Photo by Associated Press.
MIAMI — Closing in on 3,000 hits, Ichiro Suzuki isn’t inclined to stop there. He’s 42, and for some time has said — in Japanese and English — he wants to play until at least 50.
He’s joking, right?
“Probably not,” says New York Mets manager Terry Collins, who managed in Japan and is a friend of Suzuki’s. “I’ll tell you one thing about the Japanese — they don’t kid. And if anybody could do it, he’s probably one guy who could.”
It’s hard to argue against Suzuki’s chances, given this year’s upswing in his career as a fourth outfielder for the Miami Marlins. Despite flecks of gray in his short black hair, he’s playing with youthful zeal.
Through Saturday, Suzuki is four hits shy of 3,000. His batting average was .338 in 180 at-bats, putting him on course to finish above .300 for the first time since 2010, and he had an OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) of .814, better than his career average. He was 8 for 10 in stolen bases and hadn’t committed an error in the outfield.
“What Ichiro has been able to do right now is phenomenal,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly says. “We talk about his age but we really shouldn’t, because you just watch him play, and if he used that hair dye Keith Hernandez uses, we wouldn’t know he wasn’t 30.”
The approaching milestone has brought a fresh wave of attention to Japan’s most famous athlete. In his 16th major league season, he’ll become the 30th player to reach 3,000, and only all-time hits leader Pete Rose did it faster.
Suzuki played for nine years in Japan’s Pacific League, totaling 1,278 hits, before coming to the majors as a 27-year-old rookie with the Seattle Mariners in 2001. Despite the late start, he’ll soon join Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins and Paul Molitor as the only players with at least 3,000 hits, 500 stolen bases and a career .300 average.
A year ago, it looked as if Suzuki might not ever reach 3,000. Pressed into everyday duty because of injuries to other Marlins, he batted a career-low .229, and his .279 slugging percentage ranked 230th and last in among hitters with at least 325 plate appearances. Worn out, he went 12 for 97 (.124) over his final 36 games, and it was certain whether Miami — or anyone else — would bring him back for another season.
This year he’s playing less and playing better, the part-time role his only concession to age.
“I tell him every day he’s the best player in the world,” says Jose Fernandez, the Marlins’ 23-year-old ace. “It’s just an honor to watch him play and be a part of it.”
Suzuki is the second-oldest player in the majors, trailing only 43-year-old Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon. He has made it this far with a rigorous training regimen that has been his hallmark since he broke into the majors.
“He became a superstar in the United States and never changed his routine,” says Reds manager Bryan Price, who was the pitching coach in Seattle during Suzuki’s first six seasons there. “He was steadfast and kept working hard for what he got. I’ve been very impressed by that.”
Suzuki’s fastidious nature is apparent even while he’s seated at his locker, trimming loose threads from his jersey or using a lint roller to clean the carpet, and he exercises the same discipline in his workout routine. He has his own weight equipment at the ballpark, and stretches perhaps more than any player in the history of the sport, whether it’s hours before a game in the clubhouse or in the on-deck circle.
“The way he goes about his business and teaches all of us young guys, he’s a role model you want to follow,” Fernandez says.
The last major leaguer to play past his 50th birthday was Minnie Minoso, who took the field in two games for the White Sox at age 54 in 1980.
Suzuki joined the Marlins last season, and was talking even then of playing until at least 50.
One day he and Fernandez discussed the idea.
“I looked at him like ...” Fernandez says, scrunching his face in an expression of disbelief. “But now I don’t doubt it at all. Look at him. He’s playing perfect. He’s doing everything he has been doing for the last 20-something years. So why not? Keep doing it.”