Impossible to avoid hyperbole when it comes to ‘amazing’ Ichiro

Watch as Ichiro Suzuki finally reached 3,000 hits in the MLB, marking it with a triple that fell just short of being a home run at Coors Field.

TORONTO — In the spring of 2001, when the Seattle Mariners assembled at spring training, a new right fielder joined a team hoping to build on a 91-win season. The Mariners had just spent $27 million to obtain the Orix Blue Wave’s best hitter, but no one knew exactly what to expect from Ichiro Suzuki.

“We’re saying ‘What are we going to see here?’” recalls former Mariners starter Aaron Sele. “It’s a veteran team, nobody knew what to expect. None of us knew what kind of player he was, but he knew.”

Sixteen years later no doubt remains about the calibre of hitter the Mariners signed. Ichiro was named American League Rookie of the Year and MVP in his first big-league season as Seattle won an MLB record-tying 116 games. He had at least 200 hits in each of his first 10 seasons. Now, at age 42, he’s the latest member of baseball’s 3,000-hit club.

With unparalleled bat-to-ball skills, impact speed and an exceptional throwing arm, Ichiro could have coasted on talent alone. Yet his former teammates describe him as a professional worker who combined a thoughtful approach to hitting with an eagerness to work on his swing.

“He’s such an intelligent player — he’s a student of the game — but he takes it further,” says Sele, now a pro scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Not only what do (pitchers) throw, but what are they going to throw me in this count.”

“He’s just an ultimate professional,” says Russell Martin, who played with Suzuki on the 2012 New York Yankees. “He’s very on top of what he can control. His work ethic, his preparation. It’s definitely not a lack of repetition. He’s always taking swings, always working on something. You always see him with a bat in his hand thinking about hitting a ball.”

Though Ichiro’s batting practice power remains the stuff of legend, he’s primarily been a singles hitter at the big-league level. But there’s a level of appreciation for Ichiro across the sport whether you’re a pitcher like Sele or a power hitter like Mark McGwire, who ranks 10th all-time with 583 home runs.

“Just an incredible hitter,” says McGwire, the San Diego Padres’ hitting coach. “To get to 3,000 hits shows you how special he is.”

Over the years, many suggested that Ichiro had enough power to compete with the likes of McGwire if he were inclined to sacrifice some points on his lifetime .314 batting average. That power never fully materialized in games — Ichiro topped out at 15 home runs in 2005 — but Sele recalls some impressive displays in BP. They would begin when power hitters along the lines of Edgar Martinez and Mike Cameron might jokingly tease Ichiro about his singles-heavy approach.

“He’d turn around and hit five in a row off the second deck plexiglass and then he’d go ‘No power, no power,’ turn around and walk away,” Sele recalls. “He would have been my pick to win any kind of home run contest.”

“A lot of people didn’t get to see the funny side of him,” Sele added. “You get spurts of this really funny guy.”

More than anything Ichiro can hit. Sele would look for ways to retire Ichiro while pitching for the Los Angeles Angels. “You tried to get it on the ground and hopefully he’d hit it at somebody,” Sele recalls. Against Ichiro, though, the best game plans often come up short. In 19 at bats against Sele, he collected 12 hits.

Even at the age of 42, he’s hitting .317 for a Miami Marlins team that finds itself in contention. While he’s primarily a fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter now, he’s showing flashes of what he was in his prime: a two-way player whose pure hitting ability rivals Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn.

Descriptions of Ichiro veer toward hyperbole, but that may be appropriate for a player of his calibre.

“It’s just amazing. He was getting 200-plus hits as a regular thing. That’s not an easy thing to do,” Martin says. “It’s almost like he figured out a cheat in the game. He has that running swing out of the box and he’s so fast … Besides the fact that he was already a good hitter, that trait made him that much tougher.”

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