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Where EAST meets the Northwest

LEGEND RETIRES. Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners runs to first base after hitting a two-run single during a spring training baseball game on February 22, 2019, in Peoria, Arizona. On the night of March 21, Ichiro ó a player who defined baseball at its very best on two continents for a generation ó took his final swing at the Tokyo Dome in front of a sellout crowd of 45,000 people. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

TOP TALENT. Ichiro Suzuki, left, and pitcher Yusei Kikuchi of the Seattle Mariners leave a press conference in Tokyo. The Mariners played a two-game baseball series against the Oakland Athletics to open the Major League Baseball season at the Tokyo Dome. (AP Photo/Toru Takahashi)

Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels takes a swing during an MLB game on September 22, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

PLAY BALL. Jung-ho Kang of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws out Roeman Fields of the Toronto Blue Jays during a spring training baseball game in Bradenton, Florida. Kang is a native South Korea. (AP Photo/Chris OíMeara)

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #07 (April 1, 2019), pages 1, 7 & 8.

A legendís retirement kicks off a season packed with Asian talent

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Just like the sound of "Play Ball!" and the smell of fresh-cut outfield grass, our annual look at the best Asian players in Major League Baseball (MLB) signals the start of the baseball season. While there are one or two position players, most of the high-impact eastern imports are pitchers, many among the best in the game. And the top Asian baseball player right now, Shohei Ohtani, can pitch and hit with the best ó though this season, he will be doing just one of those.

Ohtani joined the Los Angeles Angels in 2019, drawing even more notice than other superstar Japanese pitchers because of his abilities on both offense and defense. Ohtani had previously spent five years playing Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), where he logged a 42-15 record with a 2.52 ERA (Earned Run Average) and a 1.08 WHIP (Walks & Hits per Innings Pitched) while clubbing 48 home runs and 70 doubles in 403 games.

In 2018, Ohtani won the MLB Rookie of the Year award after hitting .285 with 22 home runs in just 114 games while notching a 3.31 ERA and striking out 63 batters in 51.2 innings. No player since Babe Ruth has made 10 pitching appearances and hit more than 20 home runs, and Ohtani didnít even play a full season.

Last October 1, Ohtani went under the knife for Tommy John surgery, and the resulting rehabilitation will limit him to designated hitter duties this season. His true value to the Angels wonít be realized until he returns to the mound in 2020, when he should be able to build on whatever advances he makes at the plate this season.

Hot on the heels of Ohtani, the latest pitching sensation to make the leap from the east is coming to a familiar Pacific Northwest destination for Japanese players: the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners have had a Japan-born player on their roster every season since 1998, but theyíve never signed a NPB pitcher with the talent of Yusei Kikuchi, who inked a four-year, $56-million contract with Seattle before this season.

In Kikuchiís eight seasons with the Saitama Seibu Lions in NPB, he had a record of 74-48 with a 2.81 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. In 2017, his best season, he went 16-6 against a 1.97 ERA and a dominating 0.91 WHIP, striking out more than a batter per inning for the first time in his career. He joins a Mariners team in rebuilding mode, but he will make a great foundation around which to create a winning team.

Many other Asian MLB players will try to make their mark this season, each with his own great storyline. Slugging third baseman Jung-ho Kang will return to the Pittsburgh Pirates after almost two years off due to injury and legal issues in his native South Korea. Yu Darvish, once the top Japanese pitcher in baseball, will look to redeem himself after a lost first season with the Chicago Cubs, while starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka and the New York Yankees are favorites to win the World Series.

But any catalog would be incomplete without celebrating the retirement of Ichiro Suzuki, the best Asian baseball player to grace an MLB diamond ó and one of the best ever to play the game. Without him, itís likely that few, if any, of these other Asian players would be on an MLB team today.

Looking back now, itís hard to remember the skepticism that greeted the arrival of Ichiro. The Seattle Mariners signed him in 2000 to a three-year, $14-million contract ó a bargain, even when you factor in the $13.1 million fee that Seattle paid for the right to negotiate with him. Back then, that was a lot of money to pay a player, and his price tag and Asian heritage meant that Ichiro arrived with a target on his back.

Outside the organization, his talent was often underrated. Mike Hargrove, then the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, opined that Ichiroís arm and speed might earn him a bench spot, but not a starting job. A former major-league infielder who had played in Japan, Randy Johnson, said, "I didnít think the Japanese style of hitting would work."

Even Ichiroís supporters were skeptical. His manager, Lou Piniella, said "Itís a tough adjustment, because big-league players throw harder." Jim Colborn, who had prepared a comprehensive scouting report on Ichiro, wrote, "No one is expecting him to hit .350, which was his career average in Japan."

Ichiro hit exactly .350 in his first MLB season, becoming the second player ever to be named both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. His average would reach a league-leading .372 in 2004, the same year he broke George Sislerís record by collecting 262 hits in one season.

Sislerís total of 257 had stood for 84 years, and some thought it would never be broken, but Ichiro did a lot of things people thought nobody else could do, let alone a Japanese player. He set a new MLB record with 10 straight 200-hit seasons, and he tied Lou Gehrigís record of eight consecutive seasons with 200 hits and 100 runs scored.

In the first ten years of the new millennium, 2000-2009, Ichiro collected 2,030 hits, the most of any player over that time, becoming the fourth player ever to top 2,000 hits over a ten-year span. And Ichiro did that in just nine seasons, having joined the Mariners in 2001.

In his career, Ichiro amassed 3,089 hits in MLB and 1,278 in Japan, giving him 4,367 hits, the most ever for a player at the top professional level and the 21st most in MLB history ó again, all the more impressive because he started his MLB career at age 27.

More than this, Ichiro did it with class, style, and grace. He was thrown out of a game just once, in 2009, and he was modest and avoided the limelight, asking the Japanese reporters who trailed him everywhere to stay out of the locker room during his rookie season.

And he paved the way for Asian players who followed. Though none have reached his level of achievement, the flood of players from across Asia owe their MLB careers to the player who proved to everyone that baseball knows no nationality or birthplace ó just great players.

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