Sun, Oct 03, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Japan celebrates success of native son in US baseball


Japan rejoiced yesterday as Ichiro Suzuki broke one of the longest-standing records in major league history.

Japanese fans enthusiastically celebrated the Seattle Mariners outfielder's record-breaking hit that bettered George Sisler's 84-year-old major league mark for hits in a season.

Suzuki chopped a leadoff single in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field to tie Sisler, then made history with a grounder up the middle in the third -- his 258th hit of the season.

"He's incredible," said Shigeru Uchida, who joined other fans in front of a downtown Tokyo electronics store that was showing the game on TV.

"Baseball is America's game and for him to go over there and do that is truly amazing."

Ichiro's feat was especially satisfying for Japanese fans who for decades have seen American players come here to make it big. Only in recent years have some of their own players made a mark in the North American major leagues.

It was about noon local time when fans gathered at sports bars throughout the nation's capital and at the city hall in Suzuki's hometown in Aichi prefecture (state) to watch the game played Friday night in Seattle.

"I would like to give him my heartfelt congratulations," said Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. "He has made extra efforts in addition to having a natural gift."

Suzuki has long been admired in Japan for qualities many here consider to be quintessentially Japanese -- a scrappy hardworker who beats out infield hits, does his duty to the utmost without complaint or fuss, and displays excellence in all areas of the game.

"You can tell how happy and proud I am just by looking at me," said Suzuki's father Nobuyuki. "The tears just won't stop flowing."

Suzuki's assault on Sisler's record was watched breathlessly in Japan. News programs highlighted Suzuki's every swing of the bat and walks were greeted with exasperation.

His record-breaking hit also brightened what has otherwise been a gloomy baseball season here.

With the merger of Suzuki's former team -- the Orix BlueWave -- and a subsequent players' strike that lasted two days, fans have had little to get excited about.

Japan finished a disappointing third in baseball at the Athens Olympics with a team of stars from the professional leagues who were supposed to bring home the gold. In March, legendary former player and manager Shigeo Nagashima suffered a stroke that prevented him from going to Athens.

"There has been a lot of bad news in the baseball world here this year," office worker Yayoi Sugaya said. "Ichiro has given us a reason to be happy and proud, and is living proof that hard work pays off."

Players who faced Suzuki over the years in Japan were also impressed.

"He's definitely the greatest hitter in baseball," said Yomiuri Giants outfielder Tuffy Rhodes, who played against Suzuki when the two were in the Pacific League. "From the first time I saw him, it was obvious to me that he wanted to play in the major leagues."

While playing for the BlueWave, Suzuki won seven straight Pacific League batting titles before signing with the Mariners. He holds the Japanese season record for hits with 210 in 1994.

Other Japanese players such as Hideo Nomo and Hideki Matsui have succeeded in the majors, but none to the same extent as Suzuki.

Three years ago, Suzuki set the major league rookie record for hits in a season -- his 234th hit breaking the previous mark set by "Shoeless" Joe Jackson with Cleveland in 1911. Suzuki finished with 242 hits and a .350 batting average, earning him American League Rookie of the Year.

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