Ichiro Suzuki collided with Brandon Barnes during a communication drill Tuesday at Miami Marlins spring training camp. The impact was minor but enough to send the 43-year-old to the training room with a limp. It was his first visit to such a place in his career.
Let that sink in. Ichiro has been playing professionally since 1992, before Bill Clinton took up residence in the White House. He played nine injury-free seasons in Japan before coming over to the Seattle Mariners in 2001. Since then he’s been on the disabled list once, in 2009 with a bleeding ulcer.
His remarkable longevity is even more impressive when one considers the high level of production he was able to sustain. He hit .322 in limited action at age 38 and .284 in 143 games at age 40. On total, his stats are incredible. Add his 3,030 Major League hits with the 1,278 he racked up in Japan for a total of 4,308. Pete Rose can rest easy knowing that Ichiro will never be the American Hit King, but the diminutive lefty is surely the International Emperor of all things hitting.
It’s difficult to say that a future Hall of Famer, who was an immediate and prolonged cultural phenomenon, has been undervalued in the 16 years he’s been on U.S. soil. I’ll say it anyway.
I’ll also go a step further and say that Ichiro’s body of work is not just underappreciated in baseball circles, but in sports as a whole. When one looks at his physical accomplishments and the way he was able to get the most out of his body, a case can be made that he’s been one of the best athletes in the four major leagues this millennium.
He deserves to be mentioned alongside talents like LeBron James, Cam Newton, J.J Watt and anyone else you want to put on that list.
Ichiro was not blessed with great size. He stands 5-foot-11 and is 170 pounds soaking wet. He’s a man of average proportions who has been able to harness every ounce. Stand him next to Watt or James and the difference in stature would be comical.
That doesn’t mean what he does with his body is any less impressive. Perhaps no hitter in baseball has ever been as good at making contact as Ichiro while standing still. He perfected the art of putting the ball in play while running to first base.
It’s difficult to appreciate just how impressive this unique skill is after all of these years. It’s very rare for a player to come along that does something truly different. Ichiro’s forward momentum hack was like nothing we’d seen before. It’s no gimmick either. The stats speak for themselves.
Any calculus of athletic greatness must include the ability to do something no other athlete can do. Ichiro checks that box. He’s a baseball unicorn.
There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that he could do more, that he could be a different player. Throughout his career he was a table-setter, providing value by reaching base and putting pressure on the defense. But anyone who has seen him take batting practice has seen him hit home runs at will. Many have suggested he could hit 30-plus homers in a year if he tried. He himself said he’d blast 40 at the expense of a .220 average.
Ichiro’s speed was always devastating. He’s racked up 707 professional steals. His home-to-first time in his younger days was an almost impossible 3.6 seconds. Then there’s his arm. Look at the zip he gets. Insane for a little guy.
Ichiro was also ahead of the curve when it came to baseball-centric fitness. His obsession with stretching and increased flexibility has been on constant display between pitches. He came into the MLB in the wake of the home run wars, when bulky muscles were the most valued commodity. During his career, the prevailing school of thought has caught up to Ichiro and his core-based principles.
Perhaps it a little-guy bias that’s obscured me from a true assessment of Ichiro’s place in the athletic pecking order. Perhaps there’s something too alluring about an average-sized guy performing seemingly impossible feats. Perhaps it’s just way easier to connect with someone who has the same general body type.
If that’s the case and Ichiro is not one of the most stunningly athletic athletes of our time, there should be no debate over his uniqueness. He may be cut from a somewhat common mold, but what he does with that mold is anything but ordinary.