It has always been Pat Gillick’s way to know about each player’s family and the relevant challenges of home life, and so when Ichiro Suzuki and his wife arrived in Seattle for the first time before the 2001 season, there was a conversation about apartment rental.
Yumiko Fukushima, who married Ichiro in 1999, told the Mariners that she and her husband wanted to find a three-bedroom apartment -- one bedroom for the couple, another for visitors, plus a third bedroom. Gillick was the general manager of the Mariners and the advice from the team was that a two-bedroom place would suffice, Gillick recalled, but Ichiro’s spouse said no, they needed a third bedroom -- because Ichiro would use that room to practice his swing.
“I don’t know that I’ve run into an athlete or a player who is so committed and passionate about the game as Ichiro,” Gillick said over the phone Wednesday, just a few hours before Ichiro collected the 4,000th hit of his time in Japan and in Major League Baseball.
Baseball history is littered with the what-could-have-been stories such as Dwight Gooden, whose greatness was curtailed by his personal demons. Ichiro is at an extreme opposite end of that scale, because for year after year, his days have been built around preparation for each at-bat and each game, from his eating habits to his perpetual work of stretching his body to the painstaking treatment of his bats.
By way of comparison, Gillick mentioned Wayne Gretzky, who wasn’t the biggest player or the fastest skater, and never had the hardest shot. “Gretzky, to me, didn’t shoot the puck -- he kind of guided the puck,” said Gillick, who now works for the Phillies. “Ichiro is the same way. He guides the ball. He serves the ball, like a tennis player -- in the same way that a tennis player uses the boundaries of the court, he uses the boundaries of the infield.”
The hit that Ichiro got Wednesday was typical for him. A turn of his right hip, the hands and the bat following; a slashing swing; a shot past Toronto third baseman Brett Lawrie. It was the 2,722 hit in Major League Baseball for Ichiro, after 1,278 hits while playing in the shorter seasons of Japan.
There is no way to know how many more home runs that Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio would’ve hit had they not missed seasons in the middle of their careers to military service, and in the same way, it’s impossible to know what Ichiro would have done had he played his entire career in Major League Baseball.
But Gillick is among many talent evaluators who believe that Ichiro would have excelled had he started playing in the majors and would have accumulated about the same number of hits, because his unique set of skills would have translated at any level: The exceptional hand-eye coordination; the superlative speed; the complete devotion to his craft.
“The guy is a pure hitter,” said Gillick, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011 for his executive work with the Blue Jays, Orioles, Mariners and Phillies. “Everybody was concerned he wouldn’t adapt to the American style of baseball. I’m very confident that from the get-go, he would’ve hit just as well in the U.S. [as in Japan].”
That seems apparent based on what Ichiro did upon his arrival. He dominated in his first year in MLB, hitting .350 with a league-leading 242 hits and 56 stolen bases. He won the MVP. He'd put up similar numbers in Japan. He also won the first of 10 Gold Gloves.
Jim Colborn was the Mariners scout who pushed the team to sign Ichiro, while serving as the pitching coach for Orix in Japan, and he raved about Ichiro’s makeup and his work ethic. That first time that Ichiro arrived in Seattle, Gillick recalled, Dave Myers -- a coach for the Mariners at the time -- threw batting practice to Ichiro. “He took 150 swings and he never stepped out of the batter’s box,” Gillick said. “He never came out to catch his breath or rest. I had never seen that before.”