Recently I was going through the MLB app to see how the Don Mattingly-led Miami Marlins were doing. To my amazement, Ichiro Suzuki still is playing baseball. Actually: correct that. I’m not amazed or surprised at all that he’s still playing. Not surprised that he’s appeared in 95 games so far at age 43. Not surprised he’s played in 143 or more games every season since 2013. So have decided to dig a little deeper. Pulled up his career on Baseball Reference.
While scrolling through, it brought to mind a Lou Pinella story about Ichiro in the spring of 2001, when Ichiro came to Seattle from Japan as a prized international signing. Pinella was the manager for the Mariners then and according to a 2011 Seattle Times article by columnist Larry Stone, was not impressed by the then 27-year old rookie during spring training. Most notably was frustrated at how a light-hitting Ichiro never hit the ball hard, never hit it on the screws.
“Ichiro, do you ever turn on the ball?” Pinella asked in the dugout before a first inning spring training at-bat.
“Yeah, sometimes” Ichiro replied.
He then went into the batters box and crushed a ball onto a hill well beyond the center field fence. As he arrived back into the dugout, he asked Pinella: “Is that turning on the ball, skip?”
I know Pinella must’ve loved that. He then challenged his rookie on his next at-bat to pull the ball. The left-handed Ichiro had been hitting the ball so much to left field in spring training that teams were starting to defend him like a right-handed pull hitter. Pinella challenged him in his next at bat to pull the baseball. Sure enough in his next time up, Ichiro hit one over the right field fence and said to his manager:
“Are you happy now?”
To that Pinella replied: “You can do whatever you want for the rest of the year.”
All he did the rest of the year was win the AL MVP for 2001. Also won Rookie Of The Year. Led the league in hits, at-bats, stolen bases. Throw a batting title in there as well.
I listened to lots of Dan Patrick that summer. At the time he did a show with former Cincinnati Nasty Boy Rob Dibble. Dibble wasn’t sold on Ichiro’s early success and boldly proclaimed on the show in July of that summer that he would tattoo Ichiro’s name in Japanese print on his ass if Ichiro won the batting title. Well, he’s had that tattoo on his ass since October 2001.
In the summer of 2003 when I first started going to Mariners games at Safeco Field, they would show his Japanese highlights between innings. His Japanese highlights. They were incredible to see. He was throwing dudes out at third from deep right field with these rope laser throws. The crowd at those games would erupt at these amazing video feats. The thing that always amazed me is that they never showed the same highlights more than once. There was an endless supply of footage to tap into and use.
In the Summer of 2004, Ichiro’s powers were at full peak. He set the MLB Record for hits with 262. TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTY TWO!!!! That’s nearly 1.62 hits per game. Nearly 2 hits per game. In the big leagues. Hit .372. Did all this and somehow finished 7th in the MVP voting. Finished behind Vlad Guerrerro, Sheffield, Manny, David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada, and Johan Santana. Chicks dig the long ball and heaters I guess.
Not that Ichiro didn’t bust out a long ball on occasion. In September of 2009 I sat behind the Yankees dugout at Safeco for a Friday night game. AJ Burnett vs. Felix Hernandez. Both starters had great outings. It was 2-1 Bombers in bottom 9. 2 outs, nobody on. Mariano Rivera on the mound, ready to close the door. Suddenly some guy named Sweeney doubled one off the wall, nearly cleared the fence. Ichiro was up next. The first pitch to him he smashed into the right field seats, about 18 rows back. Game over. Mariners won. Now as I type this I hope Lou Pinella was watching then. “He sure turned on that one, didn’t he Lou!” It was probably the most heart-breaking and shocking baseball moment I can remember seeing in person. A Rivera blown save right in front of my very eyes. But it shouldn’t have been that shocking. It was Ichiro.
As I think back of my time in Seattle, I feel fortunate to have been able to see so many of his games. He’s easily the best player I ever got to see consistently in person. There’s so many Ichiro moments I can think of. I don’t know how many times I watched him hit slow roller ground balls to all sides of the infield and say “whoa, he’s gonna beat this out” while watching him speed (more like fly) safely into first. He had this incredible speed, could just flat-out fly. Don’t recall too many guys that have carved out careers doing that. To a majority of major leaguers, that is an out. Not Ichiro. Not him. It was like he perfected the infield bunt while actually swinging.
The reality is that Ichiro is probably fully responsible for vaulting my love affair with seeing the game in person. Helped reload an appreciation for the subtleties and preparation in the game of baseball.
For example: Ichiro stretches constantly. ALL. THE. TIME. He never seemed to stop stretching, and seemed like he was made of a rubber band. He’s constantly keeping his body ready. Constantly preparing for the next moment, the next at bat. How else could a guy play until he’s 43??
I remember he’d always communicate through a translator, yet I can recall him speaking to outfield mate Mike Cameron in 2003 on the outfield grass during pitching changes. Either Mike Cameron knew Japanese or Ichiro was just that private. I think it’s safe to say it’s the latter. Which only adds to his legend. This also came to be a somewhat negative on his career, as he took lots of heat from baseball writers for a few years in the Northwest for not being a vocal leader in the Mariners clubhouse. His soft, quiet, subtle approach was easy to make him a target during any losing season in Seattle.
But all that is water under the bridge now. What needs to be remembered in the twilight of Ichiro’s career is his soft, quiet, subtle approach that has painted an amazing tapestry and leaves a beautiful mark on the game of baseball. Ichiro’s game wasn’t built on power. It was built on beauty and substance. Speed. It was built on art. Ichiro’s career is truly that: a work of art. It’s been beautiful to watch.