When Ichiro Suzuki gets a shipment of new bats, he gives them the Ichiro test.
“He has two sets of bats,” Tony Attanasio, Suzuki’s long-time agent, related this week. “He’ll take a bat and hit the barrel of the bat with his finger nail and listen to it. Then he’ll put that bat aside. He does that with every one of the bats. He puts some of the bats on his left-hand side, some on the right-hand side. The bats are different.”
Ichiro uses one set of bats, the ones he pronounces good, in games. He gives away the others when a player asks him for a bat.
“It’s like people who can tell the difference in wine glasses,” Attanasio said. “It’s the same concept as the tuning fork. He hears the difference in the sound of the bats.”
Attanasio said Mizuno, the Japanese company that makes Ichiro’s bats, has a forest of trees dedicated to his bats.
Through Wednesday, Suzuki’s bats had produced 3,967 hits in his 22-year career, 1,278 in his nine Japanese years, 2,690 in his 13 seasons in Major League Baseball. With 32 more hits, he will become the third player in any major league in any country to reach 4,000. Pete Rose (4,256) and Ty Cobb (4,191) are the only players already there.
For several years I have participated in an annual roundtable discussion for a Japanese baseball magazine. Toward the end of the discussion we had earlier this year, Daisuke Sugiura, the moderator, asked what we thought of the 39-year-old Suzuki.
As I began offering my opinion, I realized that Ichiro just might be my favorite player among current players. I love the way he plays, the way he hits, the way he plays the outfield. There’s nothing about his style of play that you can dislike.
Approaching the age of 40, Ichiro isn’t the hitter he was for so many years, especially the 10 successive seasons in which he collected more than 200 hits for Seattle (2001-2010). But he remains a capable, productive player. A major reason is his consistency in pre-game preparation, a trait he learned in Japan.
“No one prepares better than Ichiro,” said Chuck Armstrong, the Mariners’ president, who knew him before he left Orix and Japan and joined Seattle in 2001.
Armstrong said Suzuki had chrome-plated workout machines he used every day in the clubhouse. And he noted that Suzuki always stretched in the outfield between pitches
Speaking of Ichiro’s preparation, Attanasio told of the time Suzuki met with Tony La Russa, the legendary manager. “They had a conversation that was supposed to last 15 minutes and it went on for two hours,” the agent said. “Tony was amazed at how he prepared for games.”
“He knows exactly what he needs to do,” Attanasio added. “When he started out with Orix, the young kids had to wash the uniforms of the older players. He’d wash the uniforms and start hitting at 3 a.m. He hit until 7.”
Armstrong recalled that early in his time with the Mariners, Ichiro, a left-hand hitter, “slapped the ball to left field.” One day, Armstrong said, manager Lou Piniella asked, “Can you show me you can pull the ball?”
“He hit it over the right field fence,” Armstrong related, “and Lou said, ‘I guess you showed me.’”
Ichiro hit 118 home runs in Japan to go with his .353 batting average, and he has 104 MLB home runs to go with his .321 average.
“When he first came over,” Attanasio recalled, “in his first year he was having a helluva year, and he did a television interview with Bob Costas. Costas wanted to know why he’s never seen Ichiro throw his bat. His answer was the person who made the bat was a professional, and he made ‘my bat to the best of his standards and it would be an insult to him if I smashed the bat because I made a mistake.’”
A year ago July 23 Ichiro reluctantly left Seattle and took his bats to New York.
“He loves Seattle,” Attanasio said. “Where he lives is similar to Japan. He loved the ball park and the majority of people connected to the club. But he didn’t see the club getting to a position where he’d have a chance to win. You could win in this league if you have one or two younger players, but Seattle played six. If he was ever going to make a move he should make it now.”
Ichiro became a member of the Mariners in 2001 because, Armstrong said, the Japanese owner of the Mariners, Hiroshi Yamauchi, the retired chairman of Nintendo, asked his front-office people to look at Japanese players. They looked and found Suzuki.
Yamauchi, however, had the attitude, Armstrong said, that “when you don’t want to play here anymore, tell me.”
Ichiro told him.
“He had a list of teams he wanted to play for – Philadelphia, San Francisco and the Yankees,” Attanasio said. “The Yankees were No. 1. Philadelphia offered three years; the Yankees were at two years for a million less. He said ‘I want to play in the playoffs and the World Series where every game is exciting.’ That’s why he chose New York.”
“He wanted to go back to the playoffs while he could still play at a high level,” Armstrong said. “The Yankees were a late entry.”
But the Yankees offered $13 million for two years, enough to get them into the game. When the trade was made, Ichiro issued a statement, saying:
“The Yankees are the kind of team that I always envisioned being a part of. Everyone in the world of competition has a strong desire to win, but the Yankees also have an atmosphere where losing is not an option. These two observations may sound similar, but I believe it is a rarity to find both coexisting in the same organization.
“I believe the Yankees organization appreciates that there is a difference between a 39-year-old who has played relying only on talent, and a 39-year-old who has prepared, practiced, and thought thoroughly through many experiences for their craft. I am very thankful, and I will do my best to deliver on their expectations.”
Mariners fans did not resent Ichiro’s desire to leave Seattle, just as Japanese fans were not bitter about his decision to leave them.
“Ichiro is still very popular, probably not as much as used to be, but it’s safe to say he is 1 of the most well known athletes of all time,” Daisuke Sugiura wrote in an e-mail. “He is approximately 50 hits away from reaching 4000 hits combined for MLB & NPB. The record will be regarded as a tremendous accomplishment in Japan, and the countdown should be huge topic among Japanese sports fans through 2nd half of this MLB season.”
When Ichiro strokes No. 4,000, Attanasio said, referring to the fans, “it’ll be like they themselves won the World Series. It will be euphoric. The entire country will shut down. I have no doubt when he’s a few away it will be building up to a crescendo. It will be like Italy winning the World Cup.”
Will Ichiro retire if he reaches 4,000; does he have any retirement plans?
“We’ve talked extensively,” Attanasio said. “He wants to play as long as he can with New York. He has one more year. He’d like to have more. The appropriateness of being Japanese is that you do things when the club says so.”