Ichiro Suzuki is a baseball hitting machine but is still poetry in motion
Japanese MLB star is on the cusp of true greatness as he nears the 3,000 hits plateau even though he’s in the twilight of his career at 42
The poet within, the sporting muse, starts to stir this time of year. Baseball is back. Unlike the other three major North American sports, baseball still has a bit of romance left in it and touches aficionados in an almost spiritual way.
Some of the most sublime prose in the history of American literature has been crafted in odes to the game, which is even more apropos this year as one of baseball’s most enduring stars nears a significant milestone.
At 42 years of age, Ichiro Suzuki is still poetry in motion. Languid and buttery smooth, he is much more Baryshnikov than Bonds. Ichiro moves so effortlessly and efficiently that he is almost invisible which is why his most significant feat is somewhat under the radar.
No longer an everyday player, Ichiro is 65 short of the mythical 3,000 hits plateau. It’s a remarkable achievement considering the Japanese star did not even arrive in the major leagues until he was 27 years old.
By the time he was 27, Major League Baseball career hit leader Pete Rose had more than 1,000 hits, Ichiro had zero. What he has done over the last 15 years is almost unprecedented. With 1,278 hits already under his belt in the Japanese league, Ichiro’s combined total of 4,213 hits is 43 short of Rose’s MLB record of 4,256.
Even if he never gets another hit, he is a lock to be the first Asian player inducted into the Hall of Fame. His place in baseball lore is secure.
Far more compelling is his place in Asian sporting lore. Ichiro is without question the most accomplished professional team athlete the continent has ever known. There are some noteworthy Asian performers, but few who have done it better than anybody at the highest levels.
Undoubtedly there are cricket legends from the subcontinent, however their reputations were largely cemented on the national level.
China’s Yao Ming was an eight time NBA all-star whose career was cut short by injury and Korean striker Cha Bum-kin had a memorable run in European football during his 10 years in Germany’s Bundesliga.
But neither was in the class of Ichiro, who was at one point the best all-around outfielder in the world. While baseball is not as popular as either basketball or soccer in Asia, it is still very much a passion in parts of the continent and has sent more professionals to the top global leagues than any other sport.
None of that happens without Ichiro, who was the first Asian non-pitcher to play in the major leagues. He certainly had his doubters, baseball being incurably parochial.
Some of us remember Cleveland Indians manager Mike Hargrove, who led an MLB All Star team on a tour of Japan in 1998, snorting that Ichiro might make a decent fourth outfielder in the majors, nothing more than a complimentary player.
Two year later in Ichiro’s debut season with the Seattle Mariners he would get 245 hits, the most in MLB since 1930, while stealing 56 bases and winning both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player and leading his team to 116 wins, tied for the most in the history of baseball.
Ironically, Hargrove would eventually become his manger in Seattle and there were more than a few rumours that Ichiro’s disenchantment with Hargrove resulted in the manager abruptly resigning mid-season in 2007, which seemingly cleared the way for Ichiro to sign a five-year extension a week later.
This is also the conundrum of the Japanese star; he has been accused by some of obsessing over his stats instead of team success.
Hargrove apparently wanted Ichiro to take a more rounded role on the team, maybe sacrifice a few of his hits for more power and drive in some much-needed runs.
After his rookie year, the Mariners were not a contender again and Ichiro’s close relationship with team owner Hiroshi Yamauchi had many around the organisation whispering that it fostered a sense of entitlement in Ichiro that hurt the team.
But of course most superstars inherently have a sense of entitlement.
It took close to 20 years, but Hargrove was finally right about Ichiro being a complimentary player as well. He is now a bench player for the mediocre Miami Marlins, filling in where he can and admits 65 more hits could take time to reach in a part time role.
“But that is where I am right now,” he said. “I have to prepare myself to play well today so I can play tomorrow.” He is still silky smooth, albeit not as fleet or dexterous, but poetry nonetheless. Of course, not all poems are pretty.