Ichiro Suzuki didn’t question his ability. He was certain he could hit a major-league pitch even though many had their doubts. He had been the leading hitter in Japan seven years running.
But that was Japan.
This was the United States, the majors, the highest level of baseball with the best pitchers in the world. No Japanese position player — and only a few hurlers — had ever taken that leap.
And so on that first day in 2001, 15 years before he’d be closing in on the magical 3,000-hit milestone with the Marlins, Suzuki felt the weight of his country on him.
“There was actually no pressure coming from America, because they didn’t think I could do it, so that expectation was not there. That was not an issue,” Suzuki said.
But Japan was a different story.
“People were looking at me, like, you’re representing Japan as the first position player,” Suzuki said. “So people are looking at me as the first, and so yeah, the pressure was tremendous.”
Suzuki also was worried that if he failed, he might bring shame to Hiroshi Yamauchi, the former chairman of Nintendo, the giant video game company that owned the Seattle Mariners at the time. It was Yamauchi who insisted the Mariners sign Suzuki.
“Obviously I wanted to perform well for him and (for him) not get laughed at for the decision he made,” Suzuki said.
No one laughed then. No one is laughing now.
That first season, Suzuki became the second player in big league history to win Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year honors the same year. The accolades and hits kept coming from there and, now, in the twilight of a career that is certain to land him in the Hall of Fame, he is bearing down on a feat accomplished only 26 times previously.
Three-thousand hits. Pete Rose. Ty Cobb. Hank Aaron. Willie Mays. Roberto Clemente. The 3,000-hit club oozes greatness, baseball royalty.
Suzuki needs six more to join them. It could come any day.
“To think this young man would be playing at age 42, going for 3,000 hits, I didn’t think it as possible then,” said Lou Piniella, who was the Mariners’ manager when Suzuki arrived. “Two thousand hits would have been an outstanding achievement.”
Suzuki is 42 now. His close-cropped hair has grayed, but his lean frame doesn’t announce his age as the oldest position player in the majors. Neither does his swing, which is still packing hits.
Though he is no longer the everyday starter he once was and doesn’t have enough at-bats to qualify for the league batting title, he is third in the majors with a .345 average among players with at least 195 at-bats.
His fellow teammates and coaches on the Marlins marvel at what he’s still able to accomplish with a bat, with an unconventional, body-in-motion swing, one that no instructor would never think of teaching.
“You look at it, and he has all the fundamentals he needs to hit,” said Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich, a .300 hitter with a textbook swing. “He just gets there a different way. Obviously, with his career and track record and amount of hits he’s gotten, it clearly works.”
Said Piniella: “The way he hits, you can’t teach. I don’t think you’ll see anybody else in the history of baseball that is running to first base when he hits the ball.”
Perhaps the bats are rewarding Suzuki for all the extreme care and attention he’s given them throughout the years.
He coddles them. He handles them gently. When a new shipment arrives, Suzuki checks them for sound, holding the barrels to his ear, tapping each with his palm, and listening for some tell-tale tone that helps him decide whether it’s a good bat or a bad one.
He chambers his best lumber in a steel case, padded inside and designed to lock out moisture, because moisture in a bat makes it heavier. Whenever he draws a walk, Suzuki doesn’t sling his bat to the side like other players. He gently lays the bat perpendicular to the first-base chalk line.
Suzuki is never abusive with his bats, slamming them in anger.
“Why wouldn’t you take care of your bats?” Suzuki said. “This is a tool that we get paid to make a living with. When you think about the people who made this bat for us, how rude would it be to those people who made this bat and all the work they put in to making it? If you’re throwing it, they’re not going to feel good, and they’re not going to make you a great bat the next time.”
But even Suzuki understands it’s not just about the bat.
“I feel it’s my skill,” he said. “The bat is a bat.”
Suzuki takes equal care of his leather glove (he’s a 10-time Gold Glove outfielder), as well as his spikes (he has over 500 stolen bases). He is about to become only the sixth player in major-league history with as many as 3,000 hits and 500 steals.
“I always talk about preparation for me,” said Suzuki, who is so particular about hygiene that he uses a lint roller to clean the dirt on the carpet in front of his locker and uses disinfectant wipes to remove germs from out-of-town lockers when the team is on the road.
But it is about the hits that people are talking about now.
It was 15 years ago that Suzuki recorded his first hit, a single off Oakland’s T.J. Mathews. After the game, Piniella was so filled with emotion that he planted a kiss on Suzuki’s cheek.
“It was gross,” Suzuki said laughing. “And I’ll never forget that the rest of my life. I thought maybe it was the American culture. I was just shocked by it.”
Said Piniella: “I was so happy for him. It’s hard for a player to come here from Japan, especially with the scrutiny that he had. I got caught up in the moment.”
The kissing stopped. The hits never did.