From Japan to US, Ichiro born to be a star

From Japan to US, Ichiro born to be a star

Ichiro Suzuki, international hit king and eternal man of mastery, is 42 years old, if you can believe it.

When you combine his nine seminal years building his legend in Nippon Professional Baseball in his home country of Japan and the Hall of Fame-worthy Major League Baseball career he's had since arriving in Seattle in 2001, he's got more professional hits than all-time MLB leader Pete Rose managed to scratch out over his 24 seasons in The Show.

And the spry Ichiro is still going.

His 3,000th career hit at Coors Field on Sunday gave him the final milestone he had set out to conquer in this country, one more seemingly superhuman feat of hardball history to muster out of the gracefully aging 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame that has slashed in the batter's box, sped around the bases and glided through the outfield through so many innings.

Ichiro has finally achieved the exalted round number that in the past has made Cooperstown entry a near-mortal lock, and he's done it as the elder statesman of a young Marlins team this season, making the most of his at-bats when he gets them as a reserve player and clubhouse sage. The effect he's had is immeasurable, according to manager Don Mattingly.

"He's a guy that can fill any hole in any role in the outfield," Mattingly said. "He brings a lot to our club as far as a guy being a professional and how you go about your work and how you get yourself ready to play. He's an important part of our club."

In many ways, he's just like he's always been.

***

It was 1992, and Kelvin Torve had to smile each morning when the kid with all the talent in the world arrived at the Kobe, Japan, ballpark of the Orix Blue Wave for practices and games.

By bicycle.

Torve was a 32-year-old first baseman who had played parts of three seasons in the Major Leagues with the Twins and Mets and who was making a living playing for Orix. Ichiro was an 18-year-old rookie who knew what to do with a bat in his hands and in the clubhouse.

"He'd ride his bike over from the dorms where they had the rookies staying," Torve said. "Back then, I heard he was a first-round pick, but he was a first-year player and he knew it. He was very respectful, knew exactly how to handle himself in a room full of veterans, and boy … you could tell he was good.

"It did not take long for you to see that his skill level was just over and above his peers, even at age 18."

Japanese call of Ichiro's 3000th

Ty Gainey was one of those peers. Gainey, an outfielder who had played parts of three seasons for the Astros in the 1980s, was a member of the Blue Wave for Ichiro's first years in pro ball, and he witnessed Ichiro's breakout campaign in '94.

After getting 95 at-bats in 1992 and 64 in '93 and spending much of his time in the farm system because Orix manager Shozo Doi wasn't a huge fan of Ichiro's swing, '94 arrived with a new Orix skipper, Akira Ogi, who didn't have a problem with his outfielder's approach.

Ichiro responded with his new full-time role by hitting a Pacific League-record .385 to win the first of seven consecutive batting titles. He set a single-season record in Japan with 210 hits in '94. He hit 13 home runs. He stole 29 bases. He won his first Pacific League Most Valuable Player Award. He'd win the next two, too, starting a decorated nine years that included a .353 batting average, 1,278 hits and the equivalent of seven Gold Glove Awards.

Gainey can't help but chuckle when recalling Ichiro during that season in which a true legend was born.

The curious case of Ichiro

"He was so good, it was ridiculous," Gainey said. "I remember him going 5-for-5 in a game with seven RBIs from the leadoff spot. I remember him hitting with two strikes and being able to start a swing, and then realize in the middle of the swing that he really didn't want to swing and shut down his body mid-swing. I've never seen anything like it, never understood how a human being could do that.

"I asked him how he did it, and he just said, 'I know me. I know my swing and I know when I'm mechanically not right.'"

Sitting two lockers down from Ichiro, Gainey also watched the young player learn a thing or two about a language he'd have to use later as he conquered MLB.

"He'd walk in to the clubhouse every day, look at me, and say, 'Whassup, homie?'" Gainey said. "I'm pretty sure I taught him that."

***

It was 2001, and Mariners slugger Jay Buhner was 36 years old and in the opening days of the final Spring Training of a career that made him a Seattle franchise icon. He didn't know much about his new teammate, a hyped $14 million signing with gaudy statistics in Japan named Ichiro.

"None of us really knew anything about him," Buhner said. "We just didn't pay too much attention to what was going on in Japan at the time, except for guys we already knew in MLB like [Mariners teammate Kazuhiro] Sasaki. But once he stepped on the field, you just knew he was great."

Ichiro makes his MLB debut

The first example came during one of Ichiro's first batting practices at the Peoria Sports Complex in Arizona.

"We were watching him slap the ball all over the place the way he always did," Buhner said. "[Mariners manager] Lou [Piniella] walks over to him and says, 'Son, why don't you try to pull the ball?'

"Ichiro turns around, and on the next pitch, he pulls the ball about 450 feet. He says, 'Is that good, Lou?' And we're all standing there, just dying of laughter and excited, because we knew we had something special. The bat control was off the charts. That thing was a magic wand in his hands."

Three years later, Ichiro broke George Sisler's 84-year record for hits in a single MLB season when he stroked his 258th knock, ending with 262.

Ichiro's record-breaking hit

Another Mariners legend, Edgar Martinez, was in his final season in baseball and watched in wonder every day as Ichiro's already-famous daily routine of painstaking, mind-bending stretching exercises turned into unprecedented results on the field.

"It was incredible," Martinez said. "It was like he got hits every day for the whole season."

Now, 12 years after that, Ichiro has 3,000 hits and Martinez, back in the Seattle clubhouse every day as the Mariners' hitting coach, is admiring his old friend all over again along with the rest of the sport.

"He's always been very consistent in the way he approached the game, and his preparation, always the same," Martinez said. "The approach at the plate, he's always had that.

"And when he got, he stayed hot."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.