As Ichiro Suzuki was closing in on 3,000 major-league hits, former Mariners manager Lou Piniella recalled the Safeco Field afternoon Ichiro collected the first two of them.
His seventh-inning single in the 2001 opener against Oakland began a two-run rally that tied the score at 4-4. An inning later, with nobody out and Carlos Guillen on first, Ichiro put down a textbook drag bunt — it was scored a hit — that advanced Guillen to third on an errant throw by A’s reliever Jim Mecir. Guillen soon crossed the plate as the decisive run in a 5-4 Mariners victory.
So pleased was Piniella with Ichiro’s contribution to the comeback, the manager planted a kiss on the cheek of the 27-year old rookie from Japan.
“I was so happy for him, that’s why,” Piniella said during a recent conference call with reporters. “It’s hard for a player to come here from Japan, especially with the scrutiny that he had. I’m an emotional guy. I got caught up in the moment. I gave him a hug and at that same time gave him a little peck.
“Look, I really enjoyed watching this young man play. I knew from spring training that he was a special player.”
Truth is, Piniella didn’t know how special this not-so-young man was going to be. During the first few days of Cactus League exhibitions, Piniella watched a left-handed hitter more inclined to slap the ball to the opposite side than pull it with force. Defenses, Piniella feared, could be positioned accordingly: shallow in the outfield, shaded to the left.
With the assistance of a translator, a message to Ichiro was sent: “Your manager wants to see some bat speed.”
Ichiro nodded and smiled when he heard this. A subsequent pitch ended up with the ball sailing over the right-center fence.
“He rounds the bases, he steps on home plate, and he says, ‘Happy now?’ when he shook my hand,” Piniella recalled. “I said ‘Yeah, yeah, you can do whatever you want.’ ”
Ichiro went on to enjoy an epic season, joining Fred Lynn as the only recipients of the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year trophies. Following his breakout performance with the 1975 Red Sox, Lynn retired as a nine-time All-Star eliminated from Hall-of-Fame consideration in his second eligible year.
And Ichiro? He’s a certain first-ballot Hall of Fame player whose determination to surpass expectations has only intensified since his 42nd birthday. Retirement loomed as a sensible option after 2015, when his numbers with the Miami Marlins dipped to career lows. Because of injuries suffered by Giancarlo Stanton and fellow outfielder Christian Yelich, Ichiro appeared in 153 games, far too many for the oldest position player in the game.
He hit .229 — .139 over the final month — and ended up with a .279 slugging percentage, last among big-league players who accumulated at least 325 plate appearances. Although he was only 65 hits short of 3,000, Ichiro’s bid for the milestone in 2016 appeared to hinge on how many “courtesy” at-bats new Marlins manager Don Mattingly would give a former superstar 10 years past his prime.
Nothing if not proud, Ichiro began this season resembling a charity case requiring the kind of patience and compassion a pet owner uses with the once-feisty dog who is listless when leashed for the morning walk.
How has he responded?
Through the Marlins’ first series after the All-Star break, Ichiro was hitting .347, with an on-base percentage — .424 — that exceeds his single-season career high of .414. Thanks to his manager’s judicious use of the team’s fourth outfielder, Ichiro’s sad and slow swan song has turned into a riff so loud it rolls over Beethoven while telling Tchaikovsky the news.
Conditioning methods best described as “unique” — he gives his feet rubdowns with a wooden utensil — help explain Ichiro’s resurgence. American athletes typically participate in pregame calisthenics to prevent muscle strains. Ichiro regards calisthenics as a ritual beneficial for both the body and the mind.
“I had never seen it, quite frankly,” Piniella said of Ichiro’s quirky routine. “I was quite amazed by the things he did, the stretching especially. Here in the U.S., we go through a rigorous spring training. But once the season begins, we have our stretching exercises and then the kids play.
“He took it to a totally different level. He was fanatical about that, and it’s probably one of the big reasons that he’s still playing here at 42.”
During the 10 years he spent as the face of the Mariners franchise, Ichiro was more popular with Safeco Field spectators than he was in the home clubhouse. Talent and an exemplary dedication to a professional craft go a long way, just not long enough to justify the sight of a player conducting a postgame interview with his back to the interviewers while using a portable, hand-operated fan to cool himself off in an air-conditioned room.
Despite Ichiro’s aloof nature, his march to 3,000 hits has revealed a wide appreciation for a player whose endurance has been achieved organically.
When introduced at St. Louis last Friday as a Marlins pinch hitter, the Busch Stadium crowd gave Ichiro a standing ovation. A similar reception awaited him Saturday, when starting pitcher Adam Wainwright offered the ultimate gesture of respect. He stepped off the mound, enabling his opponent to savor the moment.
“I got all that ovation, and that Wainwright would do that, it was hard for me to look at them as the enemy,” Ichiro said through a translator Sunday. “I guess coming close to 3,000, the fans reacted that way. It was just an amazing experience.”
One of many during an American baseball career so extraordinary, he got a kiss before it was three hours old.
Ichiro, who needs six hits to reach the 3,000-hit plateau for his major-league career, accumulated most of those hits while playing for the Mariners. A closer look: