DENVER -- Miami Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki became only the 30th player to join Major League Baseball's 3,000 hit club on Aug. 7 here (Aug. 8 Japan time), driving a ball to the right field wall for a stand-up triple.
The fateful moment came in the top of the seventh inning with one out, nobody on, and Colorado Rockies reliever Chris Rusin on the mound. Ichiro was standing in with a 2-0 count when Rusin put one over the heart of the plate, and the 42-year-old outfielder smacked it hard to deep right with one of his trademark extended swings. The significance of the moment was not lost on the hometown Colorado crowd, who roared as the ball evaded a reaching grab by Rockies outfielder Gerardo Parra to carom off the wall, and Ichiro sped into third. Play was then stopped for a few moments as the fans delivered a standing ovation and Ichiro's Marlins teammates flooded the field to wrap the Japanese veteran in congratulatory hugs.
It was Ichiro's 2,452nd major league game, played over 16 seasons in The Show.
"For me in this moment, that people other than myself would be so happy about something I've done is much more important than the number 3,000," Ichiro said after the game. The comment was typical Ichiro, who has never focused on numerical targets. The main theme of his career has always been to enhance and improve his powers as a human being through baseball. However, he has said at least once that the possibility of "getting to 3,000 hits in the major leagues gives me motivation."
The Miami Marlins are a young team, with only seven players on the 25-man roster aged over 30. The team also has three stellar outfielders in Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna, relegating Ichiro to fourth outfielder status. He started in center field on Aug. 7, but is usually used as a bat off the bench.
Nevertheless, as he approached the 3,000 hit plateau, Ichiro was greeted by a standing ovation from expectant fans whenever he stepped into the batter's box. Pinch hitting is always a difficult assignment, however, and just one hit in every four tries -- a .250 batting average -- is considered good. Ichiro reached hit No. 2,998 with a pinch-hit double versus the St. Louis Cardinals all the way back on July 28. Between then and his triumphant Denver triple, he eked out just one more hit over 17 plate appearances in nine games.
"Over these past two weeks, I sometimes wondered if I'd aged like a dog. There were a lot of times I just didn't want to see anybody," Ichiro confided on Aug. 7, after his team's 10-7 win over the Rockies. "I tried to kill all the feelings I'd had until now and just play, but it didn't go well. It was a tough time."
As he struggled, Ichiro said he thought a lot about his time with his late mentor Akira Ogi, who managed Ichiro during his breakout 1994 season with the Orix Blue Wave of Nippon Professional Baseball's Pacific League.
In the autumn of 2000, with many Japanese pro baseball records already under his belt, Ichiro decided that he wanted to try his skills in Major League Baseball. He met Ogi, still his manager, in Kobe to tell him of his burning desire to cross the Pacific. Convinced that his big-league dreams would never get off the ground without Ogi's approval, Ichiro fortified his courage with a stiff drink and made his case. Sixteen years and 3,000 major league hits later, Ichiro took the time to thank Ogi once again.
When Ichiro arrived on the Seattle Mariners roster in 2001, the majors were dominated by power hitters. In this super slugging environment, the Japanese import created his own batting style. However, he had been identified as something special by some in the major leagues long before he was calling Safeco Field home.
In 1996, Baltimore Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr. -- who smacked 3,184 hits in his 20-year career -- came to Japan for the MLB Japan All-Star Series, and got a glimpse of the then 23-year-old Ichiro. He next saw the Japanese star in 2001, when the Orioles played the Mariners and Ripken was manning third. The future Hall-of-Famer commented that Ichiro attacked the ball and had amazing speed, and was a living baseball textbook for young players. At 180 centimeters tall and 79 kilograms, Ichiro lit the way to success for players who weren't as large as many of their teammates, especially in the homer-happy 2000s.
Ichiro spent nine years with Orix before his 16 (so far) in MLB, and he has said recently that he intends to play until he's 50. Asked why he loves baseball, Ichiro replied, "Because there are a lot of times when things don't go well." And with that motivation in mind, Ichiro will continue to take the field on the biggest baseball stage in the world, bringing fans across the major leagues to their feet.