This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's College Football Preview issue. Subscribe today! This interview was translated and edited for clarity.
Ichiro Suzuki is just two hits away from becoming the 30th player in Major League Baseball to reach 3,000 hits -- and his will be one of the fastest journeys ever, just 16 years after winning rookie of the year and MVP in his debut MLB season. We recently sat down with the Miami outfielder, now 42, as he reminisced about his 25-year professional career and considered what the future holds. Turns out, you can expect the hits to keep coming.
Does 3,000 hits mean something to you, or is it just a number?
I talked about when I hit 4,256. If you're at the end of your career and you are limping toward that number, the goal is just to get to it. But for me, when you are part of a team, you're out there just playing baseball and you [just happen to] get to that number. I am not limping to that number. I am playing the game, and I happen to get to that number because that's where I am.
Has getting to 3,000 been daunting or exhausting due to the media attention?
Obviously, I have had experiences in Japan and here regarding reaching particular numbers. But right now, I feel pressure every day because I am in a position where if you don't perform, you don't play. I am the fourth outfielder. I am trying to do well today so I can play tomorrow. I think it might be different if I was in the lineup every single day. But you've got to hit in order to play.
Is the media coverage overblown?
I think the media or the outside is really more into it than I am. It's a bigger deal for them. I like to read the news, but when I pull up a Japanese site and an article comes up with my face, I never read it. If people only knew the huge gap that exists between the attention it gets in the media and how I feel. That gap is a big difference.
Was there anything that bothered you about coverage when you passed Pete Rose?
I was actually happy to see the Hit King get defensive. I kind of felt I was accepted. I heard that about five years ago Pete Rose did an interview, and he said that he wished that I could break that record. Obviously, this time around it was a different vibe. In the 16 years that I have been here, what I've noticed is that in America, when people feel like a person is below them, not just in numbers but in general, they will kind of talk you up. But then when you get up to the same level or maybe even higher, they get in attack mode; they are maybe not as supportive. I kind of felt that this time.
When you got here, did you think you would have such a long and successful MLB career?
When I first came, I had a three-year deal. At that point all I thought was that I want to do the best I can in those three years. But in my first game, there was a play I made that was pretty good. I came in and Lou [Piniella, Seattle's manager from 1993 to 2002] gave me a kiss. So I thought, "Three years is too long! If I am going to get kissed every day, I don't want to be here!"
Do you consider yourself a natural-born exceptional athlete or someone who is self-taught?
I am not a thoroughbred in any way. My father was just an amateur; my mother is not even an athlete herself. If someone had bet on me, they would have made a lot of money! But what really helped me out to get to this point was that I was able to do things freely, my way.
What do you mean by doing things "your way"?
The one that is pretty obvious is the hitting style. Before I came [to the U.S.], I would lift my leg up and go forward. Most managers or coaches would stop you from doing that. A big turning point in my career was when I was 19, my second year as a professional. I was up and down, going from the minors to the big leagues. The hitting coach at the time thought my batting style was different from the way he thought it should be. He came to me and said, "Are you going to listen to what I tell you to do?" I told him, "No, I am not going to." So I got sent down. The following year, the manager allowed me to do it my way. And I broke the all-time hits records in a season. That point is when I knew I had to have the courage to believe in myself, in that what I am doing is right for me.
"When I first came to over the U.S., a lot of people didn't think I would last a year." Ichiro Suzuki
In your years in the U.S., do you think you changed the game?
I really don't know what effect I had. But what you can say is that maybe people were only thinking inside a box. Because I was just able to do it kind of freely, do it my way, I believe that box may have been expanded. Maybe they could see that there are other ways.
After the peak of the so-called "steroid era," it seems like you broadened how people could see a great hitter.
When I first came [to the U.S.] I heard a lot of people say, "You do all these things and you are so small." But for me, when I first came over I looked at all the players, and I thought to myself, "How can you play when you are that big?!" Baseball is a game where many, many things come into play. You really have to use your head. The nerves in your body have to react. And if you're that big, that reaction time must slow down. I was actually shocked to see how big the players were. I thought the mindset here in the big leagues was different; size must equal strength.
Do you still feel like you're able to perform at a top level?
How I feel today, and how I felt in 2004 [when Suzuki set the MLB single-season hit record], there is no difference. Obviously, getting 262 hits, and trying to accomplish that in 162 games, was difficult then, and it would be difficult today. You have to have good fortune, and many, many things have to come together in order to do something like that. But if you were to tell me that I would hit leadoff and play every single day, I believe I could get 200 hits now. There is no reason that I can think of that tells me I couldn't. There is nothing that would stop me from saying yes, I can do it.
There was a period when I didn't have good numbers, but it had nothing to do with my physical condition. When you look back at the last three years, it was my first year in the National League; it was the first time in my career I wasn't going to play every day. I had to learn a new role. I had to learn to prepare differently because I wasn't in the lineup every day. What is dangerous about that is that people would say, "Oh, [his numbers are not good] because he's old." I believe that as an athlete how you got to the age of 42 makes a big difference. I have learned about my body; I haven't gone off only talent until I was 42. Those are two different things; I took a different route.
What do you wish you had known 16 years ago that you know now?
I think, the words that people say, you can't believe it all. When I first came to over the U.S., a lot of people didn't think I would last a year. Now, 16 years from that day, people are saying, "Oh, 3,000 hits, he's a future Hall of Famer, this and that." So I guess not taking everything in or believing everything-only to really take care of those that are close to you, and don't worry about the outside.
What do you mean by they "saved" you?
There was a period when even though we were on the same team, wearing the same uniform, [my teammates] felt like enemies. They saved me from that period. [Editor's note: Suzuki explained later that in the middle of his career with the Mariners, when the team wasn't playing well but he was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner, his teammates called him selfish and said that he cared only about individual accolades. After Griffey, Sweeney and Ibanez arrived, he says, they stood up for him and encouraged their teammates to worry about their own play first.]
When do you think you will retire?
I want to keep playing until I am at least 50.
If you get into the Hall of Fame, the first player from any Asian country, what would that mean?
I really don't know. But I think you are eligible for the HOF ballot five years after you retire, so I think I will be dead by then [laughs]. I won't get to experience it.