Ichiro Suzuki

Ichiro SuzukiWant to make an Orix BlueWave fan break into a cold sweat? Mention the fact that Orix right fielder Ichiro Suzuki - just plain "Ichiro" to baseball fans throughout Japan - looks great wearing that Seattle Mariners uniform he donned during the American baseball spring training season.

"How do I look? Do I look okay in a Mariners uniform?" Ichiro said when he joined teammate Nobuyuki Ebisu at the Mariners' spring training camp in March. Playing in four of their pre-season games, Ichiro said that playing ball with the Mariners, not to mention taking batting practice with the likes of former Mariners slugger Ken Griffey, Jr. and current star shortstop Alex Rodriguez, was a dream come true.

Baseball fans in Kobe, however, think Ichiro looks perfect in the home team's blue and yellow, and hope that the fleet 26-year-old outfielder will win his record seventh straight Pacific League batting title this year while helping Orix win the pennant.

Two factors keep Ichiro popular with both Orix fans and American baseball scouts. His low pendulum swing - low enough to catch a pitch that bounced in front of the plate for a single in a recent game against the Chiba Lotte Marines - allows him to adjust quickly to different pitches, contributing to his six-year reign as Pacific League batting champion. His blazing speed on the base paths (11.1-second speed in the 100 yard dash) allows him to outrun grounders hit to the infield, as well as making him a threat to steal bases.

A third factor - boyish good looks and a friendly demeanor - keeps him popular with both the media and with female baseball fans, despite the fact he married former newscaster Yumiko Fukushima last year.

Ichiro was born in Aichi Prefecture on October 22, 1973. Japanese baseball lore has him taking up a bat and ball when he was three years old. At eight, Ichiro insisted to his father that he wanted to play baseball. Joining a baseball club in his hometown which played only on Sunday, his father practiced with him on weekdays. These one-on-one father-son workouts continued every day until Ichiro reached high school. After his school participated twice in Koshien, the national high school baseball tournament, Orix drafted Ichiro out of high school and he has been wearing the team's colors ever since.

Credit for changing his name from the common "Suzuki" to the now-household "Ichiro" goes not to some slick marketing executive, but to Orix Manager Akira Ogi. Ogi insisted that since Ichiro was so unique, he should have a unique name on his uniform as well, a move that made Ichiro uncomfortable at first. Now he, as well as the fans, have grown accustomed to it.

The question now is perhaps this: How might the Seattle fans react to having an outfielder with his first name emblazoned on his uniform, now that there is a vacancy in their outfield with the departure of Griffey to Cincinnati? That noise you hear in the background is the collective scream of anguish by Orix fans faced with that distinct possibility.

Larry Cafiero

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ISSUES 248/9-