by Michael Adams
DENVER, CO- After what seemed like an eternity on the precipice, Ichiro did it, and he did it with a triple.
Ichiro Suzuki finally got the 3,000th hit of his MLB career during Miami’s 10-7 rout of the Colorado Rockies on Sunday. He became the first Japanese player to reach the mark in America, as well as the 30th overall, and the second man to claim the milestone with a triple, after Paul Molitor.
Ichiro’s newest achievement is the latest in a long line of accolades during his unprecedented career in baseball. Nowadays, as he approached 43, with his playing time less frequent than ever, it can be easy to forget how much of a sensation he was when he first stepped up to the plate as a 27-year-old for the Seattle Mariners. The finished product that debuted in the US was the result of more than two decades of discipline, and a training schedule so arduous it comes off as inhuman.
Born in Kasugai, a city in Japan’s Aichi Prefecture, the young Ichiro started playing baseball at 3, and joined his first team at the age of seven. Already unsatisfied with his playing abilities, he asked his father Nobuyuki—himself a former ballplayer—to help him perfect the craft. His father started him on a routine of batting drills that would last as long as four hours a day. Every day, Ichiro would throw 50 pitches, field 50 infield balls and 50 outfield balls, and hit 250 pitches each from his dad and a pitching machine. Determined to make it as a professional, he had the word “concentration” etched into his glove during his time in Little League.
Though Nobuyuki recalls these times with his son as a lot of fun for the both of them, Ichiro remembers it quite differently. “It bordered on hazing,” he said when talking of those early practices, “I suffered a lot.” Adding to the case for his father’s strict treatment is the anecdote that Nobuyuki allegedly told Ichiro’s high school coach “don’t ever praise him, we have to make him spiritually strong.” During high school, the freshman Ichiro was expected to wash the uniforms of the seniors, in keeping with an old tradition. To ensure he fulfilled his commitment and still had the time to practice, Ichiro would wake up every day at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Whatever memories he might have of his early days of training, there can be no doubt as to the results. Ichiro was drafted out of high school by the Orix BlueWave, though his unorthodox hitting mechanics led manager Shozo Doi to keep him in the farm system for a few years. Ichiro’s habit of swinging his leg and shifting his weight forward during his stride is almost completely idiosyncratic, oddly enough, the only hitter with a similar stroke was Ty Cobb. Doi’s suspicions would prove to be unfounded, and Ichiro won 3 straight MVP awards in Japan while leading the BlueWave to the Japan Series Championship in 1996. Ichiro’s success propelled him to more of the same in the United States, including 3 Silver Sluggers, 10 Gold Gloves, 7 American League Batting Titles, and the 2001 AL MVP.
Ichiro in the Outfield During his Time with the Seattle Mariners in 2002, Source: Rick Dikeman
While his star power has waned somewhat in this country, in Japan the 5’ 9” outfielder is just as much of a giant as ever. In the word of his agent, Tony Attanasio, “when you mail Ichiro something from the States, you only have to use that name on the address and he gets it. He’s that big.”
Just a couple months ago, on June 15th, Ichiro passed another time-honored milestone that has stirred up a debate among baseball purists. With the recording of his 4,257th career hit, Ichiro’s combined hit total passed that of Pete Rose, the career hits leader in Major League Baseball. Comparison have abounded ever since, with many—including Rose himself—quick to point out that the level of competition in the NPB is closer to that of AAA ball than the Majors. Ichiro himself tries to stay away from the debate, but did remind Rose and the American press that the Japanese baseball season is shorter by around 20 games. Ichiro also didn’t debut in the States until the age of 27, and started his career off with as many 200-hit seasons in a row as Rose had for his entire career, period. Suzuki also holds a higher career batting average, more stolen bases, more fielding accolades, a legacy untarnished by a gambling problem.
Pete Rose Baseball Card, Circa 1966; Rose and Ichiro have Often been Compared to Each Other, Source: Steve Burns
Conflict aside, Ichiro tied and passed the mark with little fanfare from the sports media in this country, something Arizona Diamondbacks coach Mark Grace thinks is a travesty. Formerly a player with the Cubs, Grace told reporters “I couldn’t care less if he got some of those hits in Japan or in Antarctica. You’re getting hits at high professional levels. That’s huge. I’m in awe of the guy.’’
Awe is certainly the right word. Ichiro’s legacy in the game of baseball is unrivaled by his contemporaries, he comes from a mold of player that simply does not exist anymore. Bruce Jenkins, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, described the man’s career best:
“There’s nobody like Ichiro in either league—now or ever. He exists strictly within his own world, playing a game 100 percent unfamiliar to everyone else. The game has known plenty of ‘slap’ hitters, but none who sacrifice so much natural ability for the sake of the art… Ichiro, a man of wondrous strength, puts on impressive power-hitting displays almost nightly in batting practice. And he’ll go deep occasionally in games, looking very much like someone who could do it again, often… [but] the man lives for hits, little tiny ones, and the glory of standing atop the world in that category. Every spring, scouts or media types write him off, swearing that opposing pitchers have found the key, and they are embarrassingly wrong.”
Ichiro has every intention of playing until he’s 50, if you go by what he’s told people. At the moment he’s regained his freak-of-nature form; hitting .317 in his age-42 season, it certainly looks like he could pull it off. However long his career lasts from this day forward, the singular presence of Ichiro Suzuki on the baseball field is something that needs to be bottled up in memory at every chance, passed down through the generations. This is the kind of player fans will tell their grandchildren they got the chance to saw. A man with half his statistics would be a Hall of Fame candidate, and he could have probably made a strong case himself on talent alone. But it is his work ethic, the dedication he has shown for more than 30 years, that sets him apart from all the rest. Above all else, Ichiro is the resident artist and scientist of baseball, and the sport will be left with an unfillable void once he finally decides to call it a career.
Featured Image: Ichiro Suzuki Taking Batting Practice at Yankee Stadium as a Member of the Miami Marlins, Source: Arturo Pardavilla III