Ichiro Suzuki’s major league career, which came to an end with the Seattle Mariners outfielder announcing his retirement Thursday in Japan, is one of the greatest in the game’s history.
Here are just a few short stories about the world’s all-time hit king.
‘Yes, I can hit it really hard over there, if you like’
Early in Ichiro’s first spring training in 2001, he hit a lot of soft singles to left field, as if he were overpowered.
Lou Piniella, the impatient manager of the Mariners, asked him, “Can you do something other than hit it over there [to right field]?”
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Ichiro responded, “Yes, I can hit it really hard over there, if you like.”
To which Piniella said, “Then hit it really hard over there.”
So Ichiro started pulling the ball, while still spraying the ball all over the field. That year, he batted .352, and won the Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player awards.
‘A magician with a bat in his hands’
In 2001, Ichiro hit a pitch that bounced a good six inches in front of home plate: He lined a single to center field.
The next day, I called Mariners general manager Pat Gillick to ask him about that amazing feat.
“Oh,” Gillick said, “I’ve seen him do that before. In Japan, he used to practice hitting bouncing balls. He can do that. He’s a magician with a bat in his hands.”
‘A mathematical genius’
Bobby Valentine, who managed for years in Japan, and knows Ichiro very well, once told me Ichiro was “a mathematical genius.”
“I was on an elevator with him once. It was a high-rise elevator, maybe 35 floors. He looked at the room numbers on the right side of the elevator, and added them up in his head in like … three seconds. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Valentine said that mathematical mind helped Ichiro see angles at the plate and in the outfield. “When you see him put his head down and run to a spot in the outfield, right where the ball ends up, it’s because he can see the field in his head,” Valentine said.
I asked Ichiro about his mathematical mind, but, oddly, he refused to talk about it. Valentine said he wasn’t surprised, Ichiro was a baseball player, and he felt it would be insulting the real mathematicians in the world if Ichiro boasted about his math skills.
‘You never see a great carpenter throw his best hammer’
Ichiro had his own strict routine, and his own system, every day for batting practice and games.
Everyone on the teams for which he played knew it. He took exceptional care of his bats, he placed them in a special bag that protected them, especially when traveling. And you never saw him fling a bat to the ground in anger or disgust or elation.
“This is my tool,” he said. “You never see a great carpenter throw his best hammer. I care for my bats.”
‘Everything in America breaks’
Ichiro has a great sense of humor, in two languages.
His first spring training, in 2001, I interviewed him about playing in the major leagues, and living in America. We were sitting on the field before a game in Peoria, Arizona. We were in folding chairs. He told me how much he loves hamburgers, and told me with a big smile (through an interpreter), “Everything in America breaks … watch out, that chair you’re sitting on, it might break any second.”
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