Ichiro Suzuki Once Had Countless Doubters, But Now He Has 3,000 MLB Hits

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterAugust 7, 2016

DENVER, CO - AUGUST 7: Ichiro Suzuki #51 of the Miami Marlins tips his hat to the crowd after hitting a seventh inning triple against the Colorado Rockies for the 3,000th hit of his major league career during a game at Coors Field on August 7, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Right from the start, there were those who believed in Ichiro Suzuki. And there were those who didn't.

Bobby Valentine was a believer. He managed against Ichiro in Japan, and in the fall of 2000, he told people Ichiro was one of the five best players in the world.

Randy Johnson was not. The former major league infielder (not the Hall of Fame pitcher) played the last two years of his career in Japan and later scouted Ichiro in an All-Star series.

"I didn't think the Japanese style of hitting would work [in the major leagues]," he said. "Wrong again."

He wasn't the only one. There may not have been 3,000 questions about Ichiro in the Seattle Mariners' 2001 spring training camp, but there were probably 3,000 doubters.

For all the batting titles he won in Japan (seven in seven years) and for all the money the Mariners spent to get him (a $13.125 million posting fee, plus an initial $14 million, three-year contract), even Seattle wondered if he could handle a real major league fastball.

"It's a tough adjustment, because big league players throw harder," said Lou Piniella, Ichiro's first major league manager. "That was the only concern."

Three-thousand hits later, we have our answer.

We actually had it a lot sooner, because Ichiro became an instant star, a pure hitter who was also a spectacular outfielder and great baserunner. On a Mariners team that won 116 games, he was so good that he was named both the Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player in the American League.

"Ichiro became the face of the franchise in a very short time," Piniella said.

It's interesting to look back now, in a season that has seen an Ichiro revival and now his 3,000th career hit. It's interesting there was ever a concern whether he could handle the heat, because he's 42 years old now and can still handle it.

His 2,990th hit, on July 4 against New York Mets reliever Hansel Robles, was a line-drive double into the right-center field gap—on a 95 mph fastball. 

The 3,000th came Sunday in Colorado on a Chris Rusin cutter, a triple pulled to deep right field.  


Jim Colborn was right.

Colborn was the Mariners scout who followed Ichiro in Japan. In the spring of 2001, when so many others still had so many doubts, Colborn told Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times Ichiro would hit .300 every year, make an All-Star team, challenge for a batting title and maybe win a Gold Glove.

"No one is expecting him to hit .350, which was his career average in Japan, but I think he might," Colborn said.

He hit .350 that first year, winning the first of two batting titles. He hit .300 in 10 straight years (and is doing it again in his revival season this year). He made 10 straight All-Star teams and won 10 straight Gold Gloves.

"He's had a wonderful career," Piniella said. "And I look forward to the time he'll be inducted into the Hall of Fame."

Piniella can laugh now about that first spring training, but those who were there remember the Mariners weren't laughing then. They'd committed what seemed then like big money, in part because of those reports Colborn sent but in larger part because their Japanese ownership pushed for it.

Only three other major league teams even put in bids, although agent Tony Attanasio told reporters (including Murray Chass of the New York Times) that he scared some teams off by telling them Ichiro didn't want to play in a city without a significant Japanese population.

Other teams just weren't sure he could handle major league pitching. Remember, before Ichiro, no Japanese position player had come to the major leagues.

Ichiro got plenty of attention in his first spring training, but he did little to silence the doubters.
Ichiro got plenty of attention in his first spring training, but he did little to silence the doubters.TED S. WARREN/Associated Press

And in that spring of 2001, he seemed to be confirming all those doubts, with soft grounder after soft grounder to the left side of the infield.

"He didn't really do anything in spring training," then-Mariners pitcher Jeff Nelson told Larry Stone for a 2011 story in the Seattle Times. "People were thinking, 'This guy might be overmatched.'"

Piniella seemed to be one of those people, and at one point, he asked Ichiro whether he could pull the ball. That day, Ichiro pulled it, for a home run onto the bank behind right field at the Mariners' spring ballpark.

"He rounded the bases, stepped on home plate and looked at me and said, 'Are you happy now?'" Piniella remembered.

That spring training home run didn't count in the record books, but Ichiro has hit 113 since then that did count. And while many of us wonder how many hits he would have had if he had begun his major league career earlier (he was 27 when he joined the Mariners), Ichiro himself has sometimes wondered how many home runs he would have hit.

"My skills were born playing in Japan, and I developed there," he told me for a story I did three years ago for CBSSports.com. "Maybe it would have been different if I played here.

"Maybe I would have been a power hitter."

He laughed as he said it, but one of the secrets about Ichiro was that he did show off home run power regularly in batting practice. He topped 20 home runs a couple of times in Japan.

"Safeco [Field] was one of the toughest places to hit home runs, and we didn't expect that," Piniella said. "We expected what we got, a young man who led off, got on base, stole bases and scored runs. He was our table-setter."

He was fun to watch, but the truth Ichiro himself told later was that he wasn't really having fun at the start.

"To be honest with you, I did not feel comfortable," he told Stone in 2011. "Our team won, and that solved everything. But being a rookie, I felt very desperate. I needed to perform as the first Japanese position player. I represented a lot of people, and I needed to perform so they would have a chance."

Others have now had a chance, and some have had decent success. But it's Ichiro, the guy who started it all, who will eventually go in the Hall of Fame.

Cooperstown is a certainty now, based on his major league numbers alone. But that can't happen until Ichiro retires, and he keeps telling anyone who will listen that he wants to play until he's 50.

"At least 50," he told Craig Davis of the South Florida Sun Sentinel this spring.

Why not? He'll probably be able to hit a major league fastball then, too.

 

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball. 

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