When the Seattle Mariners' Ted Heid originally scouted Ichiro Suzuki in Japan, he saw a great player, but not one he ever thought would one day reach 3,000 hits in the North American major leagues. No Japanese position player had ever played in Major League Baseball at that time, and Ichiro wouldn't be able do so until 2001, when he was 27 years old. That meant to reach 3,000, he would have to average 200 hits for 15 seasons, when he would be in his 40s. "That never even was fathomable to me,'' Heid recalls.
Nor was it to his first manager here, Lou Piniella.
"To think in that first year that this young man would be playing at 42 and going for 3,000 hits, I didn't think it was possible then,'' Piniella says. "Just 2,000 hits would have been an outstanding achievement.''
While Ichiro has had a great career here -- two batting titles, an MVP and a .314 career average -- as he aged and his numbers declined, many questioned whether he would be able to reach 3,000. Given his stats from last year -- career lows in hits (91) and batting average (.229) -- most estimates suggested that he might barely reach the mark near season's end. Or that he would miss it and possibly not get another contract.
Not that Robinson Cano doubted his former teammate.
"If you get to play with him and be around him, you know he will,'' said Cano, who played a season and a half with Ichiro. "You would have to kick him out of baseball. Because he works out every day. Even when he's in the batting cage, he had his own weights he would lift before he hit. He was in shape. That's the guy you're never going to see retire. He loves baseball so much. He said, 'I'm going to play until I'm 50 years old.' If you're close to a milestone, why retire?''
Even if you reach a milestone, why retire if you are hitting as well as Ichiro is now? He reached the 3,000-hit mark months before he was expected to, and he is batting .317.
"I got to see him take batting practice recently and how he approached things and I'm like, 'This guy has found the fountain of youth,'" Heid says. "He reinvented himself. Just his control of the strike zone and pitches. He's really locked in right now.''
Reaching 3,000 hits is an amazing accomplishment, especially when you don't get your first until age 27. But joining the prestigious 3,000 Hit Club is just one way in which Ichiro -- one of the best and most intriguing players in baseball history -- has made himself noteworthy. Here are 14 others -- which is probably 2,985 short of the Ichiro total.
Treat your gear with respect
Ichiro is religious about his bats and gloves, caring for them meticulously. He stores his bats in a humidor, a case with chemical rods that keep his bats from gaining or losing moisture (he recently gave one to Marlins teammate Christian Yelich). He carries his bats to and from the dugout himself, not allowing the bat boys to touch them. Ichiro is so respectful of his equipment that once, after throwing his bat on the ground in frustration when he made an out in a game in Japan, he took the bat to his hotel room as a form of apology.
He was so careful to place his bat at a certain spot on the dugout bench that the Mariners drilled a hole for it. "He was very methodical that way,'' former teammate Dan Wilson said. "It's probably one of those things that led him to be so consistent."
Ichiro is just as particular with his gloves. Heid says during Ichiro's first seasons with the Mariners, he was appalled by the way some teammates treated their equipment. During the 2009 World Baseball Classic, he openly criticized players who left their gloves unattended, tossed them on the bench or sat on them.
His bats and gloves, Heid says, "Are an extension of him. He treats his body as a temple. He treats his equipment the same -- as a temple.''
As Ichiro once told me: "Equipment has heart, human heart, inside it.''
The batting stance
Ichiro has one of the most distinctive at-bat preparations you'll ever see. It's so amazing that Gar Ryness, aka the Batting Stance Guy, says he wouldn't be surprised to see him "come up to bat with a Hugh Hefner smoking jacket, hit the ball and moonwalk to first base. He is so stylish in an enviable type of way.''
Before he goes to the plate, Ichiro will stretch in the on-deck circle, bending way down and shifting his body to the left and right. He will crouch with his rear end leaned back on his heels in a duck squat. When he gets to the plate, he will hold his bat up and outward toward the mound with his right hand. He will smell the batting glove on his left hand, then tug the shoulder of his jersey.
"There are other guys who have done the samurai pose, like Jim Thome," says Ryness. "When Ichiro does it, he does it with so much more style. He would go slowly over the top. When he would tug his sleeve, he was doing everything short of motioning to the pitcher, 'OK, let's fight.'"
Ryness isn't the only one who imitates Ichiro. There also is Fake Ichiro, who has imitated the hitter's stance not only at games but also on a TV game show.
"I view Ichiro as a celebrity,'' Ryness says. "Having been in Japan and seeing how they love him, Ichiro is like [David] Beckham.''
Inspiring a country
The first Japanese player in the American major leagues was Masanori Murakami in 1964-65. There wasn't another until Hideo Nomo joined the Dodgers in 1995, followed by eight more pitchers in the ensuing five seasons. Ichiro, however, opened the way for position players -- Tsuyoshi Shinjo also started in the majors that season, but Ichiro debuted a day earlier and had a far more dramatic effect.
"For him to come over here and put up the numbers he did, it gave us position players in Japan hope that we could come over here and play over here,'' Mariners outfielder Nori Aoki says. "It's still difficult now, but until then, Japanese position players didn't even think of coming here. We couldn't even imagine playing here.''
Since Ichiro's debut, 13 Japanese position players have made the move.
"He reinforced the idea that Japanese baseball is very, very good baseball,'' Piniella says.
The Ichiro Louvre
Ichiro's father, Nobuyuki Suzuki, opened an Ichiro museum by the Nagoya airport, close to where he raised his son. The museum holds more than 2,000 items, many of them from Ichiro's childhood. As the museum manager told me during a visit in 2002: "When Ichiro was a child, his father told Ichiro's mother, 'He is going to be a great athlete. We must keep everything.' And they just kept everything.''
And they really did. Among the many items on display are Ichiro's Little League uniforms, scorecards from his games, his model Star Wars TIE fighter, the certificate from his driver's training course, his high school ID card, his old bicycle, his school essays, his schoolboy satchel and his retainer from junior high. There is even an Ichiro mannequin seated at his old school desk, posed as if it's working an abacus.
While Ichiro is known as a singles hitter -- he has had roughly 700 infield singles in his career -- he has power, too. He has 113 career home runs here, including 15 in 2005, 37 leadoff home runs and two walk-off home runs, one of which was against Mariano Rivera.
But it is during batting practice that his power is most on display. Ryness says he once saw Ichiro wink at somebody and then hit eight straight home runs. Winking or not, Ichiro will often blast balls into the stands. He recently sent several into the upper deck in Minnesota, which is not easy.
"I've never seen anybody like that, not anybody in my life that can do that, how far he hits it,'' Cano says. "I would love to see him in the Home Run Derby.''
A midsummer classic
Ichiro was an All-Star in each of his seven full seasons in Japan and in his first 10 seasons here. His best performance was in 2007 when he went 3-for-3 and hit the only inside-the-park home run in All-Star Game history and earned the MVP award.
He also is known for his off-the-field All-Star performances -- he has fired up teammates with pregame speeches filled with foul language. But the most memorable might have been when he met President Obama at the 2009 All-Star Game. He bowed while shaking the president's hand and got his autograph.
"My idea, when I saw him, was to say, 'What's up?'" Ichiro said through his interpreter that day. "But I got nervous. You know, he has that kind of aura about him. So I got nervous, and I didn't say that to him. I was a little disappointed about that.
"But I realized after seeing him today that presidents wear jeans, too. So my hope is that our skipper [Don Wakamatsu] was watching that and we can wear jeans on our flights.''
Speaking of which...
Ichiro has always been known for his distinctive style of clothing. Bright striped shirts. Tight pants with cuffs high enough to show his bright bold socks. Very stylish shoes. He even wore a Bugs Bunny sweatshirt when meeting Ken Griffey Jr. for the first time in 1995. Another time, manager Mike Hargrove was so taken aback by his style of jeans that he had Ichiro bring them into his office.
In 2009, Larry LaRue of the Tacoma News Tribune wrote about how Griffey would rate Ichiro's clothes each game. "I'd wear that shirt,'' Junior told LaRue. "The pants? No. That belt? No. Shoes? Yeah, I might wear those. But that man purse? No f---ing way. You're 2-for-5 today.''
Cano categorizes Ichiro's style as trendy European. "You would see him wearing it, and then the next thing, everybody is wearing it. He used to have pants up at his ankles, and he would be the only one. And then later on, a year later, everyone has that. You see LeBron [James] with it.''
As careful as Ichiro is with his equipment, he's even more careful with his body. He stretches a good deal, and not just before at-bats. Before games, he massages the soles of his feet with a wooden stick.
"I was quite amazed by the things he did, the stretching especially,'' Piniella says. "He took it to a totally different level. He was fanatical about it. That's probably one of the big reasons he's playing here at age 42. That stretching has helped him immensely in staying healthy and playing this long.''
Ichiro came to the Mariners the season after they lost Alex Rodriguez to free agency, a year after they traded Griffey and 2½ years after they traded Randy Johnson. He immediately learned to sign his name in English script, wore his first name on the back of his jersey -- the only active player to do so -- and took the Big Unit's old number: 51. His right-field position soon became known as Area 51, but his reach extended far beyond that.
"Ichiro became the face of the franchise in a very, very short period of time,'' Piniella says. After his original signing, his replica jersey initially outsold every other jersey. Ichiro was so popular in Seattle that for years there was a concession stand that sold Ichirolls (spicy tuna sushi), but alas, that menu item was dropped after the Mariners traded him to New York in 2012. His bobbleheads were so coveted that giveaway night lines resembled those for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens.'' Fans sent the club multiple songs about him. The club even received a request from someone who wanted to market an I-Cheerio cereal.
The real Ichiro was so popular that Fake Ichiro would wander around downtown Seattle, signing autographs and posing for photographs. He made a mistake one game when he reached over the low fence down the right field line and grabbed a ball -- that was still in play.
High school hot tub
Ichiro and fellow Japanese superstar Hideki Matsui first met when their high schools played against each other in 1991. After games, teams would take communal baths, but seniors were supposed to go in first. Ichiro, who was a senior, saw that Matsui, a junior, was already in the water. This annoyed Ichiro so much that more than a decade later when they were both in the majors and appeared on a TV show together, Ichiro asked Matsui: "Why did you get in the bath first?''
Ichiro isn't just a hitter. He pitched in high school and maintained his arm speed and control when he moved to the outfield as a pro. He showed off that arm in his first weeks with the Mariners when he threw out Terrence Long at third base on a ball to right field.
"I'll never forget how when he threw that ball, it had no loop to it,'' Mariners broadcaster Rick Rizzs says. "I described it as a laser beam throw right to third baseman David Bell. He threw a strike. David Bell never moved his glove to catch it and then put down to tag him. ... It was one of the greatest throws I've seen in 42 years of broadcasting.''
Ichiro, who was sent to the mound to record the final out of the 1995 Japanese All-Star Game, wanted to pitch many times in the majors. He finally got the chance in the final game of last season when he allowed one run and two hits in one inning against the Phillies.
A man of quotes
Ichiro can be difficult with reporters, declining interviews or telling them to come back in a week or two. When he does do interviews, he'll sometimes speak with his back to reporters while an interpreter translates his responses. But Ichiro can be funny and interesting when he does speak. He can be so intriguing, in fact, that author David Shields collected many of his quotes in a book -- and that was more than a decade ago.
Five of Ichiro's funniest or most interesting quotes:
"I think one of the requirements for being a DH is weighing at least 200 pounds, so maybe if I was that heavy I would do it, [but] the day I weigh 200 pounds is the day I'm inside a coffin.''
-- to me in 2009
"Chicks who dig home runs aren't the ones who appeal to me. I think there's sexiness in infield hits because they require technique. I'd rather impress the chicks with my technique than with my brute strength. Then, every now and then, just to show I can do that, too, I might flirt a little by hitting one out.''
-- to Brad Lefton in a 2009 New York Times story
"To tell the truth, I'm not excited to go to Cleveland, but we have to. If I ever saw myself saying I'm excited going to Cleveland, I'd punch myself in the face, because I'm lying.''
-- to Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone in 2007
"If there is a problem, we need to notice it, what creates the problem. The problem usually isn't just on the cover. You need to look much deeper. For example, if we're talking about a tree, and the tree has a problem, you need to look at the root. But you cannot see the root. The mistake is to keep watering the fruit. That's not going to solve anything. You need to find where the problem is first."
-- to reporters at the 2006 All-Star Game
"August in Kansas City is hotter than two rats f---ing in a sock.''
-- telling Bob Costas what his favorite American expression was
A spring and fall classic
Ichiro has never played in the World Series, but he did help the Orix BlueWave to the Japanese title in 1996 against the Yomiuri Tokyo Giants. He also led Japan to the championship in the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic. And who knows? With the way he's hitting, maybe he can get the Marlins to the World Series this October.
Hall of Famer
Ichiro cherishes baseball history. He once went to George Sisler's grave to lay flowers and pay his respects to the man whose single-season hit record he broke in 2004. "And to apologize,'' Heid says. "He felt horrible that he broke a great man's record.''
The first time Ichiro visited Kansas City, he couldn't wait to tour the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. "He wanted to understand those guys and what they went through and everything they did," Heid says. "And their love of baseball because they didn't play for the money.''
And when Ichiro was named the 2001 rookie of the year, he answered questions from reporters over the phone. When they asked whether he was back in Japan, Ichiro said no, he was in the United States. When they asked where in the United States, he simply said, "In the United States.''
He was sitting in an office at the Hall of Fame, there on the first of six visits he has made to the Hall. That's how much the Hall means to him.
When he tours the Hall, he carefully views the artifacts. During one visit, wearing thin white gloves, Ichiro took hold of one of Ty Cobb's old bats, held the barrel end to his ear and thumped the bat with his finger so that he could hear how tight the grain was. Ichiro, Heid says, was stunned when the Hall asked for mementos of his first season.
Five years after he retires, Ichiro will be back in Cooperstown, New York, but this time, he will take the stage to deliver his induction speech. And his plaque will be on a wall.
Flights from Japan are going to be very full.