The swing was still familiar, all these years later. A thoughtful swoosh through the strike zone, studied and precise, connecting with the baseball and propelling it to a preordained spot on the field. On this particular occasion, the master preferred right field in the vastness of Colorado. And there the baseball flew, ticketed for history.
When it finally came to rest after kissing the outfield wall, Ichiro Suzuki had a triple and 3,000 hits in Major League Baseball. At 42 years of age, the hitting savant from Japan reserved his place in a sacred pantheon of the ultimate American game. Only twenty-nine other players have recorded that many hits. The number shrinks to twenty-seven if we discount proven drugs cheats, and twenty if we simply count clean players after integration in 1947. That’s a monumental achievement deserving eternal respect, and its also a fitting prism through which to retrace the career of a unique baseball hero.
Ichiro was born in Aichi, Japan in October 1973. From the age of seven, he hit five hundred baseballs every day, hoping to master a sport of exceeding popularity in his native land. Noboyuki Suzuki, Ichiro’s father, set his son on a path for glory, but it was one often mingled with pain. Together, they honed that legendary swing as Ichiro worked tirelessly, often without praise. In many ways, theirs was a gruesome quest for perfection in a game of prolific failure, but Ichiro still hungered for the top.
In 1992, Suzuki joined the Orix Blue Wave, an established team in Nippon Professional Baseball, the elite tier of competition in Japan. An early setback occurred when the outfielder was sent to the minor leagues due to concerns about an unconventional stride and swing at the plate. Nevertheless, Suzuki recovered to author one of the most formidable careers the NPB has ever seen.
In Japan, Ichiro won three Most Valuable Player awards and was a key figure as Orix won the 1996 Japan Series championship. He also won seven Gold Gloves, seven batting titles and partook in seven All-Star Games.
Suzuki established a new record for hits in a NPB season, breaking through the 200-hit barrier for the first time. His single season batting averages ranged from .342 to .387, and 1,278 hits assured his legacy as one of the finest Japanese players of all time.
Yet Ichiro wanted even more. He yearned for the baseball zenith, to test himself against the very best ballplayers on earth. Suzuki wanted to be a Major Leaguer and, in 2001, that dream came true as he signed a three-year deal with the Seattle Mariners.
Ichiro arrived in time for his age-27 season. He promptly began demolishing the record book in his own methodical way. In 2001, he slashed and cracked and steered 242 base hits, the most ever by a rookie. No player of any description had managed more since 1930. Ichiro had a debut batting average of .350. He also stole 56 bases, becoming the first player to lead a league in both categories since Jackie Robinson in 1949. Few people had ever witnessed anything quite like it, or anybody quite like him.
Ichiro Mania swept the globe. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and inspired a humongous following from the Japanese media. The one-word name became a metonym for greatness. Seattle adored him, as tourists flocked literally from all over the world just to watch Suzuki do his thing. Ichiro was voted Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season, as he began chasing the ghosts of this great game from the outset.
For an encore, Ichiro became the first Mariner ever with two consecutive seasons of 200 hits of more. In fact, he did it for ten consecutive years, the most ever, in a quite remarkable feat. He was also the first player to have five such years to start a career. In 2002 and 2003, he largely performed at the same astonishing level, spinning hits like a metronome, but late season slumps made his final numbers seem slightly more human.
A year later, there was no such letup, as Ichiro unleashed a season that will echo in history. With 262, he broke George Sisler’s 84-year old record for hits in a single season. The previous record was 257, accumulated in 154 games. And while Ichiro had only 251 through the same span, the magnitude of his eventual achievement was rightfully acknowledged. The new record was established with a third inning single in a game against the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field, as 45,573 roared the Mariners into relevance.
The hits record has a sacrosanct meaning within baseball. After all, it’s the most elementary aim whenever a guy approaches the plate. Ichiro was a savant up there, almost capable of directing the baseball rather than simply having it collide with the bat. There was a drama to his routine, a charisma to his play. The way he twirled the bat like a mighty sword. The way he peered out through frosted eyes of knowing concentration. The way he seemed to control the game like few batters in memory. It was all so novel, captivating and enthralling. Fans couldn’t get enough.
For a time, Ichiro held the single season hits record in two different countries, an unprecedented accomplishment. He finished the 2004 season with a .372 average, and tampered with the very genetic constitution of baseball by hitting .450 in one 56-game stretch. Similarly, between 2001 and 2004, he amassed the most hits in a four-season period by any player ever. The game had a new legend, and it was a joy to watch him plot the demise of less worthy opposition.
The Mariners lost 99 games in 2004, and that pattern became all to familiar for Ichiro. He only reached one postseason with Seattle, in his rookie year, and that ended in ALCS agony. As fans, we were robbed of the opportunity to watch Ichiro on the grandest stage in his prime. Oh, how mesmerising it would have been to see him in the World Series. Nevertheless, he did feature prominently as Japan won the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and 2009, which provides some consolation.
As the years ticked by, Ichiro’s success became so routine that many overlooked it. The guy didn’t hit home runs, and his excellence was to be found in a moribund barrage of hits. Year after year, he churned away, slicing balls here and caressing balls there.
Slowly, the numbers thumped on to rarer waters. He reached 2,000 hits in 2009, but has endured a long slog since then due to age and reduced playing time. Seattle traded him to the Yankees in 2012, before the Marlins gave Ichiro a chance to chase number 3,000. I yearned for the Mariners to trade for him again this summer, as the magical plateau drew near. It would have been fitting to see Ichiro join the exclusive club in a Mariners uniform, but a 2016 renaissance made him too valuable for Miami to lose.
Right now, no player has ever accumulated more hits in elite baseball. I still believe Pete Rose is the all-time hit king and it’s foolish to suggest otherwise, but what Ichiro has achieved in two different countries is something.
I admire Ichiro’s dedication and love of hits. He’s obsessed, truly obsessed, with dominating that category. He sees it as the purest form of baseball art, and that’s brilliant. There’s an old-age stoicism to his approach that fills my heart with glee and makes my mind race. To me, Ichiro is a modern day figure of a bygone age, our very own deadball exponent. To watch him is to be engrossed in the minutiae of baseball artistry, and that cannot be captured in simple numbers alone.
“Keep your eye clear and hit ’em where they ain’t,” said the great Wee Willie Keeler when asked for his baseball advice. That was over a century ago, but the spirit and approach has lived on through Ichiro Suzuki well into a new epoch. And, for lovers of baseball history like me, that is what makes him so great. We get to reference Ichiro in the same context as Cobb and Speaker, Wagner and Lajoie. He played their game in our era, joining the hallowed names and breaking the sainted records. Finally, he has reached the 3,000 hit peak, and rarely has there been a more deserving member of that most distinguished club.