8/21/2013 7:24 P.M. ET
Model of excellence: Ichiro reaches 4,000 hits his way
Pursuit of perfection leads international superstar to special place in baseball history
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
Ichiro Suzuki painstakingly cleans every piece of his equipment, including shoes and glove, before each game. He has done this for 22 seasons, during an amazing career that has stretched across two continents. He keeps his bats in a humidor-like carrying case.
His physical preparation is just as thorough. He begins his gameday routine with weight lifting and a series of stretching exercises and yoga-like poses. For years, his wife has prepared the same Japanese green curry for lunch at pretty much the same time. After games, he records his thoughts on the day in a personal journal.
To understand how Ichiro got to this remarkable place in baseball history, his pregame preparation might be a good place to start. He's a private man by nature, guarded in his public comments. He's fluent in English, but chooses to communicate with reporters in Japanese via an interpreter. More on that later.
Nevertheless, he has revealed plenty about himself during nine Major League seasons in Japan and 13 with the Mariners and Yankees with how he has gone about his job. He didn't collect 4,000 combined hits in the U.S. and Japanese Majors simply by working hard and caring about his body and job. To get 4,000 hits -- 1,278 of those in Japan -- is also a tribute to his enormous physical gifts, to his quick hands and extraordinary reaction time and all the rest.
Funny thing is, when he joined the Mariners in 2001, dozens of scouts didn't believe he'd succeed in the United States. Perhaps it was his unorthodox approach to hitting and how he shifted his weight forward, essentially hitting off his front foot, which is just the opposite of how American hitters are taught.
He seemed to slap at the ball, seemed constantly late reacting to pitches. He was unlike any other successful hitter most American scouts had ever seen, and they could not comprehend how that unorthodox approach would translate against the 95-mph fastballs he would be seeing.
In his very first game, on Opening Day 2001, he collected two hits for the Mariners in a 5-4 victory over the A's. Two days later, he got two more. And the day after that, he had four. By the end of April, he was on his way to the first of two batting championships and a season in which he would hit .350 and lead the American League in stolen bases.
That first year, he showed off his entire catalogue: 34 doubles, eight triples, eight home runs, 56 stolen bases. He sprayed the ball all over the field and took advantage of his speed and instincts on the bases.
As if all that wasn't enough, he had one of the best throwing arms in the game. For a baserunner to go from first to third on a hit to right field against the Mariners was to set the stage for an electrifying moment.
He had eight assists on his way to winning a Gold Glove that season and picked up a couple of other nice little trophies: American League Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year. By the end of that first season, we knew he was something special. His game wasn't power or strength. It was precision, and there's beauty in that, too.
In Ichiro's first 10 seasons with the Mariners, he led the AL in hits seven times and ran up a .331 career batting average. He was 36 in 2010, when he collected 214 hits, including 30 doubles. In short, he's the living, breathing definition of greatness. He took on the most difficult game on earth and made it look easy.
His perfectionist nature has contributed to us not knowing him as well as we might have. He does speak English. In the clubhouse. To teammates. In television commercials.
In fact, at the urging of David Ortiz, his pregame talks to the American League All-Star team became the stuff of legend. Yet when American reporters have pressed him to do interviews in English, he smiles and says, "No!"
One of his interpreters once explained to a Seattle reporter that Ichiro wasn't completely comfortable getting his message across with his second language. Just like stepping into the box against a 2-1 pitch, he wanted to be precise, didn't want his words open for misinterpretation. Therefore, he does interviews in Japanese.
He has also said that his real job, the only job that really matters, is playing baseball. For that, we should all be thankful. He has given us 13 smart, efficient, productive seasons.
Last summer, when the Mariners traded him to the Yankees, he was hitting .261 and seemed near the end of the line. He has bounced back a bit this year, entering Wednesday's game hitting .274.
Regardless, his body of work will stand the test of time, and his 4,000th hit -- and the Yankee Stadium ovation that followed Wednesday night -- allowed us to let him know we understand how lucky we've been to watch him play.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.