When I really think about, the primary reason I like Ichiro is simple... he plays a different game. I recognize he is playing the same game I have watched and loved for 40+ years, but he does familiar things in an unfamiliar manner. I have never seen anything like it.
Ichiro's dual Rookie of the Year & MVP 2001 premier in Seattle allowed Mariners fans to shrug off ARod's spectacular departure. The first time I got to watch him live was July 25th, 2002; it was all so interestingly similar but strange... His pre-game routine, his on-deck circle rituals, his batting box mechanics, and the way he seems to be running to first before his bat makes contact with the ball. He collected 3 hits, including a home run, and stole a base.
Like most Americans, I had been brought up convinced that General Douglas McArthur installed baseball after World War II as a way to "Americanize" the defeated Japanese culture. The reality is baseball in Japan dates back to sometime around the 1860s. The Japanese have a long history of amateur baseball, from collegiate baseball to high school baseball and international baseball. The first professional team was founded in 1920. The first professional league was founded in 1936. The American occupying forces purposely used baseball to help reconcile the United States and Japan after World War II. In 1950, the team owners of the previous Japanese League reorganized into the Nippon Professional Baseball League, and that organization exists today.
A couple of years ago, I took the opportunity to photograph the Mariners on a road trip to Texas. I spent several hours with my camera focused on Ichiro (the image used in this post is mine). I was struck by the solitary bubble of isolation the man operates in. In stark contrast to the very social and relaxed nature of most major league ballplayers, he basically talks to no one. He stretches alone, he sits in the dugout alone, he jogs out to his outfield position alone, and if he could... I am convinced he would play catch by himself. It all seems so lonely, but the results are impressive.