The Singular Joys of Watching Ichiro

The mononymous Miami Marlins player, who just reached 3,000 career MLB hits, stands out for his simple, elegant approach to the game.

The Miami Marlins right fielder Ichiro Suzuki (51) reacts following his triple for his career 3,000 base hit in the seventh inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.  (Ron Chenoy / USA TODAY Sports / Reuters)

Sunday afternoon in Colorado, the Miami Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki tallied a hit for the 3,000th time in his Major League career. Using his trademark batting style—less a swing than a kind of spinning stab, with the left-handed Ichiro already edging out of the batter’s box as bat meets ball—he whistled a pitch into right field, where it caromed off the wall as he ran lightly to third. Fans stood and cheered; Ichiro removed his helmet in acknowledgement; the Marlins left the dugout to congratulate him. He became the thirtieth player in Major League Baseball history to reach the figure, a hallowed number designating the true experts at the task Ted Williams called the toughest in all of sports: hitting a round ball with a round bat.

The 3,000 hit club is home to all sorts of players. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez both belong to it, each having joined with a Yankee Stadium home run. Ty Cobb, the vicious and racist star of baseball’s dead-ball era, is a member, as is Hank Aaron, as dignified a figure as the game has produced. The salty and officially shunned “Hit King” Pete Rose remains atop the leaderboard. When, a couple of months back, Ichiro matched Rose’s mark of 4,256 hits, including his hits in the Japanese professional baseball league, Rose responded with characteristic grouchiness: “It sounds like in Japan, they’re trying to make me the Hit Queen. I’m not trying to take anything away from Ichiro ... but the next thing you know, they’ll be counting his high-school hits.”

Ichiro is not nearly the best player in this group, but he may be the most representative of its spirit of sustained excellence, of moderate success massed into something spectacular over time. At his best, during a decade with the Seattle Mariners, he was a variously gifted talent, a wall-climbing and cannon-armed dynamo in right field, but his core genius was always for sending a baseball just out of reach of the defenders. Hitting, for him, has seemed like a labor of love—as if, were some dramatic rule change to render anything less than a home run useless, he would still go to the plate looking to flick pitches onto patches of open grass. The simplicity and clarity of his purpose has made him one of the most joyful players to watch in the game’s long history. Very few people get to be great at something as difficult as professional baseball. Fewer still get to be great in exactly the way they would like—Ichiro has.

Ichiro has used the same batting technique for his whole career, from his prime in Seattle to his post-prime stops in New York and Miami, but it looks, even on the thousandth viewing, like something he just recently decided to experiment with. Before every pitch, he holds his bat out and tugs up the sleeve on his right arm. Once he assumes his stance—knees pinched, shoulders rounded—his hands hold the bat up behind his ear, wavering in a way that might make anyone with a less impressive résumé seem nervous. At 42 years old, Ichiro still has the scrawniness of an underfed teenager. His left foot hovers before the pitch is released; one wonders, watching, how this mess of thin limbs at strange angles will arrange itself to hit a baseball.

The Miami Marlins right fielder Ichiro Suzuki (51) triples for his career 3,000 base hit in the seventh inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Ron Chenoy / USA TODAY Sports / Reuters

Then the pitch crosses the plate, and it is as if some invisible hand has pulled a string on a gyroscope. Ichiro whirls at the ball. His shoulders fly outward and his feet go askew, but the bat comes through in a calibrated slice. His goal is not to “barrel up” the pitch so much as redirect it, to let its own energy, nudged outward, carry it into the field. All that bodily mayhem has a purpose, too; Ichiro starts running almost as he swings, so he gets to first base remarkably quickly.

It is one of the most singular motions in baseball, the work of someone who has dedicated untold hours to wringing every possible hit from the game. A quiet irony attends this work, though. Ichiro has played his career during a time when the base hit has lost its luster. He first landed in the Majors as a 27-year-old in 2001, in the middle of what would be recognized as the Steroid Era, when players across baseball were muscling up in an effort to land the ball not just between the defenders, but also over the outfield wall. He has kept on through the popularization of advanced statistics, which assert that batting average—the mark that testified, during Ichiro’s peak, to his annual greatness—is not as strong a measure of quality as previously thought. In this context, he is something of a man out of time, his presence next to the rest of baseball’s modern star class as incongruous as a horse and rider on the interstate.

This quality, though, has only added to Ichiro’s appeal. Professional sports have never seemed more like work than they do now. Players spend their lives hunting for an edge, be it technological, chemical, or statistical. They pore over frame-by-frame video and ingest supplements. They change their approaches according to dictates or trends and give post-game interviews that, understandably, have all the joy of an office-job performance review. In this context, someone like Ichiro—who does what he’s always tried to do, again and again, without much care for the sport’s shifting ideological winds—is a welcome throwback. When he plays it, baseball just looks a little bit more like a game.

Judging by his appearance, with his forearms not much bigger around than his wrists and his spidery legs, you might think that Ichiro didn’t have much choice in his style of play, that slapping the ball into the shallow outfield was all he could ever muster. Rumors around baseball have long contradicted this assumption, though. His batting-practice home run displays are the stuff of lore, and writers have speculated that, if Ichiro had opted to sacrifice some of his contact-hitting prowess, he could have been a credible slugger. Barry Bonds, MLB’s all-time home-run leader and the current Marlins hitting coach, is the latest to chime in on this front; before the All-Star game, Bonds said even the aged version of Ichiro could win the annual Home Run Derby if he chose, “easy, hands down.”

From one perspective, Ichiro’s allegiance to his approach might be seen as counterproductive, even vain. He may have been a more valuable player to his team with a lower batting average and higher home run totals, but he would never have led baseball in hits, as he has a whopping seven times over his career, nor would he have reached the magical 3,000 mark. An uncharitable reading of his career might present him as a stat-chaser more interested in gaudy sums than in playing his best baseball. In 2004, during Ichiro’s heyday, the rival player Gary Sheffield advanced this view: “Two hundred singles? Come on. That doesn’t make you a great hitter ... Any guy can go out there and get a single if that’s all you try for.”

Hordes of big-league washouts disprove Sheffield’s argument, but there is some truth amid the rancor. Ichiro’s daily strategy has always been to set modest goals and to accomplish them with spectacular frequency. As a young superstar in Seattle and an old contributor in Miami, though, he never gave off the sense of pursuing cheap notoriety, of trying to reach baseball fame via a side door. He seemed, rather, to be the rarest of athlete types: one who is able to exist in that mad world of pressures and demands and still hold onto the part of the game that first thrilled him.