Yesterday—the same day that Alex Rodriguez announced he is transitioning to a “consultant” role for the Yankees—Miami Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki became the 30th player in Major League Baseball to reach 3,000 hits. And if you count his hits from Japan’s top professional baseball league, he had already broken Pete Rose’s record of 4,256 career hits. What’s possibly more impressive? Ichiro got to 3,000 MLB hits faster than nearly any other player, just 16 years after winning rookie of the year and MVP in his debut season in America. Here are a dozen fascinating facts about the man who has dominated two nations’ diamonds in his 25-year professional career.
Had Ichiro played his entire career in the U.S., it’s likely he would have set the all-time hits record years ago. He gets 162 games per year here and had only 130 per year in Japan.
He Was Almost a Pitcher.
Excelling as both a hitter and pitcher in junior high, the decision was taken out of his hands when a car hit his bicycle and the recovery ruined his mechanics. In the decades since, he occasionally returned to the mound, notably in Japan’s 1996 All-Star game and pitching for the Marlins in 2015.
He Was Not Initially a Big Deal.
Despite batting over .500 in high school, Japan’s Orix BlueWave (now Orix Buffaloes) didn’t draft him until the fourth round, mostly due to him being 5’9”and 120 pounds. Ichiro has grown since then (at least, his posted measurements have), with his height typically listed as 5’11” and his weight occasionally reaching as high as 175. Whatever his true size, when he’s next to Prince Fielder it’s clear: Ichiro is more Wee Willie Keeler than C.C. Sabathia.
He’s on a First-Name Basis with Fans.
Normally players have their last names on their jerseys. Not Ichiro. Wanting to bring attention to a player he believed to be a great talent, manager Akira Ohgi insisted on using his first name on the back of his jersey, so it became “ICHIRO” instead of the expected “SUZUKI.” (Think A-Rod going around in a jersey that reads “ALEX.”) Ichiro “wasn’t happy about it at all” and noted fans “laughed wherever we would go.” Then the laughter stopped because…
He Once Went Seven for Seven. In Batting Titles.
At 20, Ichiro won the first of seven straight batting titles, particularly impressive since he only played seven full seasons in Japan. (Japanese career average: .357.) During this period, he was the league leader in hits five times (and set the single-season record), led the league in stolen bases, made the All-Star team and won a Golden Glove for fielding every season. Incredibly, he would equal or exceed all these feats in MLB.
He Was a Revolutionary Rookie.
Before Ichiro, the only Japanese baseball players to achieve stardom in America were pitchers. In fact, no one from Japan had even cracked an everyday MLB lineup… making it more insane that in 2001 Ichiro won a batting title with a .350 average and led the majors in hits and steals as his Seattle Mariners set a single-season wins record with 116 victories. (They lost in the American League Championship Series as Ichiro batted .421 in the postseason.) With an All-Star selection, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, Rookie of the Year Award and MVP, he packed a lifetime of hardware into one season.
He Enjoyed Another Decade of Dominance.
For his first ten seasons in MLB, Ichiro hit over .300 while making the All-Star team and collecting a Gold Glove. Combined with his seven full seasons in Japan, he kept those streaks going for 17 straight years.
He Transformed His Game, Mid-Career.
Ichiro’s game did change in a significant way: He essentially gave up on power. (He has over 6,000 more at bats in the U.S. than Japan, yet more Japanese homers than American ones: 118 to 113.) At the same time, he fully embraced his remarkable speed—he had 199 stolen bases in Japan; he has 504 and counting in MLB—and established himself as the master of the infield hit. The defining play of Ichiro’s career might be an infielder fielding the ball and not even bothering to throw to first, knowing they have no shot at getting him.
He Became the Hit Emperor.
Only two men have 10 seasons with at least 200 hits in MLB: Pete Rose and Ichiro. Ichiro, 27 before he even reached America, accomplished the feat each of his first 10 seasons and set the single-season record with 262 in 2004. Had he played his entire career in the U.S., it’s likely he would have set the hit record years ago, if only because he gets 162 games a year here and only had 130 in Japan. (For each of his 15 MLB seasons, Ichiro has played at least 143 games.)
Ichiro and Hideki Matsui are both 42. Ichiro is batting .350 in the bigs, while Matsui recently made headlines for going deep in an Old-Timer’s Game.
He Took on Godzilla.
Only one other everyday Japanese player has approached Ichiro’s level of success in both nations, which may be why there have been so many reports of a rivalry with Hideki Matsui. Unlike Ichiro, Matsui was a big athlete (6’2”, 210 pounds) who hit for power (332 home runs in Japan and 175 in the U.S. for a career total of 507) and played primarily for each nation’s most celebrated team: the Yomiuri Giants (22 titles) and the New York Yankees (27 titles). Beyond this, Matsui enjoyed excellent relations with the media, partly due to his willingness to share his massive collection of 55,000 porn videos. (Really, he did this.) Indeed, Matsui’s 2009 World Series MVP award might have ensured Godzilla’s fame continued to dwarf Ichiro’s in Japan if not for…
He Was the King of Two Classics.
The World Baseball Classic hasn’t meant much to America, possibly because we’ve sucked at it. It matters in Japan, where Ichiro’s role in winning the first two titles finally ensured he was truly celebrated in his homeland. The result: Each star can enjoy having a museum run by their father. (Yes, you can visit the Hideki Matsui Baseball Museum and the Ichiro Exhibition Room.)
He Is a Serious Stretcher.
Ichiro and Matsui are both 42. Ichiro is batting .350 in the bigs, while Godzilla recently made headlines for going deep in an Old-Timer’s Game. Ichiro’s longevity didn’t happen by chance. He has specially designed workout machines that let him focus on what he considers the key muscle groups for his success: the shoulder blades, pelvis and hip joints. The machines are designed to lengthen and loosen muscles, rather than shorten and tighten them as occurs in traditional weightlifting. And any fan watching Ichiro in the on-deck circle knows he likes to get loose.
He Puts Up with the Press. Barely.
Ichiro insisted on communicating with the press through a translator years after he had a decent command of English. Which is understandable because Japanese media coverage is already crushing. Since becoming a Mariner in 2001, a Japanese press corps of anywhere from 10 to 100 reporters has followed him around, and they’re interested in covering one thing: Ichiro. (One noted that when Ichiro doesn’t play, he writes a “very short article.”) Ichiro has never quite had the warm relations Matsui did with reporters—start passing out porn now, Ichiro—which is a shame because he can be weirdly charming both in Japanese and English. When a Japanese reporter asked for his dog’s name, Ichiro replied, “I would not wish to say without first asking its permission.” When asked by Bob Costas in English for his favorite American expression, he responded with this NSFW chestnut.
Of course, it’s not just what Ichiro has accomplished. It’s how he’s done it. Whether he’s making the greatest tag of home plate ever:
Or legging out the only inside-the-park home run in All-Star history:
Or refusing to let a ball bouncing in the dirt stop him from hitting it:
Or scaling a wall to make a catch:
Or just showing off that “laser beam” of an arm:
He continues to be Ichiro. Let’s see if you can reach 5,000, Mr. Suzuki.