DENVER -- Alex Rodriguez remembers being invited to Ichiro Suzuki's home in the Seattle area back around 2002 or '03, and as the Mariners teammates dined that evening, Ichiro casually mentioned that he planned to play until age 50."I almost fell out of my chair," Rodriguez said. "He has tremendous
DENVER -- Alex Rodriguez remembers being invited to Ichiro Suzuki's home in the Seattle area back around 2002 or '03, and as the Mariners teammates dined that evening, Ichiro casually mentioned that he planned to play until age 50.
"I almost fell out of my chair," Rodriguez said. "He has tremendous passion and focus. It's awesome."
That drive has fueled Ichiro's pursuit of a pair of significant milestones: with two hits Wednesday, Ichiro reached 4,257 professional hits, including his total from Japan, to pass Pete Rose's lifetime total of 4,256; Ichiro also is closing in on 3,000 Major League hits, with 2,979, and the Yankees will be applauding from afar when he reaches both numbers.
Rodriguez said that, with all due respect to Nippon Professional Baseball, he believes there is only one Major League and that he considers Rose to be the hit king. That does not diminish Rodriguez's admiration for Ichiro, whom he called "as graceful as any player I've ever been around and as unique a player as I've been around."
"You look at him in batting practice and he can hit 20 balls into the upper deck in right-center much like Wade Boggs, then in a game he could just pepper the left-field line," Rodriguez said. "He would pick and choose his times late in the game when he could change the game with one swing of the bat."
Ichiro and CC Sabathia broke into the Majors in the same year, 2001, providing many opportunities for showdowns between them. Ichiro stroked 23 hits in 69 at-bats against Sabathia (.333), though Sabathia said he was able to quiet Ichiro later in their careers after adding a slider to his mix.
"It's always tough because you never knew what he was trying to do," Sabathia said. "If he was trying to hit homers that day, then you're in trouble. If he's trying to hit singles that day, then you're in trouble. You're just trying to figure out where his mind's at that first at-bat. Early in my career, I had nothing to get him out with."
Ichiro was still dangerous during the 2 1/2 years that he spent with the Yankees from 2012-14, when he batted .281 and tallied 311 hits. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that he marvels at how Ichiro continues to keep himself in the greatest of shape, and wonders how his numbers would look if he had played his entire career in the Majors.
"This guy can hit," Girardi said. "He has the unique ability of just getting the barrel to the ball and finding ways to get hits. I remember when he first came over here, some guys saw him early in Spring Training and said, 'I think we can pound this guy in.' Then all of a sudden he started turning on balls and it's like, 'OK, well we can't do that now.'"
At that stage of Ichiro's career, the Yankees were eyeing him more as a part-time performer, though Girardi wound up playing him more than anticipated.
"It's easy. He wants to play every day. Every day," Girardi said. "He'd play 162 games if you'd let him. If you got one rained out in the middle, he'd play 163. He wanted to be out there every day, but we had other outfielders and it was just difficult."
Rodriguez said that it is still difficult to rank Ichiro against the many hitters he has played with and against during his career, just because of how unique his skill set has been.
"I'd say he's on an island by himself," Rodriguez said. "I've always been intrigued by guys like Wade Boggs and Ichiro, who if they really put their minds to it could probably hit 25 home runs, but they chose to hit 250 hits or 220 hits. He's right there at the top. When it comes to singles hitters, he's right there at the top."
Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat.