pitchers have come since, with varying degrees of success. It takes more than just raw ability to make the cultural adjustment to living and working in another country.Jim Colborn, now the pitching coach for the Dodgers and a former scout for the Mariners who was instrumental in persuading Sasaki and others to come to the major leagues, believes Nomo's success had a lot to do with changing the opinions of many Japanese players that they could he successful in the majors."I think the talent was always there," Colborn told the Los Angeles Times. "But you would ask a Japanese player in the 1990s if he was interested in playing in the majors and he would so 'no they are too big, too powerful.' They tended to be intimidated. Once they could make the comparison based on the performance of one of their own, many started to envision coming, and I think many more will make the jump. They are in the top one percent for dedication, determination and perseverance. Those are characteristics you can count on."When the current generation of baseball stars was growing up, nobody talked about coming to the major leagues. Even in Japan, the U.S. professionals were called "major leaguers." Youngsters like Ichiro dreamed of one day growing up and playing in the Japanese league.These youngsters, however, were just as dedicated--if not more so--than young boys growing up in California, Florida, or any other U.S. state who had a poster of their favorite player on their bedroom wall and went to bed dreaming of the day they would be starring for their favorite team.The boys in Japan went to bed dreaming of playing for the Yomuri Giants or another Japanese team. Players for those teams were their heroes; those were the players the boys looked up to and aspired to be like, not Michael Jordan.There is a story that apparently is true about Ichiro when he was a young boy. He would play catch and work out with his father on a daily basis. After he had returned home from school and completed his homework, his father would take him to the local batting cage. When Ichiro was able to master the fastest speed, his father asked the owner to turn the machine even faster. The owner said it would not go any faster, so Ichiro's father had his son move up to bat from a shorter distance, giving him less time to react to the pitch and making it seem as if it were coming faster.There probably are similar stories about other Japanese youngsters, both those who decided to come to the United States to play in the major leagues and those who decided to remain in Japan.What Ichiro accomplished in his first few months in the majors, however, can hardly be equaled by anyone.He helped the Mariners to their best start in franchise history and to a double-digit lead in the AL West before the end of May. He was on pace to break the all-time record for most hits in a season, a record that had stood for eighty-one years. He was contending for the batting title. He was headedfor the Rookie of the Year award and perhaps the Most Valuable Player trophy. And he became the first rookie since catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1990 to be voted into the starting lineup for the All-Star game."He's caught the fancy of the public," said Seattle manager Lou Piniella. "He's their favorite and rightfully so. He's a dynamic kid. He's a professional in every sense of the word."Seattle has had its share of stars in recent years. Randy Johnson pitched there. Ken Griffey Jr. patrolled the outfield and hit home runs. Most experts considered shortstop Alex Rodriguez the best player in the game.None, however, was able to match Ichiro's sudden popularity. Only the most dedicated fans knew how good a player he had been in Japan, and even they didn't believe he would be able to be so good so quickly in the United States.Opponents quickly found out that Ichiro could beat them with his bat, with either a single or a home run. He could beat them with speed, forcing infielders to adjust where they were playing so he would not be able to beat out a routine ground ball. He could beat them with his rocket arm, throwing strikes from deep in the outfield to cut down opposing runners. He could beat them with his glove, leaping over the wall to take away a would-be home run.And perhaps most impressive, they learned hecould beat them with his head. Facing pitchers he had never seen before, except on videotape, he would make adjustments from at-bat to at-bat or even from pitch to pitch, forcing pitchers constantly to change how they tried to get him out.That earned him the respect not only of his teammates but of his opponents and baseball fans in two countries."Ichiro could have come here with a big head, because he's like the Michael Jordan of Japan, but he's tried very hard to fit in," said relief pitcher Jeff Nelson of the Mariners.Within the first week of the season, almost all of the nine Japanese players in the major leagues were fitting in just fine.In New York, Shinjo starred in the Mets opener with an outstanding catch, scored two runs, and showed off his blazing speed. In Baltimore a couple of days later, Nomo pitched the second no-hitter of his career, for the Red Sox. Back in Seattle, in addition to Ichiro's heroics, Sasaki kept coming out of the bullpen to save games for the Mariners.One of the most interested observers, not only that week but all season, has been Masanori Murakami, who frequently works the games of the current Japanese players for national radio and television broadcasts back to Japan.As he thinks back to his games for the Giants more than thirty-five years ago, Murakami realizeshow much closer the countries of Japan and the United States have come-because of baseball.When the Red Sox came to Seattle in early May to face the Mariners, their pitching rotation just happened to fall so that Nomo was scheduled to start. When he faced off against Ichiro, fans in two countries-but particularly in Japan-sat riveted to their television screens.When Nomo left Japan in 1995, he said he was looking for a new challenge. He found it in Los Angeles and the major leagues.Ichiro said much the same thing when he left Japan after the 2000 season. He wasn't worried about relations between the two countries. He wasn't trying to be a pioneer. He didn't really see that he was going to be doing anything dramatically different from what he had been doing all his life and as a professional for nine years."I just want to play baseball," he said.When he sits alone in his inner space in front of his locker in the Mariners' clubhouse before a game, away from the media distractions, he is thinking about only one thing: what he will do in that day's game that will help his team win.That internal pressure to succeed might be as great as all of the external battles he faces on a daily basis.Methodically rubbing a six-inch wooden stick up and down the sides and bottoms of his feet, Ichirois relaxing. "It's for pressure points," he told Sports Illustrated.When Ichiro says the only thing he misses about Japanese baseball is his dog, you believe him. You also know he means no disrespect to that country's game when he says it.Japanese players, just like American professionals, need to have an appreciation of history and knowledge of the players who came before them if they are going to give the game its proper respect. Ichiro does that too.He knows that he is in Seattle, playing in the major leagues, only because of the efforts of others. He won't forget.Copyright © 2001 by Rob Rains.