SAN DIEGO -- There were two out in the top of the ninth at Petco Park, and Ichiro Suzuki was walking to the plate for his fifth at bat of the Miami Marlins' June 15 game against the hometown Padres. The crowd's excitement ramped up as the 42-year-old veteran superstar stood in, and hit a crescendo as Ichiro shot a 2-1 offering onto the right field corner for a standup double.
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It wasn't just any double; it was a record-breaker. Ichiro had just smacked the 4,257th hit of his career, covering seven seasons with the Orix Blue Wave of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), and the Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees and Miami Marlins of Major League Baseball. And he had just passed Cincinnati Reds legend Pete Rose for the most hits in baseball history.
Ichiro, drafted out of high school in 1991, made his debut with Orix's top team three years later, stroking more than 200 hits that year. It would become familiar territory, as he smacked a major-league leading 262 in 2004 and posted 10 straight seasons with 200 hits or more.
That was his third year in the majors and, thinking that it would take three years to prove himself, he says he began to dwell on reaching the 200 hit plateau for a third year in a row. That August, he hit a serious slump, watching his batting average sink to .242 for the month. He became so distressed at his performance that he was sick to his stomach.
One figure Ichiro says he has deep respect for is Japanese baseball titan Sadaharu Oh, who smashed 868 home runs in NPB to become the "king of the world."
"He really had to battle his fears," Ichiro said of Oh.
Both Oh and Ichiro were on the Japanese 2006 World Baseball Classic team, the former as manager and the latter as a player. Since them, the pair have made it a point of having dinner with each other. Ichiro was born in 1973, and so never saw Oh, who retired in 1980, during his playing days. However, the younger man still learned a lot from the elder statesman of Japanese baseball; namely to remain humble and speak plainly about his accomplishments, even as he was overcoming the immense difficulty of continuing to get hits (home runs, in Oh's case) and the accompanying fear of failure.
"I'm nowhere near the human being Oh is," Ichiro said, though he defeated the dread of falling short just as Oh did.
Just as Oh kept launching homers after passing Hank Aaron's major league record total of 755, so Ichiro is looking to boost his world-beating career hit count. After he passed Pete Rose on June 15, Ichiro had this to say:
"There are a lot of players who have left all kinds of record numbers, and there are a lot of players who have recorded great numbers, but that doesn't necessarily make them great people. I think there is a world where you can't do those kinds of things unless you have a little bit of madness. And among them, there are some truly special people. I want one of those kinds of people to surpass this record."