The Future Hall-of-Famer from Japan

Ichiro-and-Shelly

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Some two-plus decades past, a charming young Japanese man walked into my office in Santa Monica, California.  You know how it is!  Sometimes you meet someone special and a bond is formed.

This was such an instance.  His name is Tsubohiko Kuboki.  Hard to pronounce for we Americans, so he is simply called. “Tee”.

It seems that Tee was interested in representing a product that the organization I was with had the worldwide rights to. You may remember it, it was called the Abflex.

In case you don’t remember it, or for that matter, never heard of it, let me describe what it was and what it did.

It was a device that looked like a miniature stealth bomber.  All one had to do was place the front part against one’s abdomen and utilizing a series of specially designed exercises which basically consisted of pushing the unit back and forth against one’s stomach muscles.  In such a way, the muscles would become taut and toned.

It not only worked, but when we brought it to Asia, it literally flew off the shelves.  Thousand of units were sold while Tee and I became fast friends.  Or, as he has often said when I introduce him to someone new, “Shelly is my brother by a different mother”.

In our work together, he realized I was a baseball junkie.  Thus, whenever we could on my many visits to Japan, we would try to get to the Ball Park. Primarily, we would see the Yumiori Giants.  In the Central League of Japan, they are like our New York Yankees… perennial champions…. (note: I am a Red Sox fan)

Years earlier, while in the U.S. Military, during the time of the Korean War, as Sports Director of Armed Forces radio Far East, I was a frequent and familiar face at the Pacific League games.  Just as we have two leagues, American and National, Nippon Baseball, (Japan’s MLB), has the Pacific and Central.

It was fun!

The Tom Selleck movie, Mr. Baseball dramatically showed the Japanese passion for the game. It is Japan’s National Pastime and they have always allowed two American Baseball players on each team. Often times they were retired from MLB and were considered superior to the homegrown ball players.

Lefty O’Doul and fellow major leaguers including Babe Ruth did a series of exhibitions in Japan in the 1930’s and are considered responsible, to a great extent, for bringing about the great love for Baseball in Japan.

An interesting sidebar is that on one such tour, among the players was a journeyman catcher named “Mo Berg”.  Ironically, Mo Berg was an avid photographer and wherever the tour went, he took pictures of everything. It was at President Roosevelt’s request.

Mo Berg’s photos of both Nagasaki and Hiroshima were later to be used in 1944 by Air Force General Jimmy Doolittle when he dropped the Atomic Bombs that brought about the end of World War II. In essence, Mo was America’s first Atomic Spy.

Today, I know Lefty O’Doul would be so proud and happy to see all of the great Japanese Players in the Majors … and no one is greater than the player who has been represented by my little brother “Tee”.

He is a future Hall-of-Famer and he is known by the finest accolade, only one name. A few elite celebrities from all fields have earned and are tagged with such a sobriquet.  Names like: Pele, Ali, Kareem, Madonna, Cher and Lebron are such appellations.

He is simply called “Ichiro”. His real name is Ichiro Suzuki. Tee has represented him in many areas for quite some time and it is Tee that I owe a debt of gratitude for calling to my attention, his exploits.

At the age of seven, he joined his first Baseball team and asked his father to teach him to be a better ballplayer. The two of them had a daily routine that went on for years… It consisted of throwing 50 pitches, fielding 50 infield balls and 50 outfield balls, and hitting 500 pitches … 250 from a pitching machine and 250 from his father.

His first glove as a Little Leaguer had the word “Concentration” and from the time he was a Little Leaguer he was given the nickname “Baz” which in Japanese means fast.

When Ichiro joined his High School Baseball team, the coach had strict orders from his dad, “never to praise him no matter how good he might be. He has to become spiritually strong. He built strength and stamina by hurling car tires and hitting Wiffle balls.

In high school, his cumulative batting average for all four years was .505. In spite of this, due to his small unimposing frame, the Japanese professional leagues did not draft him until the final round in 1991. He weighs only 124 pounds and stands slightly less than 5’9”.

He is proud of what he has achieved and because of his slight frame, he hopes that kids look on him as a regular guy who with that kind of physique can still get into the record books. They look on him as proof that anyone can succeed with hard work and dedication .

Let’s look at his records!

He made his Pacific league debut in 1992 and until he joined the Major leagues in 2001.  He played for the Orix Blue Wave.

And boy, did he play…. He set a single season record with 210 hits in a 130 game season.  The first player in Japanese Baseball to top 200 hits , the record has since been broken twice, but only when the season was extended to 144 games.

In that same year, his .385 BA was a Pacific league record and it was to be the first of 7 consecutive Batting Titles. He also won 3 straight Pacific league MVP Awards.

In November 1998 while playing in a series of exhibition games against a visiting team of Major League All-Stars, he batted .380 and stole 7 bases. He was lavishly praised for his play.  Still his slight frame kept Major league teams from pursuing him.

However, that series kindled his desire to play in the United States. Always a go-getter, he chased what had become his dream. Finally, the Seattle Mariners stepped up to the plate and bid $13million to bid in an auction for the right to talk to him.

Winning the bid, they signed him to a 3 year, $14million contract in 2000. However, due to an agreement between Major league Baseball and the Pacific League, he could not play in the Majors until 2001.

In spite of all this, Seattle still felt he was too frail to succeed against Major League pitching and wouldn’t have staying power over the 162 game season. They thought they were taking a great risk in signing him.

Ichiro proved them wrong.

Japanese are noted for their manners and consideration.  Having no preference for a particular number, Seattle assigned him #51. This was the number worn for years by the former Seattle Ace Randy Johnson.  Ichiro was hesitant to take the number. He,  actually  sent Johnson a personal message promising not to  “bring shame” to the uniform.

His trepidation was unfounded, he had a remarkable 2001 season… a rookie-record 242 hits, the most by any Major league player since1930. With a .350 Batting average and 56 stolen bases, Ichiro was the first to lead his league in both categories since Jackie Robinson.

Today, he broke or holds many records.  Among them are: Most hits in a season, 262; most seasons and most consecutive seasons with 200 or more hits, 10; most career consecutive stolen bases without being caught, 45; most hits for two consecutive seasons, (tied with Ty Cobb).

While playing in Japan, he garnered 1278 hits. In the MLB so far he has 2935 hits… a total of 4236 hits. This combined amount is greater than Ty Cobb’s 4191 as well as Pete Rose’s 4256 and he is still playing. Nonetheless, MLB will not consider the combined total as a legitimate record.

I did not list his many Golden Gloves nor his overall fifteen year career BA of .314. To include every record I would be writing a small booklet

It’s amazing! This humble young man who very few gave a chance of surviving the grueling MLB schedule, will undoubtedly be the first citizen of Toyoyama, Japan to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Oh!  That’s outside of Nagoya!