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Ichiro Suzuki, still connecting

July 19, 2016, 12:40 PM

— -- THE PLAYERS gathered in the back of the Miami Marlins' team plane, and somebody started pouring champagne.

Martin Prado, the veteran third baseman, led the toast. He turned to Ichiro Suzuki and said: I'm proud of you. We're all proud of you.

That afternoon, June 15, in the ninth inning against the San Diego Padres, Ichiro had lined a double into the right-field corner for his 4,257th professional hit. Pete Rose, the major leagues' all-time hits leader, finished his career with 4,256. Ichiro got his first 1,278 hits in Japan, so, in the MLB record books, Rose's record survives. Still, Ichiro's hit meant something: a milepost in one of baseball's great careers, a connection across countries and cultures and leagues, a line drive that carried an ocean.

Back in Japan, where it was already morning the next day, newspapers started printing special editions for rush hour. In San Diego, the fans gave him a standing ovation. Ichiro tipped his helmet to the crowd, revealing a brush cut of gray hair.

He is 42 now, the second-oldest player in the majors (behind Bartolo Colon), and this is his 16th year playing in the United States. In his first year in the majors, he was both rookie of the year and MVP. He holds the single-season record for hits with 262. He owns 10 Gold Gloves as an outfielder. And sometime in the next couple of weeks, he will reach a milestone beyond dispute: 3,000 major league hits, a mark only 29 players before him have reached. Going into Tuesday's game against the Phillies, he is at 2,994, six hits away. He is a dead-certain Hall of Famer, which Pete Rose, right now, is not.

We're all proud of you, Prado said. And everybody's excited, just to watch you do your thing.

There was a pause, the moment when the person being honored might normally say a few words. Ichiro had given a rare news conference after the game, speaking through his interpreter, Allen Turner. He'd said the kinds of things you expect: "It was just a relief that I was able to get a clean hit." But now, in front of his teammates, he struggled.

It meant so much to him that they cared. If you do something great and you're the only one who enjoys it, what's the point? He started to tell them that. But they all speak English or Spanish, and even though Ichiro knows both languages, he has always worried about saying something wrong, missing some little shade of meaning. And even though he has taught some of his teammates a little Japanese, none would understand enough. He hates to be misunderstood. He wants to make sure what other people hear is exactly what he means. Turner was there with him on the plane. But that, too, would be one step removed.

He just smiled, and waved, and raised his glass.

The language he has always known best is baseball. His father relentlessly drilled him in the game. He grew to become the Jordan of Japan. He chose to come to America and prove himself all over again. Now, years past the time when most players retire, he has found a second wind. Through Monday, playing part time as the Marlins' fourth outfielder, he was hitting .345.

Fans love Ichiro wherever they love baseball. (Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, who defected from Cuba as a teenager, says Ichiro has a huge following there.) He clearly enjoys being part of a team. But baseball, more than any other team sport, forces a player to face its challenges alone. "When you get up to the plate ... nobody's there to help you," Ichiro says. "You've got to do this on your own."

The separation suits him. Ichiro has never been normal: first separated by his talent, then by language, always by the legendary habits and quirks he has built into his daily routine. When he played in Seattle, Ken Griffey Jr. started tickling him before every game. Ichiro hates to be tickled. But then Griffey stopped and Ichiro went into a slump. So he told Griffey to start tickling him again, even though it meant that every game he ran onto the field soaked in sweat. Ichiro lives at the intersection of zen, superstition and obsession.

It is so hard in this world to be understood -- harder than a slider at the knees. In some ways, even after 16 years in the majors and 25 as a pro, Ichiro is still the guy in the back of the plane, one step removed from it all. He is thoughtful when he chooses to speak. But the best way to hear him is to watch him work.

PHASE 1: The locker room

Ichiro faces his locker before a June home game against the Rockies. It is four hours before the first pitch. There is so much to do to get ready.

He runs the soles of his feet over nubby massage balls. He gets on the floor and rolls a vibrating foam roller under his hamstrings and hips. He takes a brass-colored wire brush and scrubs the dirt from his cleats. He puts the cleats on with a shoehorn. He drapes his jersey across his lap, gets out a tiny pair of scissors and clips off stray threads. When he has finished, he takes a lint roller and cleans the carpet in front of his locker.

He grabs a bat and goes to the indoor batting cage. He stores his bats in a special case that keeps them dry. He does not like them to sweat.

On the field, he stretches with the rest of the team, but two steps off to the side. Everybody but Ichiro does the same few moves. They work with stretch bands a bit. Then they go off to hit or shag flies. Ichiro keeps stretching. He rolls backward until he is balancing on the back of his neck. He spreads his legs beneath him on the ground, angled outward at the knees, like a splayed chicken. No joint goes unbent. He is a yogi in a ball cap.

After 20 minutes, he pops up and heads for the outfield, picking up his custom-made red glove.

His father, Nobuyuki Suzuki, bought Ichiro a red glove when he was 3.

According to Robert Whiting's book "The Meaning of Ichiro," Ichiro and his father played catch every day, and Nobuyuki made his son clean and oil the glove after each session. By the time Ichiro was 7, he was hitting 200 pitches from his father every afternoon, and 250 to 300 more from a pitching machine every night. In high school, his team in Nagoya practiced daily from 3:30 to 8 p.m. and took more batting practice at 9. The grind weeded out dozens of players. But Ichiro had done it all before, for his father. In his three years of high school ball, he hit .502.

The Orix Blue Wave drafted him out of high school. In his third year of pro ball, he set the Japanese record for hits in a season -- 210 in 130 games. Soon he became not just Japan's best player but its biggest celebrity. He played with a swagger rarely seen in Japanese ball -- he caught fly balls behind his back in practice, blasted hip-hop before games. But underneath the flair was a classic Japanese story: a young warrior suffers for his craft, then masters it.

When a hero goes on a journey, he becomes a symbol of his home. Ichiro signed with the Mariners before the 2001 season, after nine years with Orix, and became the first position player from Japan to enter the majors. He brought more than his bags to Seattle.

"He carried the weight of Japanese baseball on his shoulders," says Rich Waltz, who worked on the broadcast team in Seattle and is now the TV play-by-play announcer for the Marlins. "If he came over as the best player in Japan, and walks into Major League Baseball -- there had not been a guy like him to come over -- if he failed, if he was an average player, then the whole league over there would've been downgraded in the minds of fans, in the minds of players, in the minds of executives."

That first year, as a 27-year-old rookie, he led the majors in batting average, hits and stolen bases. The Mariners won an American League record 116 games. Seattle, and America, fell in love.

As a new player in the States, he gravitated toward another pioneer. He loved going to Kansas City to talk with Buck O'Neil, the former Negro Leagues player who became the first black coach in the majors. O'Neil would hang around the batting cage before games. Ichiro enjoyed his style -- O'Neil always dressed beautifully -- and soaked up his stories. O'Neil had also helped establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and Ichiro stopped in for a tour. When O'Neil died in 2006, Ichiro sent a giant wreath to the memorial service.

A year later, on a road trip to Kansas City, he asked to meet some of the museum's staff. Museum president Bob Kendrick showed Ichiro a rare program from a barnstorming tour of Japan that a Negro League team called the Philadelphia Royal Giants made in 1927. Ichiro held the fragile paper in his hands, read from the Japanese on the cover. Then he got around to why he had come. He pulled out his checkbook. Kendrick won't say how much Ichiro donated to the museum, but he says it was the biggest donation from any active player.

Kendrick sees a kinship between Ichiro and the black players who integrated the major leagues. It's not apples to apples. No one fought to keep Ichiro out of the majors. But Kendrick believes he faced similar hurdles.

"So many people were skeptical that his skill set would transfer from Japan. People thought he wasn't as good," Kendrick says. "I always understood the parallels between the guys coming out of the Negro Leagues and what Ichiro had to deal with. They were always trying to erase that doubt."

Now, doubts erased, Ichiro jogs to the outfield with his throwing partner, Marlins centerfielder Marcell Ozuna. Ozuna is 25 years old, from the Dominican Republic. When Ichiro came to the Marlins last year, he taught Ozuna a new Japanese word every day. Now they start playing catch a few feet apart, Ozuna standing on the left-field line. With every throw Ichiro backs up a few steps. After a few minutes he is way out in right-center, ripping perfect throws to Ozuna, who has not moved from his spot. Then Ichiro starts coming back in, a few steps with every throw, until he and Ozuna are just an arm's length apart. About as far as a 3-year-old could throw it.

They pull face-to-face and bro-hug -- the same thing they do every time they throw. Then Ichiro goes off to hit.

PHASE 2: Batting practice

The legends his teammates have told all these years are true. In batting practice, Ichiro is the Babe. He parks pitch after pitch into the right-field stands. A few land in the upper deck. The power swing he uses in BP is a left-handed glide that looks like a scale model of Griffey's. Griffey hit 630 home runs in his major league career. Ichiro has 113.

This has frustrated some fans, and even teammates, over the years. If Ichiro sacrificed some of his singles to swing for the fences, the thinking goes, he'd produce more runs. It's a fair question, especially now that advanced stats show the value of low-average hitters with power. But Ichiro has never seen himself that way. He told Rich Waltz once that he gets nervous every time he comes to bat with runners in scoring position. He is used to being the runner instead of the one who drives them in. He doesn't trust his power. "Look at my arms," he told Waltz. "They are toothpicks."

Ichiro has always been one of the smallest players in the majors. It's one of the reasons people doubted him. When he came to Seattle, he was listed at 5-9, 156. Now the Marlins list him at 5-11 and 174. By comparison, Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton is 6-6, 246 and looks like the cover of a romance novel. Ichiro looks pieced together from two different bodies. From the waist up, he's an MMA middleweight, lean and cut. From the waist down he's an NFL running back, thick-legged and powerful.

But his philosophy of hitting has more to do with his mind. When Ichiro was young, Nobuyuki trained him to hit left-handed -- even though his natural swing was right-handed -- because left-handed hitters are closer to first. He also taught Ichiro to start running almost as he swung the bat. Ichiro was built, through years of practice, to beat out infield hits. When he first made it to the big leagues in Japan, his manager told him to change the swing he and his father had perfected. Ichiro chose to go back to the minors instead of switch. Orix eventually switched managers. The new manager told Ichiro to hit however he wanted. Swinging for singles is the essence of Ichiro's art.

I ask him one day in the locker room: What does it feel like when you connect? He leans back in his chair and thinks before answering.

"You want to feel like there's a nerve that goes through the bat with your body and connects with the bat," he says. "I like the ball to almost stick to my bat. The longer it stays on the bat, that's what I like."

"He looks for pure contact," says Raul Ibanez, a friend and teammate of Ichiro's with the Mariners and Yankees, and now an adviser with the Los Angeles Dodgers and an ESPN analyst. "He looks to hit the ball as purely and fluidly and perfectly as he can."

It's fun to wonder whether what Ichiro has done is more valuable. What's clear is that it is more rare. Over the past five seasons, players have hit 40 or more home runs 20 times. Players have reached 200 hits just 11 times. Ichiro, from 2001 through 2010, got more than 200 hits every single year.

"We didn't get him to hit 28 home runs," Lou Piniella, his first manager in Seattle, said on a recent conference call. "We got him to play great outfield, run the bases well and become a good major league hitter. He became a great major league hitter."

Piniella was not sure at first. When Ichiro arrived for his first spring training, he spent the first few days slapping every pitch to the opposite field -- dribblers to third, fouls into the stands. He had always started training camp this way. It was how he got a feel for the outer edge of the strike zone. But Piniella didn't know that. The Mariners had sunk $27 million into Ichiro -- a $13 million fee to Orix, and $14 million for his three-year contract -- and the guy couldn't get the ball out of the infield? Early in a spring game, Piniella called him over. Pull the ball, son, he said. Being Lou Piniella, he might have used stronger words.

Ichiro listened and nodded. The next time he came up, he jacked a home run into the right-field bullpen. Piniella met him in the dugout to shake his hand. Ichiro looked at him and said: Happy now?

Now, on his last swing in BP, he hits a fly to right. Then he does what he always does at the end of his session: He sprints to first, then to second, as if stretching a single into a double. As the next batter swings, no matter where the ball goes, Ichiro takes third. Then on the next pitch he heads home, manufacturing an imaginary run.

PHASE 3: At the plate

Here is the hard fact about Ichiro's current role: He is the fourth outfielder on a team with three good ones. Christian Yelich, in left, and Ozuna, in center, are both hitting better than .300. Stanton, in right, has struggled this year, but he's a three-time All-Star and just won the Home Run Derby. Their ages are 24, 25 and 26. Marlins manager Don Mattingly sums it up: "If there's no injuries, there's not a lot of at-bats."

Ichiro has started just 30 of the Marlins' 92 games this year, shifting among all three outfield spots. Mostly he pinch hits. When he's not in the starting lineup, he spends the first inning in the dugout, in the same spot: standing on the far left end, up near the railing. He has not always stood there. It just feels right to him these days. "I like to decide things like that," he says, "so when things are going crazy, I can just go back to that place where I know that's my place."

As soon as the inning is over, he ducks back into the clubhouse. On the road, he might stretch some more or hit in the indoor cage. At Marlins Park, he has his machines. A small Japanese company that makes gym equipment made them for him; Ichiro is its only individual customer. They look like an old-school Nautilus set. He has them spread out in four stations on a ramp that winds down between the locker room and the dugout. They are built to stretch and strengthen at the same time. "Some of the guys have gotten on the machines," Waltz says. "It's kicked their ass." Now Ichiro is again the only one.

The other players see what he does to prepare. "I will be able to tell my kids that I played with a guy that has such a routine, that never changes his routine, has always done the same thing," Prado says. "People don't understand, it's so hard to maintain yourself in the same rhythm, and he does. He does. Every day."

Generally, around the seventh inning, he comes back to the dugout. On this particular night, the Marlins are playing the Reds before another quiet crowd in Miami. The Marlins have a bright and clean new park with a retractable roof to keep out the inescapable South Florida thunderstorms. They have that crazy fish sculpture out beyond the wall in center. They have young talent, like Fernandez and those three outfielders. This year they're on the top side of .500 and in the race for the National League wild card. Miami does not seem to care. The Marlins are 27th in the league in attendance. In Miami, if you want stars, you can always go to South Beach.

The crowd stirs in the bottom of the eighth when Ichiro steps into the on-deck circle. In the press box, the Japanese reporters sit up straighter. At one point, when Ichiro was at his peak in Seattle, more than 150 members of the Japanese media covered him. Waltz remembers that one photographer had a single job every day: to get the shot of Ichiro coming out of the dugout and onto the field. He took the shot, shipped it back home, and his day was done. Now the Japanese media corps is down to about a dozen --more lately, though, as Ichiro has crept toward 3,000. Japanese TV still shows most of his games.

Of course Ichiro has an on-deck routine, too. He always squats and plants the bat out in front of him like a tripod. He always does a second squat with his legs spread wide. He always takes a few of those loping batting-practice swings, watching the pitcher, getting down his timing.

When he is announced, the crowd chants his name. Some fans wear orange Ichiro Countdown T-shirts, created by a shoe salesman named Jay Marcus. They have big baseballs on the front where you are supposed to write how many hits Ichiro needs for 3,000. On this night, he needs 10.

He comes up with two on and two out, the Marlins up 4-2. The pitcher is a right-hander named Michael Lorenzen. Ichiro steps into the box and does what he has done for more than 10,000 major league plate appearances. He extends his right arm toward the pitcher, holding the bat straight up in the air. Then he reaches across his body with his left hand and tugs on his right sleeve, like an archer pulling back a bow.

When you get up to the plate ... nobody's there to help you.

On a 3-1 count, he taps one back to the pitcher. Lorenzen jogs toward first for the easy out. But Ichiro sees him jogging and speeds into a higher gear. Lorenzen notices, almost too late. He flips the ball to the first baseman just in time.

The announcers start talking about the All-Star break. Ichiro made the All-Star team his first 10 years in the league. Every year, in the American League locker room, he would crack up the team with a loud and profane speech in perfect English about beating the bleep out of the National League. But he has not made the team since 2010. This year, four other Marlins made the team and went to San Diego. Ichiro stayed in Miami. He made plans to come to the park every day of the break to work out.

PHASE 4: Postgame

The Marlins close out the Reds in the ninth, and Ichiro's habits kick in. If he is on the bench when the Marlins win, he hops the dugout railing to congratulate his teammates. But before the high-fives, he always steps onto the pitcher's mound and toes the rubber. He looks in toward the plate, as if waiting for a catcher's sign.

Ichiro, who pitched in high school, begged the Mariners for years to let him pitch in a blowout. He was a star; they refused to risk his arm. When he played with the Yankees from 2012 to 2014, he begged manager Joe Girardi; Girardi also turned him down. Last year, his first with the Marlins, he worked on Dan Jennings, who managed the team for most of last season. Finally, in the last game, with Miami down four to the Phillies, Jennings let Ichiro pitch the eighth. He gave up a run on two doubles. His fastball topped out at 88.

So now, Ichiro has pitched in the majors. He has been a star on two continents. He has made somewhere north of $160 million in major league salary alone, not including what he made in Japan, or endorsements. (Forbes estimated in 2011 that he makes $7 million a year endorsing products in Japan.) He has been married for 17 years to Yumiko Fukushima, a former TV reporter in Japan. They live in Miami Beach with their old dog, a shiba inu named Ikkyu. Their house features a life-size picture of Snoop Dogg. One of the first records Ichiro ever bought was by Snoop -- "I didn't know the meanings of the lyrics, but I liked the music," he says -- so when Yumiko saw the picture in a furniture store, she bought it for him.

He has made his father so proud that Nobuyuki Suzuki built a museum to his son back home. In Japan, even after 16 years away, he is still a hero. Jeff Conine, a former Marlins star who now works in their front office, was part of a group that went to Tokyo last offseason to sign Ichiro to a new contract (one year, $2 million, with a team option for 2017). Ichiro took them to Sukiyabashi Jiro, the tiny and world-famous restaurant owned by Jiro Ono, subject of the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." Ono set aside the entire place for the Marlins' group. After eating, they stepped into the lobby to take a few pictures. Conine glanced across the lobby, at another restaurant with a glass front wall. The customers had seen Ichiro. They were crowded together on the other side of the wall, their faces pressed against the glass.

Ichiro has only two opponents left: numbers and time.

He downplays the milestones. He said after the hit in San Diego that it was fine with him if people thought he had passed Pete Rose -- and fine if they didn't. But it mattered. When he got home from the game, his wife was waiting for him with a $2,000 bottle of merlot, Pétrus, vintage 1986. She picked that year for a reason. It was the year Rose got his 4,256th and final hit.

Ichiro had 54 hits in the first half of this season. If he gets 54 more in the second half, he'll pass five players and end up 25th on the MLB career hits list. A hundred more hits after that would land him in the top 20. Baseball historians will wonder about his nine years in Japan the way they still wonder about Ted Williams missing three seasons and most of two others in World War II and Korea. American baseball has better players, but in Japan they play fewer games. What if Ichiro had started playing 162 a year in the majors at 22 or 23? Would even Pete Rose have to concede his title?

And how much longer will Ichiro play?

In San Diego, he joked that he'll play as long as Yelich, Ozuna and Stanton do. He has also said he wants to play until he's 50. When I asked, he answered a different way: "When I was 18 years old, I didn't know what I was going to be like at 42. Same thing today. I don't know what I'm going to be like. When it comes, it comes."

Except for his hair, he looks young. He dresses young. On the field he is one of the last remaining players to wear his socks up high, but off the field he wears T-shirts with arty graphic prints, white shorts, no socks, a woven tote bag. (A quick story from Raul Ibanez: In Seattle, the Mariners' kangaroo court decided one day to fine Ichiro for his fashion sins. Speaking through his interpreter, he replied: When are you guys going to pay me for the crap you wear to the park every day?)

He has been the perfect artisan ballplayer: hand-crafted, custom-designed, like a local brewery's finest IPA. The habits he built his life around have taken him this far. They are the speech he never gives in words. Here is how it is done. Work hard. Pay attention. Show up every day.

They are the lessons of his father.

One way to look at a player is through a spray chart -- a graphic of every one of that player's batted balls over time. At FanGraphs, the great baseball stats site, you can look at Ichiro's spray chart for the past five years. He hits to all fields, so the dots are everywhere. Every ball he hit is marked by a dot, and each type gets a different color. FanGraphs uses red for line drives, and red dominates on Ichiro's chart. The field, seen from above like that, sort of looks like a hand. And the red, if you're willing to imagine, looks like a boy's baseball glove.

Tommy Tomlinson can be reached at or on Twitter @tommytomlinson.