Ichiro becomes second-fastest to 2,000 hits

Ichiro becomes second-fastest to 2,000 hits

OAKLAND -- Don Wakamatsu has no problem saying Ichiro Suzuki may be the best to ever play the game.

If he's not yet, the Mariners skipper believes he's well on his way.

The non-believers may argue he's too small in stature, but others will say he exudes a larger-than-life presence unique to today's game.

The non-believers may mock his 170-pound body, but others will remind them that the real weight he carries is a much heavier legacy that will be remembered for generations to come.

Nearing age 36, Ichiro still plays the game like a wide-eyed rookie with nothing to lose and everything to gain. He's a Japanese phenom turned American idol, and despite the never-ending list of differences between him and players those non-believers may deem the greatest hitters of all-time, Ichiro will easily squeeze his 170 pounds into that elite class.

And on Sunday, he showed the non-believers why.

Entering the series finale against the A's just one hit shy of 2,000 for his career, Ichiro reached the historic plateau in the first inning with a sharp double to right field off Oakland starter Gio Gonzalez to lead off the game and become the 259th player in Major League history to reach that mark.

Upon returning to the dugout, he received a ball from teammate and fellow future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., who took it upon himself to write what Ichiro described as "some ridiculous things." However, Ichiro reminded The Kid that "when he got his 2,000th hit it was an infield single, but I got a double."

"It's a special day for him," Griffey said. "It's a special day for all of us. There's just nothing he can't do with a bat. Day in and day out, he can do so many things."

The Seattle outfielder, who has played in 1,402 games, became the second-fastest player in Major League history to accomplish such a feat. Al Simmons did it in 1,390 games while George Sisler (1,414) was bumped to third on the list. Of Ichiro's 2,000 hits, 215 have led off a game while 440 have come in the first inning.

"No matter the situation, I want to get a hit," Ichiro said through a translator after the game, which was won by the A's, 5-2. "For me, personally, it's not a big surprise. Looking back to when I was first signed by the Mariners and I went to my first Spring Training, I was kind of criticized by the media. When I look back at that moment, there is meaning now."

That much is true simply based on the multiple testaments to his ability made by those surrounding him on the special day.

Before Sunday's game, Wakamatsu said Ichiro's 2,000th hit would be an infield single "if I'm a betting man." Good thing the skipper's not, but he couldn't say enough about the game's most consistent hitter, who received a standing ovation from Oakland fans upon hit No. 2,000 although no formal announcement was made.

"I think you don't appreciate how hard he works," Wakamatsu said of the man who had 1,278 hits in Japan before making his debut with Seattle in 2001. "I've seen him from the other side, but to be with the Mariners I've seen the little things that go on during the season and all of the off days where he's coming to the ballpark and working out.

"Obviously I didn't know that from the other side, but to try to understand that and for him to go and work out on his off days is mind-boggling. Most of the guys are looking to get away from the game and rest their mind, and he just doesn't stop."

Nor does the ever-modest Ichiro feel the need to pause for celebration. The A's set aside a special room to accommodate the extra media in attendance for Sunday's occasion. Ichiro declined, however, not wanting to make a big deal out of it.

Maybe he'll change his mind once reaching 3,000 hits -- a benchmark easily accessible for a guy of such high caliber.

"I think he's going to go until he can't go," Wakamatsu said. "I don't think he puts a timetable on it. He told me he'll go 'til he's 50. He was serious."

For now, though, Ichiro would rather concentrate on playing out the current season.

"I'm not a fortune teller, so I don't have the ability to look into the future," he said. "But that's why it's fun because the future is unknown. Also, if I set goals for myself, it kind of makes a barrier, and in that way, it might lower my potential."

Health has been key to Ichiro's longevity. He has missed 16 games this season -- the same amount he tallied in his previous eight seasons combined with Seattle.

Veteran Mike Sweeney, 36, can especially appreciate the unprecedented career of his teammate, who is just three months younger than himself.

"Every day he comes prepared to play, and he's like a machine," the designated hitter said. "Every day he gets to the field at the same time and does the same routine. He goes out on the field and does the same thing every day, and that's get a lot of hits. And to get 2,000 hits in less than nine seasons is incredible."

With Sunday's big at-bat in the books, Ichiro can put one momentous step behind him and look toward another. He is now just five hits short of reaching 200 for the ninth straight season, which would break the consecutive season mark he currently holds with Willie Keeler (1894-1901).

"He's so driven to be probably the best player to ever play the game," Wakamatsu said. "To watch what he does by example, I mean, he's going to play as long as he can the way he takes care of his body. That's what I don't hear written enough about him, is what he's able to do at age 35 to play like a 25-year-old. It's phenomenal.

"I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to manage him. He's going to continue to tack on record after record if he stays healthy. He's a special, special player."

Jane Lee is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.