While the 2008 Suzuki GSX1300R Hayabusa sports bike is the fastest production motorcycle on the planet, the Seattle Mariner’s Suzuki (Ichiro) started out fast and has continued to fine-tune his game during his seven years in major league baseball.
Ichiro – who, like select entertainment celebrities, soon become known by a single name, was acquired by the Seattle Mariners on November 9, 2000 for a contract worth roughly $14 million. Ichiro's move to the United States was viewed with great interest because he was the first Japanese position player to play regularly for a Major League Baseball team. Many in the US believed he was too frail to succeed against Major League pitching or endure the longer 162-game season.
Not only did he prove he belonged, Ichiro had a remarkable 2001 season, accumulating 242 hits (the most by any player since 1930 as well as a rookie record) and leading the league with a .350 batting average and 56 stolen bases. By mid-season, he had produced hitting streaks of 15 and 23 games, been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and created a media storm on both sides of the Pacific. In Seattle, ticket sales (and wins) were higher than ever, fans from Japan were taking $2,000 baseball tours to see the games, more than 150 Japanese reporters and photographers were clamoring for access, and "Ichirolls" were being sold at sushi stands in the ballpark.
Aided by Major League Baseball's decision to allow All-Star voting in Japan, Ichiro was the first rookie to lead all players in voting for the All-Star Game. At season's end, he won the American League Most Valuable Player and the Rookie of the Year awards, becoming only the second player in MLB history (after Fred Lynn) to receive both honors in the same season.
In 2004 he smashed St. Louis Browns’ George Sisler’s 83-year-old record of 257, by hammering out 262 base hits. Ichiro batted .429 during the second half of the ’04 season, including .481 with runners in scoring position and two outs and an unheard of .583 with the bases loaded. He also became the first MLB player to have three 50-hit months in one season and averaged 1.6 hits per contest.
In addition to being a six-time Gold Glove winner, Ichiro is also a six-time All-Star selection from 2001 to 2006. His success has opened the door for other Japanese players like Yomiuri Giants slugger Hideki Matsui to enter the Major Leagues.
Go Go Godzilla; Hideki Matsui leaves giant footprints for other Asian players to follow
At 33 years of age, Hideki Matsui is one of Major League baseball’s brightest and most established Asian stars. Already a legend in his home country, when he became the 17th Japanese player to sign with a MLB club (New York Yankees 2003), Matsui earned the nickname "Godzilla" after making a record four straight appearances in Japan’s National High School Baseball Championships for Seiryo High School. Although only a teenager, Matsui had already developed a fearsome and legendary reputation and had a record 60 home runs in a single season. During one of championship games, the pitchers of Meitoko High School were so scared of Matsui that they deliberately walked him five times, a feat unheard of in high school baseball.
From 1994 to 2002, “Godzilla” Matsui continued his dominating play with the Yomuri Giants, swatting 332 home runs in nine seasons and never missing a game. In fact, when you add his 1,250 consecutive starts with the Yomuri team in Japan together with his 518 played for the New York Yankees (before he fractured his left wrist last May 11th vs. the Boston Red Sox) Matsui played in 1,768 consecutive professional games…a monster feat by any standard.
Matsui has also proved that Japanese players can come over to the States and slug with the best of them. Perhaps Japan's strongest power hitter since Honorary 500 Home Run Club member Sadaharu Oh, Matsui won the MVP in 2002, his third time doing so, and just barely missed winning the Triple Crown.
His 518 straight games played to start a MLB career surpassed 500 Home Run Club legend Ernie Banks, who broke into the Majors with a streak of 424 consecutive games played to begin his career with the Chicago Cubs (1953-'56). Matsui's streak of 518 consecutive games played also set the A.L. record for most games played to begin a Major-League career (surpassing Al Simmons' 394 from 1924-'26) and was the longest streak by any Yankee since Honorary 500 Home Run Club member Lou Gehrig's herculean 2,130-game streak.
Matsui is so popular in The Big Apple that he was named as one of New York City's tourism ambassadors. He also maintains a strong connection with his homeland and donated 50 million Yen ($481,000) to the Japanese Red Cross Society for Asia's tsunami victims.
A born showman, Matsui has made a career of hitting home runs at defining moments, when his team needed them most. He became the 18th Yankee to hit two or more home runs in his career on Opening Day, when he followed up a 2004 opening day homer with one to start the season in 2005.
Prior to suffering an injury that sidelined him in June 2008, he had a combined JPB/MLB career total of 442 home runs.