Ichiro Suzuki slapped the third pitch he saw into left field during the first inning of the New York Yankees‘ 4-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night, picking up a single and recording the 4,000th hit of his professional career.
With the hit, he became one of only three players in professional baseball history to record 4,000 hits — Peter Rose and Ty Cobb are the others — and officially cemented his place as the best Japanese baseball player ever.
But this spot did not come overnight, in fact it has been a long time coming.
Ever since Ichiro’s first full professional baseball season in 1994 with the Orix Blue Wave, it has been clear that he was going to be something special. During that season, he set the Pacific League single-season batting average record with .385 and became the first player in the league to ever record more than 200 hits in a season.
This magnificent season led to him winning the first of three consecutive Pacific League MVP awards and becoming a household name in Japan. Soon after, MLB scouts also took notice and when the Blue Wave made him available after the 2000 season, the Seattle Mariners bid $13 million just to negotiate a contract before agreeing to a three-year, $14 million contract.
Upon moving to, MLB there was some skepticism as to whether Ichiro could succeed in the majors both because of his unconventional swinging motion that resembles a softball player, and because there had never been a Japanese born and raised position player in the major leagues before.
But when Ichiro arrived in the major leagues, it was immediately evident that he was the real deal. In his rookie year, he made the AL All-Star team, was named Rookie of the Month five times, won the Rookie of the Year Award and won the MVP.
Since that rookie year for the ages, he has only gone on to become one of the best outfielders of all time by recording 2721 hits, winning two batting titles, an All-Star game MVP and three Silver Slugger awards. He has participated in 10 All-Star games, won 10 Gold Glove awards, tied the major league record for the most seasons with 200 hits and set the major league record for most hits in a single season.
This incredible amount of success would be a remarkable feat for any player, but is completely unparalleled by any Japanese baseball player in MLB history. Ichiro is the only Japanese player to win an MVP, Silver Slugger, or Gold Glove in MLB history, and leads all MLB players from Japan by a long shot in career games played runs scored, at-bats, plate appearances, hits, doubles, triples, stolen bases, batting average and on-base percentage.
He has been able to accomplish all of this while dealing with a horde of media that follows him around at all times, and becoming a hero of Japanese society as a whole. Being able to do all of this while playing in the toughest baseball league in the world is what separates him from other Japanese baseball legends such as Sadaharu Oh, Hideki Matsui and Masaichi Kaned and makes him the best Japanese baseball player ever.