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Rediff.com  » Sports » Ichiro shatters baseball's 84-year-old record

Ichiro shatters baseball's 84-year-old record

October 05, 2004 14:29 IST

In shattering one of Major League Baseball's (MLB) oldest records, Ichiro Suzuki did more than just write his name in the history books.

The Japanese sensation assured himself a place among the pantheon of baseball greats when he broke the 84-year-old mark for hits in a single season on Friday.

Ichiro finished with 262 hits, five more than Hall of Famer George Sisler recorded in 1920, despite hundreds of death threats warning him off one of baseball's most revered records.

His history-making year was the one bright spot for the Seattle Mariners, who narrowly avoided the club's first 100-loss season since 1983.

Ichiro, who goes by his given name in a country where first-name fame is usually reserved for the likes of Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, became the first player to have 200 hits in his first four seasons in the majors.

Fireworks lit up the sky to celebrate his record-breaking hit as Ichiro was mobbed by his teammates at Seattle's Safeco Field.

With the crowd of 45,000 still cheering, Ichiro jogged over to the first-base seats, bowed deeply and then shook hands with Sisler's 81-year-old daughter Frances Sisler Drochelman.

"I was beginning to feel serious pressure to break the record," said Ichiro. "But dealing with that stress and facing the challenge is what it's all about. Now I need a break."

The 30-year-old outfielder, who led the major leagues with a 0.372 batting average this season, exploded the myth that Japanese ballplayers could not be ranked alongside the very best.

Ichiro himself can lay claim to the title of Japan's most successful export -- not just in baseball, but in any sport.

WORLD CLASS

Pitcher Hideo Nomo, dubbed the "Tornado" for his twisting wind-up, was the first Japanese ballplayer to make an impact in the majors, paving the way for his countrymen with early success after joining the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.

But Ichiro, who hit his first professional home run off Nomo in Japan in 1993, has not only overshadowed the achievements of his trail-blazing "sempai" (senior).

He has transcended his sport, as only truly great athletes do. Ichiro has proved that, among team sports at least, he is Japan's only genuine world-class performer.

Japan equaled their record of 16 gold medals at this year's Athens Olympics, though all but one were in individual events.

Japan's football captain Hidetoshi Nakata is one of the highest-paid footballers in the world but he failed to establish himself in Italy after joining Parma for $26 million in 2001.

Nakata, the most recognisable footballer in Asia, joined Fiorentina in July in a bid to resurrect his club career.

Japan teammates Shinji Ono and Junichi Inamoto have had moderate success in Europe but neither could be considered genuinely world-class.

Among athletes from the region, only Chinese National Basketball Association (NBA) centre Yao Ming has made an impact on team sport comparable to Ichiro's.

Ichiro has taken the United States by storm since introducing himself in a radio interview by shouting into the microphone: "What's up, Seattle?"

A hip-hop fan who radiates coolness with his wrap-around shades and designer goatee, Ichiro has turned hitting into an art form.

ZEN-LIKE RITUAL

His Zen-like pre-bat ritual, unerring bat control and smooth acceleration out of the box contrast sharply with the modern power game.

The first Japanese position player in the major leagues, Ichiro has a style evoking memories of a bygone era. Explosively quick and with a lethal arm, Ichiro has handled the hype with typical sang-froid.

Where Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire grew tetchy during their home-run chases, Ichiro took it all in his stride.

"You want to know what colour underwear I'm wearing too?" joked Ichiro, who won Rookie of the Year and MVP honours in 2001 after signing from Japan's Orix BlueWave for $13 million.

"You're as bad as the Japanese reporters."

Ichiro's detractors claim he lacks punch and is content just to get on first base. He hit only eight home runs this year; compared to the 31 compatriot Hideki Matsui blasted during the regular season for the New York Yankees.

But most baseball observers argue simply: why tinker? Ichiro had 80 multi-hit games on his way to erasing Sisler's record, one that was supposedly unbreakable.

"I think I have an opportunity to get hits every time I get to the plate," shrugged Ichiro, a seven-time batting champion and triple MVP in Japan.

Ichiro has to play for six more years to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. MLB officials should keep a place warm.

Alastair Himmer
Source:
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