KOBE, JAPAN -- Leaning way, way back toward the rear of the batter's box in his bizarre one-legged hitting stance, No. 51 suddenly unleashed a lightning-fast swing and lashed a screaming liner past the center fielder and out to the wall. In a flash, the best hitter in baseball was on base once again.
With Tony Gwynn, Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas sidelined by the infamous strike, the title "Best Hitter in Baseball" for 1994 clearly belongs to the 20-year-old rookie phenom known simply as "Ichiro," the best thing that ever happened to the Orix Blue Wave, a fair-to-middling franchise in Japan's Pacific League.
The earnest young man with the unorthodox swing -- not surprising, since he practices by swinging a coal shovel -- has broken many of the hitting records here in his first full major league season.
The first Japanese player ever to notch 200 hits in a season, Ichiro notched at least one hit in 90 percent of the Blue Wave's games this season. In the scorching heat of summer he smashed another record by getting on base for a phenomenal 69 consecutive games.
When the season ended Monday Ichiro's batting average stood at .385, the best ever recorded by a Japanese hitter, and just short of matching the Japanese major league record of .389, set in 1989 by former Texas Ranger Randy Bass.
Challenging American players' records, of course, raises a tantalizing prospect here. Maybe, just maybe, this awesomely steady young batter might turn out to fulfill Japanese baseball's fondest dream: a Japanese player who could star in the U.S. major leagues.
"If this man went to the States, hey, he could play in the majors," says Francisco Cabrera, a former Atlanta Braves catcher who played for the Blue Wave this season.
"Ichiro, he can hit anywhere," Cabrera says. "I'd say the person he most reminds me of is Tony Gwynn. Both of them have that quick swing and that fast takeoff toward first. They're already running when they hit the ball."
The soft-spoken Ichiro doesn't talk about the possibility of playing in the United States. But he relates fond memories of a season with the Hilo Stars in the Hawaiian rookie league, and he likes to wear U.S. major league team shirts for casual dress. "He'd love to go to our major leagues," Cabrera maintains. "You know, he'd make the big dollar there."
'Number One Son'
If Ichiro were to head stateside, it would presumably break a million hearts here in Kobe, home town of the team owned by Orix, Asia's biggest car rental firm. After all, Kobe's great new star is a home-grown product.
A native of this big port city, his full name is Ichiro Suzuki. That name is about as common in Japan as "John Smith" would be in America, so the team's PR managers decided to set their star apart from all the other John Smiths by using only his first name. The name "Ichiro" means "Number One Son."
From elementary school days, the young Ichiro and his father, Nobuyuki -- now known throughout Japan as "Ichiro Papa" -- spent their free time at batting cages, sharpening the young hitter's eye. It was in his school days that Ichiro started swinging the big coal shovel for practice, a drill that has had a clear effect on his swing.
As analyzed ad infinitum in the sports media here this summer, Ichiro's shovel-trained swing is one of the fastest ever recorded. He gets the bat around in .18 seconds, about twice as fast as the average batter, according to a study by the NHK network. That means he has more time to look over the pitch and figure out where it is headed.
"The reason he hits so reliably is, he can hit the trash pitches," says Hideki Kotera, baseball analyst for the Sports Nippon newspaper. "He doesn't walk much, because when the pitchers are throwing it away from him, he can reach out and scoop that ball past the infielders."
Ichiro bats left and, as Cabrera noted, he is amazingly fast off the plate. He seems to be three steps down the base path before you hear the crack of the bat.
So far, so good. But Ichiro does all this from a strangely contorted batting stance that is hardly poetry in motion.
During the pitcher's windup, Ichiro picks up his front leg and swings it like a long, slow pendulum back toward the catcher. Thus he is virtually tottering on one foot, weight far back, bat cocked, as the pitch approaches the plate.
Then there's a blinding swing, a ferocious whack!, and the ball streaks like a bullet between second and short for another base hit.
The Ichiro stance is something no batting coach would advocate. And that was Ichiro's problem when he first tried to come up from the Japanese minors last year.
Manager Shozo Doi told Ichiro that the pendulum-leg swing would never cut it in the majors. He ordered major changes. Ichiro responded in a very non-Japanese way: he said "No" to the boss. Eventually, Doi shipped Ichiro off to the Hawaiian League to get playing time.
At least partly because of his battle with the budding hero, manager Doi is now an ex-manager. His successor, Akira Ogi, made the crucial decision this spring to let Ichiro be Ichiro -- even balancing on that one foot. And a star was born.
A tall beanpole who is working to get his weight above 160, Ichiro is a polite, serious and unassuming young man. Even as a superstar he still lives in a small room in an Orix corporate dorm, not far from the stadium here. Sports photographers regularly lament his unwillingness to clap his hands, raise a fist or even smile after he racks up another hit.
Until Ichiro's banner season, Orix was just another middle-of-the-standings team. Like many Japanese sports franchises, it has an English team name -- "Blue Wave" comes from Kobe's deep blue harbor -- and an English (or quasi-English) team motto, to wit: "Get Power! Be Excited!"
Again this year Orix, with mediocre pitching and no power hitter, was stuck in the middle of the standings. The team had no chance for a spot in the Nippon Series, Japan's version of the World Series.
Yet this year, Orix was the talk of the sport. In a year when pro baseball was in short supply, the Blue Wave was, after all, the home team of The Best Hitter in Baseball.