Ichiro as exciting as they come

Originally Published: October 1, 2004
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- This record is for all the little guys, for all the players who have to leg out every hit instead of taking a relaxing trot around the bases, for all the batters whose muscles aren't so swelled they should be floating above the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

This one is to remind all the fans that there is more to baseball than home runs.

Ichiro
Ichiro consistently uses the entire field when he swings the bat.

"Not all players are power hitters and there are other players too who don't play that game," Ichiro Suzuki said after breaking George Sisler's 84-year-old single-season hit record with three more singles Friday. "I don't think hitting a ball far comes from power. It comes from balance and knowing how to use your body.

"With me getting this record, I hope kids out there want to get to know their body and what it can do and how to use their talents and not get too big."

In other words, restrict the nutritional supplements to Wheaties. If you want to break a record set before the Yankees played in a single World Series, take lots of batting practice. Lots and lots and lots of batting practice. And when you've taken all the batting practice you can possibly bear, take some more.

"There will be players who try to emulate his style because of his efficiency and effectiveness," Mariners hitting coach Paul Molitor said. "Will they have the talent to succeed? I don't see anybody now. He's definitely one of the most exciting players I've ever seen."

Exciting? The only things missing from his at-bats are white tigers and women being sawed in half.

In an age of muscle-bound sluggers and mammoth home runs, Ichiro takes the routine out of singles. He chops them over the third baseman (as he did to tie Sisler in the first inning with his 257th hit). He dumps them over the pitcher. He dribbles them down the line. He grounds them into the hole. He slashes them into left. He drives them up the middle. He has 259 hits this season and more than 900 for his career, and most of them have left opponents shaking their heads and muttering.

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• Neyer: Ichiro vs. Sisler
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• In Japan, Oh or Ichiro?
• Caple: Leading the sub-Mariners

He wasn't supposed to be able to do this. He's listed at 5-foot-9 and 172 pounds, or about the same size as the Rally Monkey. He was the first position player from Japan to cross over to the majors. When he swings, he looks like he almost throws the bat at the ball.

And yet here he is, the 2001 MVP, a two-time batting champ and the record-holder for most hits in a season. He has 41 more hits than the next highest total (Florida's Juan Pierre with 218). He has 124 more than Barry Bonds and almost as many as Bonds has the past two seasons combined.

Ichiro is a meticulous, routine-driven player bordering on obsessive. He keeps his glove oiled as scrupulously as George Hamilton's face. He keeps his bats in a humidor. He once brought a bat back to his hotel room as a way of making amends after throwing it to the ground in anger.

He's always been this way. His father made him practice so hard and so often as a child that Ichiro told author Robert Whiting it bordered on hazing "and I suffered a lot." His father essentially never let him consider for a moment that he would -- or should -- be anything but a great baseball player. He safeguarded every possession of Ichiro -- including his orthodontic retainer from junior high -- and now has them on display in a public museum to his son.

Ichiro is so tightly wound that when a reporter asked whether it was true that he was having more fun as the record neared, he said that he didn't know what it means to "have fun.'' He is normally so stoic that just seeing him smiling and laughing after passing Sisler was almost as astounding as the record itself.

Some players feel pressure; Ichiro feels fear, a word he used repeatedly while answering various questions after the game.

There will be players who try to emulate his style because of his efficiency and effectiveness. Will they have the talent to succeed? I don't see anybody now. He's definitely one of the most exciting players I've ever seen.
Paul Molitor, Mariners hitting coach

"I don't like to compare myself to other players but top players overcome fear," he said. "Those who don't overcome fear are just players."

What's next? Well, he could add some power to his swing to help Seattle's anemic offense. The league marked the baseballs for Ichiro's at-bats, similarly to the way it did with the balls pitched to McGwire and Bonds during their home run chases, but there really wasn't much need for that. Of Ichiro's 259 hits, only eight have gone over the fence. And only three of his past 52 hits have even been for extra-bases. So the only souvenir threat was if the Rangers infielders had fought over the ball so they could auction it off on eBay.

He certainly has the ability to the long ball. Molitor said that he was astounded in August when Ichiro turned on a 97-mile fastball from Jeremy Affeldt and pulled it into the right-field bleachers. And in his first at-bat hit after No. 258, he lined a ball almost over center fielder Laynce Nix's head.

Given that Ichiro broke the hit record despite batting only .255 in April, a .400 season isn't out of the question, either.

"He's one of the few players you could say has a chance to do it," Molitor said. "We've seen a couple players -- George Brett, Tony Gwynn -- make a run at .400 over the course of four months, and in the case of Gwynn, six months if overlapped parts of two seasons. But I don't know if we've seen the best of Ichiro yet. And I think that's the best compliment I can give him. He's special."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com