- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Nine years after crossing the Pacific Ocean to become the first Japanese position player in the major leagues, Ichiro Suzuki recently faced his most daunting challenge yet in America, one that pretty much defeated him: sitting on the bench.
Ichiro missed eight games at the beginning of the season when he was on the disabled list, but at least most of that stretch was spent rehabbing in extended spring training games. More recently, he spent eight games on the bench due to a sore calf muscle. Well, he spent part of the time on the bench. He also spent it in the batting cage, in the clubhouse, in the trainers' room -- anywhere to kill the time until he was able to play again.
"The thing I learned from this experience is that I would much rather play in a game where I don't get any hits or play in a game where I make an error than not play,'' Ichiro said through the Mariners' interpreter last week. "Having to go through that is a lot better than not playing in the game.''
In other words, he is not looking forward to a designated hitter role anytime soon.
"I think one of the requirements for being a DH is weighing at least 200 pounds, so maybe if I was that heavy I would do it,'' he said. "[But] the day I weigh 200 pounds is the day I'm inside a coffin.''
Sitting on the bench is one of the few things Ichiro has failed to do well. As his ninth season enters its final weeks, he has played in nine All-Star Games; broken an 84-year-old hits record; won two batting titles (a third is possible this year), eight Gold Gloves and an MVP; and had eight .300 seasons (with a ninth on the way). With a double Sunday, he became the first player to reach the 2,000-hit mark in less than 10 seasons. Despite missing as many games this season as the previous eight seasons combined, he needs just five more hits for his ninth consecutive 200-hit season.
He also has been refreshing proof that in an age in which so many players resemble Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons, you don't have to hit the ball into the upper deck to provide excitement. For that matter, you don't even have to hit it out of the infield.
Of Ichiro's 2,000 hits, 452 are infield singles, the most since 2001 (Juan Pierre is second with 390). The way he places the ball, his first infield double is only a matter of time. Eventually, he's going to hit a high chopper off the plate that bounces over the charging third baseman's head, squirts past the stumbling pitcher and rolls to a slow stop in front of the frustrated shortstop while Ichiro slides into second base with a double. Or maybe into third base with a triple. Or perhaps all the way around the bases for an inside-the-infield home run. You can't rule anything out with Ichiro.
The ground ball is Ichiro's art form, and the infield is his canvas.
Other players hit a ground ball, and fans groan, shake their heads in disgust and go back to the important matter of texting friends ("Justin Morneau just grounded out, and I'm going to get a beer''). Ichiro hits a grounder, and fans sit up and lean forward expectantly. This is when the fun begins.
"He's sort of specialized his approach to hitting,'' Mariners pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith said. "He's running out of the box as soon as he makes contact. It's not like those guys who try to hit the crap out of it, and they hit a ground ball instead and then take it easy out of the box. He's two steps out of the box as soon as he makes contact.''
Two steps out of the box? Ichiro is halfway to first when the pitcher is still pulling on his stirrup socks before the game. He reaches first base faster than Derek Jeter on a date.
"I still remember the look and reaction of Jeter the first time Ichiro played against the Yankees,'' Seattle broadcaster Rick Rizzs said. "Ichiro hit a routine ball to Jeter. He got it, didn't waste any time, fired, and the throw to first base barely beat him. I saw Jeter go like, 'Wow, who is this guy?'''
Ken Griffey Jr. recently told manager Don Wakamatsu that if he had Ichiro's tools, he would have hit .450 with 750 home runs. Asked about a typical Ichiro infield single last week, Griffey said, "That's what I'm talking about. Right there, I'd be at .650. I mean, if you put those infield hits on top of anybody else's average, what's going to happen?''
And to think, we once weren't sure whether a Japanese player could hit in our leagues. Remember that? And now, nine years later, he has 2,000 hits and is nearing his ninth consecutive 200-hit season. The only other player with eight consecutive was Wee Willie Keeler, who did it from 1894 to 1901, when hitting them where they ain't was easier, as Stephen J. Gould suggested, because the fielders didn't know where to be.
"He understands he's a leadoff hitter and his job is to get the bat on the ball and get on base for the people behind him because he can use his speed on the basepaths,'' new Mariner Bill Hall said after watching Ichiro up close for a few weeks. "Obviously, he can hit the ball out of the ballpark whenever he wants. All you just have to watch him in [batting practice] to see how far he can hit the ball. But he doesn't get outside of himself during the game, which is a compliment to the discipline he has to stay in his approach and do what he wants to do. Yeah, he can probably hit 30 to 40 home runs if he wanted to, but he might strike out a little more and his average would drop a little more.''
The obvious question, if Ichiro truly could hit 30 to 40 home runs a season, is why he doesn't do it. Another 20 to 30 home runs a season would seem worth a drop in average or a rise in strikeouts, especially for a team that scores as seldomly as the Mariners. But it's also a pointless question, because after nine seasons, it's clear Ichiro is not going to change an approach that has worked so well for him that a career that began in Japan likely will end in Cooperstown.
Ichiro turns 36 in October, but he shows few signs of slowing down. With 54 infield hits this season, he likely will finish with the second largest total of his career (63 is his high, in 2001). Religious about keeping himself in shape, he remains as trim as the day he put on the Mariners' uniform his rookie year. Who knows what the future holds, but it isn't at all unreasonable to think he could reach 3,000 hits in the majors, which would give him 4,278 between here and Japan (more than Pete Rose's 4,256).
"I'm not a fortune teller, so I don't have the ability to look into the future,'' he told reporters Sunday about the possibility of 3,000 hits. "But that's why it's fun, because the future is unknown.''
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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