SEATTLE — For the second time in his professional career, Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida experienced the thrill of a lifetime Tuesday – an audience with Japanese baseball legend Ichiro Suzuki.
Suzuki, who works as a special assistant for the Seattle Mariners, is at T-Mobile Park on a regular basis and was at the ballpark Tuesday, giving Yoshida the opportunity to renew acquaintances. The two had spoken only once before — when Yoshida was a rookie in Japan.
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“We talked about Major League Baseball, and what I felt about it so far,” relayed Yoshida through translator Keiichiro Wakabayashi. “I met him once before in my first year in Japan, but that was a long time ago.”
For a Japanese player, making the transition from Japan to the big leagues in North America, the thrill of getting the chance to converse with Suzuki cannot be overstated. Suzuki is a god in Japanese baseball circles, the equivalent of an American-born player getting a chance to meet, say, Babe Ruth or Willie Mays.
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No Japanese player had the kind of success in MLB that Suzuki enjoyed. Debuting with the Mariners in 2001, the outfielder earned 10 Gold Gloves for his play in right field and began his MLB career with 10 straight seasons with at least 200 hits. He finished his MLB career with 3,089 hits and 509 stolen bases and is certain to be voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2025.
He also is the only Japanese player to win Rookie of the Year, though it’s at least possible that Yoshida could this fall become the second.
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In any event, it would be impossible for Yoshida to have a better role model, or, for that matter, confidante, than Suzuki.
“It was a real honor for me (to talk),” said Yoshida. “And when we talked, he (said) he had been checking on my results here in the United States, and that was a big honor, too. I just want to keep having good results – for my team and for him.”
Yoshida added that Suzuki did not offer “any specific advice….we were just talking.”
Like Suzuki, Yoshida is a left-handed hitting outfielder with great bat-to-ball skills and a thorough knowledge of the strike zone. In some ways, they’re more different than alike: Suzuki was a far more complete player, serving as a threat on the base paths and renowned as a great defender with a powerful arm.
By contrast, Yoshida is limited in the outfield and while he’s a perfect 8-for-8 in stolen base attempts as a rookie, that’s a product of picking the right opportunity to run. Suzuki was a much faster player.
The one area in which Yoshida might rank ahead is power. Yoshida has 12 homers to date for the Red Sox and is on pace to finish with 18 or so. Though it was said that Suzuki could have hit many more homers had he made focused on power more at expense of consistent contact, he had only three seasons in which he reached double figures in homers. His career high was a modest 15 in his fifth season with the Mariners.
A day later, Yoshida could hardly believe his good fortune at having the chance to, again, speak with Suzuki.
“Of all the baseball players in our generation,” said Yoshida, “Ichiro is our hero. And that of course, including me. Everybody thinks of him that way.”