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May 10, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Xenophobia

by Derek Zumsteg

Ichiro Suzuki is and should be a Rookie of the Year candidate, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong.

You may have already read that Ichiro should not be considered, an opinion held by baseball's most prominent analyst, for a number of polite reasons that do little to make the thought palatable.

Ichiro won seven batting titles in Japan before the Mariners sent enough money to cover two weeks of Amazon's first-quarter losses across the Pacific to bring him here. He'd been playing against competition regarded as about Double-A to Triple-A level for some time, before he arrived and starting dropping dying quails in front of frustrated outfielders, hitting ground balls with eyes and running them out with blazing speed for singles.

One argument is that giving Ichiro a RotY vote doesn't show respect for the Japanese leagues, as if tying rejection to a backhanded compliment somehow makes the rejection palatable. Of course, a pitcher who toils in the minor leagues, even in Triple-A, for years before making his debut is still a rookie. The respect issue is a smokescreen, a vain attempt to work a vague misunderstood Japanese value into the argument to make it harder to attack. Did Scott Williamson's 1999 NL RotY Award carry with it some disrespect for the minor leagues? Was a vote for Orlando Hernandez disrespectful of Cuba's amazing Yankee farm system?

Of course not. That'd be silly.

The other polite argument against considering Ichiro a rookie is that he's too experienced to be considered one. But the definition of a rookie is someone who's a first-year participant, and this is indeed Ichiro's first year in Major League Baseball, just as last year it was Rafael Furcal's first year and Kazuhiro Sasaki's first year.

Now, there is a lot of monkeying with the specifics of the eligibility requirements. For instance, Jeff Tam got screwed out of rookie status last year, but the rulemakers will bend over backwards to let the right player come up for a vote. But there is no rule, no guideline, nothing that could possibly bar Ichiro from eligibility.

What's more, tradition is strongly in his favor. In the first year of the official Rookie of the Year Award, 1947, Jackie Robinson won. Afterwards, five awards in a row went to players with former pro experience in the Negro leagues: Don Newcombe in 1949, Sam Jethro in 1950, Willie Mays in 1951, Joe Black in 1952, Jim Gilliam in 1953. As baseball has reached out beyond the Americas for players, we've already seen two Japanese Rookies of the Year, Hideo Nomo in the NL in 1995 and 2000 AL winner Sasaki.

Why draw the line here? Why should a great player find the door closed to him now, after all the great players and one-year-wonders alike have been eligible?

Baseball should embrace its international reach and deserved position as the place where the world's best players yearn to play. Ichiro Suzuki was Japan's most famous celebrity, the biggest star in that league, and still had to play here. It's a great story, and something baseball should celebrate, not fear.

We've faced this fear before, when a Nintendo-led ownership group moved to buy the Mariners. In an unconscionable fit of xenophobia, Major League Baseball forced the Japanese buyers who put up the money to forsake a majority voting position, as if suddenly they were going to move the team to Osaka and then attack charter flights that tried to send visiting teams there, or open wildly successful sushi stands in the ballpark. Baseball has only in the last few years finally allowed them to assume control of the team they own. Nothing bad has happened.

If Ichiro Suzuki has a great year and loses the Rookie of the Year Award to, say, Alfonso Soriano by the thinnest of margins because of this unstated resentment of Japanese players, it will not only be a disgrace to baseball, but a disgrace to the player the award is named after, a man who played pro ball before he came into the major leagues: Jackie Robinson. Those who oppose Ichiro's drive towards the award should take a moment to consider the award's proud history in recognizing baseball's progress and re-consider their own motivations for opposing him.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Japanese Baseball,  Ichiro

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