- The newest member of the 3,000 hit club and the all-time home run king both know that age—and statistics—are nothing more than numbers, and both are helping the Marlins toward an unlikely pennant race.
If all the Marlins' hitters were like Ichiro Suzuki, there would be no such thing as a Marlins hitting coach. “I don’t expect too much from a hitting coach,” says Ichiro, who at age 42 entered Sunday hitting .318. “I’m not out there asking him to do anything special for me. I just have a routine, and he can help me with that. Flipping balls to me in the cage—he does that. He definitely has that down.”
The coach has no problem quietly soft tossing from his knees, even though he is no ordinary coach. “At this age? Ichiro does his own thing,” says the 52-year-old Barry Bonds, hired last off-season by Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria after nine years in exile as a BALCO-tainted untouchable. “You don’t have to work with a guy that great. Just sit there and watch him, watch what he does, his preparation. His IQ’s off the charts. What can you teach him?”
In other words, one legend coaches the other by letting him be himself. While Bonds became baseball's single-season and career home run king during his 22-year major league career, Ichiro has etched his name in baseball's record book primarily with a wave of hard-struck singles. In 2004, he set a new single-season hits record with 262, a record 225 of which were singles, including the record-breaker. On Sunday, he became the 30th member of the 3,000 hit club with a triple in Denver, ending a long slog to the milestone in which he had gone just 5 for 31 entering the day since a three-hit afternoon on July 17.
Milestones mean little to Ichiro, however. Playing means a lot. Though he is now the game’s oldest position player, he is not close to retiring.
“Why would you put a limit on yourself?” he asks on a recent afternoon, as 3,000 approached. “If you’re healthy, if your mental state is right, why would you put a limit on how long you want to play? Obviously, it’s a game where sometimes you don’t get to decide how long. But if you can, and you’re healthy, why would anybody not want to?”
It’s a rare moment of insight into his psyche. Ichiro is among the most famous of baseball stars, but also, perhaps, its most unknowable, even 16 years after he arrived from Japan. Some of that stems from a language barrier. Though teammates say he can both understand and speak English—and is a master of idiomatic expletives—he still uses an interpreter, Allen Turner. It is in part a way to ensure that he is perfectly understood, but it also affords him privacy. His role in the world is to play baseball, and it is through baseball that he communicates.
As you watch him begin his intricately choreographed routine, it is tempting to view him as a surgeon, dispassionately and compulsively readying his body and his instruments for another day’s procedures. He enters the clubhouse at precisely 4 p.m., wearing a crisp white short-sleeved shirt, a skinny black tie and dark jeans with six-inch cuffs rolled up to his knees, out of which he quickly changes. He lint rolls his arm bands. He foam rolls the knots out of his back. He applies eye drops, and moisturizes his hands and wrists using a cream from a tiny bottle. He removes his bats from their custom-made hard case and holds each up to the clubhouse’s fluorescent light for a full minute, examining them for imperfections that only he can see, wiping off barely perceptible smudges with his gloved thumb.
He pulls down his black Marlins hat from the shelf above his locker and examines it, too, cutting off any loose threads. Then he does something unexpected. He brings the cap’s crown to his face, buries his nose in it, and deeply inhales.
It is then that you realize that Ichiro is not doing any of this by rote, because he is someone who has played baseball 360 days a year since he was nine and it is all that he knows. He is doing it out of love, a love that is renewed each day.
Barry Bonds loves baseball, too. That’s what people who were skeptical of the Marlins’ hiring of him—who doubted that he had the desire to once again endure baseball’s grinding schedule and wondered if he possessed the patience to work with callow players who know a fraction as much about hitting as he does—didn’t understand. Even though he had become the game’s leading villain, he never wanted to leave in the first place. In 2007, at 42—the same age as Ichiro is now—he hit 28 home runs and led baseball in both walks and on base percentage. But no team would sign him. Too much of a distraction, they decided. So he was done, 65 hits shy of 3,000. “I didn’t get a job,” he says, “and that’s pretty much it.”
Last December, he got one, and by mid-July he still seems energized by it, slim and bright-eyed. “I love it,” he said recently, of his new gig. “It’s really nice. Having a great time. It’s what I’ve done my whole life, so my body doesn’t know anything different. It’s not that much of a grind to me when it’s something you like to do.”
Bonds’s new role took some getting used to. “It’s almost like you wish you were playing, because it’s almost boring not to play,” he says. “That’s the only part that’s an adjustment, because I played all the time. When I got here, and was sitting on the bench, I felt at first like I was just not a starter. ‘Man, I’m a bench player now’—at first, when I was in spring training. I had to get over that feeling, wanting to grab a bat and get out there and do it. ‘Jesus Christ, I can do this. What the hell.’ But I can’t, really. Not anymore.”
Bonds says that he could, in theory, still add to his total of 762 homers. “I can swing a baseball bat and hit a ball over the fence even now,” he says. The ability to hit a ball never leaves the great ones—not him, and it won’t leave Ichiro, either. “I can still hit, and he’s never going to stop hitting,” says Bonds. “He’ll always be able to hit.” It’s the capacity to do so day in and day out that eventually disappears.
On June 15, Ichiro slapped a ninth-inning double against the Padres for his 4,257th career hit, including those he compiled in his nine seasons in Japan. Some contended that this made him baseball’s all-time hit king, passing Pete Rose. To Bonds, that was absurd. “Pete Rose is the best hitter in baseball,” he says. “Period. Bar none. Just erase your thoughts about it. The argument’s just ridiculous to us as ballplayers. As far as Ichiro goes, to be able to accomplish that feat between the two countries, it’s outstanding. It’s just phenomenal, what he’s done.”
Loria, the Marlins’ owner, made his fortune as an art dealer, and until not long ago it appeared as if he might be more interested in assembling a gallery of baseball masterpieces than building a winner: Ichiro and manager Don Mattingly have each won an MVP award, and Bonds won seven during his impressive careers. But Miami, coming off six straight losing seasons, entered Sunday at 58–52 and tied for the second National League wild-card spot, and it is in part because that trio has provided the club with credible leadership that it has long lacked.
Ichiro’s on-field renaissance has helped, as he currently boasts his highest batting average since 2009. “He’s been balling out this year, which is fun to watch,” says his 24-year-old teammate, Christian Yelich. “It’s nice to see that he’s still playing well and not just limping to the finish line to get to 3,000.” But the fact is that there is no room for him in the starting lineup most days, not with a trio of burgeoning young stars—Yelich, 25-year-old Marcell Ozuna and 26-year-old Giancarlo Stanton—who have made the Marlins’ outfield one of the league's most potent. Still, says Mattingly, Ichiro's presence is crucial.
“Young guys, in general, they’re not very regimented,” says Mattingly. “They’re all over the place. They have a good game and they stay with it. They have a bad game and they start changing stuff. Ich is a great example from the standpoint that these guys know how long he’s played. They watch his body and his work ethic. He’s so routine oriented, and those routines don’t change. I think he’s so good for our team, from the standpoint of demonstrating the work that it takes to be good for a long time.”
Part of Ichiro's routine includes hitting nearly as many home runs in batting practice as does Stanton, who outweighs him by almost 70 pounds. “I don’t understand his BP,” says the powerful Stanton, this year’s Home Run Derby champ. “Breaking down the swing, I understand it. He stays back, everything’s precise and perfect. But the way his practice is compared to his games is pretty crazy to see. In the game, he’s controlled—boom, boom, wherever it's pitched, he's going to smack it that way. In BP, everything is backspun and pulled, with the exact same swing. I don’t get it!”
The principle, though, is simple: Discover what works for you, even if it doesn’t make sense to others, and stick with it. That is what Bonds has instilled in his team’s young hitters, too—particularly Yelich, who is batting .322 with 10 homers, 54 RBIs and an .892 OPS that is nearly 100 points higher than last year's mark, and Ozuna, who struggled so badly last season that he was demoted to the minors but who this year made the NL All-Star team. Neither has felt any trepidation about approaching Bonds for help, despite his stature.
“This guy understands hitting and baseball, and his craft, at an extremely high level,” says Yelich. “He’s been able to pass that along to some of us. It’s nice when you’re struggling a little bit to be able to go to one of the best hitters that ever lived. And if that doesn’t work, you can go talk to Don Mattingly. And if that doesn’t work, you can go talk to Ichiro.”
“And if if you can’t figure it then?” interjects veteran infielder Chris Johnson, from a nearby locker. “Just quit.”
“Yeah,” says Yelich. “If you can’t figure it out then, go play soccer or something.”
In 1995, when he was 22 and still six years from leaving Japan for the Mariners, Ichiro came to the United States on a tour sponsored by Upper Deck. He met Michael Jordan in Chicago and then traveled to Cincinnati to have dinner with Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr. There was only one place to which the Griffeys would bring a visiting dignitary to eat, particularly one from Japan: their favorite restaurant, Benihana.
At the time, very few people in the States had any idea who Ichiro was, but one who did was the Griffeys’ preferred Benihana chef, a man named Hiro, who was known at the restaurant by the nickname Yummy Yummy. “Hiro was in hog heaven,” recalls Ken Sr. “He was so excited, he was cutting things wrong, he was missing his shrimp tail flips.” At the end of the meal, Ichiro was gracious, but he also had to be honest with his hosts. “You know,” he said, with Hiro interpreting. “This is nothing like how we eat in Japan.”
Griffey Jr. was traded from the Mariners to the Reds before the 2000 season, one year before Ichiro arrived, and the two wouldn’t become teammates until Junior’s Seattle swan song began in 2009. Every day, during a particular part of Ichiro’s pre-game stretching routing, Griffey would jump on his teammate and tickle him. “When he’d get in a certain position, I’d lock on him, and he’d start sweating,” says Junior. “He’s extremely ticklish, to the point where if you touch him he starts to twitch. He’s got the body of a 12-year-old gymnast, is what I tell him. He just laughs.”
A new country, mischievously assaultive teammates: None of it fazed Ichiro. He blew past 200 hits every season between 2001 and '10. “People say I’m an explorer, a pioneer, whatever,” he once said. “That’s other people’s opinion. That’s not why I came over here. I came over here to play baseball.”
Now, though, he is faced with a new, more ominous distraction: aging. That, too, has yet to derail him. “As he gets older, you’re not going to get what he was 10 years ago, but he’s squeezing out every bit he can at his age,” says Stanton. “He doesn’t take days off. He was built—he was created—to do this. And no one else can.”
Age, though, will come for him, as it did for Bonds. Eventually, after a couple of years of joblessness, Bonds realized that even if a team happened to call, he could no longer answer. “It’s not a pride thing, but a common sense thing,” he says. “I couldn’t give what I feel I should be able to give to the game of baseball. You have to step away and allow some else to have their time, their turn. You can’t be ashamed of that. It’s part of life.”
Ichiro, whose contract has a $2 million club option for next season, has said that he’d like to play until he is at least 50. For him, though, there is little point in looking that far ahead, just as there is little point in looking back to all of the hits that have added up to 3,000. What matters to him is maximizing each day. “Every day is a process for me, making sure there’s nothing about which I can turn around and say, ‘I wish I’d done this,’” he says. “That’s why I prepare myself. That’s why I’m out there doing things every single day. It’s so that I don’t have a time later on when I look back with regret. I’m taking that out of the equation.”
He also knows that nothing will be given to him, even though he is a certain Hall of Famer. Next year’s job, even tomorrow’s job, isn’t assured. “I understand, completely, that it’s on me,” he says. “I need to come out year after year and perform, to play the next year. That’s my approach. I want people to just judge me for how I play. Not an age, not a number. How I’m doing today, how I’m moving today. That’s what I would like people to judge me on.”
So he pushes forward, maintaining his gymnast’s body, examining his equipment, inhaling the wooly odor of his hats. One day, as it was for his hitting coach, it will all be over. Then, perhaps, he’ll enjoy the sum of his accomplishments, his thousands of hits. But when you truly love something, you never want it to end. Ichiro is doing everything within his considerable powers to ensure he has as many baseball tomorrows as he can, and that his 3,000 hits represent only a marker on his life’s road, and not a destination.