Last year he clocked his ninth consecutive 200-hit season, smashing the century-old record (1894-1901) held by Wee Willie Keeler. The Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1939.
Topping Keeler's record is fine for what it is, Ichiro says, but it's not enough.
Tuesday the nine-time All-Star demonstrated a new fire as he made an over-the-shoulder, on-the-run catch in deep right field against the Angels' Jeff Mathis. Videos of the jaw-dropping catch flooded the Internet.
Ichiro wants more 200-hit seasons, to be sure.
"This season ... 200 hits will be very big for me,'' he says. Although his English is fairly good, he's speaking through interpreter Antony Suzuki (no relation).
Another 200 hits, yes, but Ichiro wants something beyond what he's already done. He wants ... let's call it immortality.
Ichiro has always been a player with great defensive tools -- a quick jump, great range and one of the best throwing arms in the game. In the past, however, he hasn't necessarily been willing to put his body on the line, even when others thought he should. He's jumped into and above walls, but he's been reticent about taking the headlong dive so often required to make history in his profession.
Tuesday's gem brought back images of Willie Mays' iconic catch against the Indians' Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. But Ichiro made his catch closer to the warning track and wound up plowing into the base of the wall at Peoria Stadium. Fortunately he wasn't hurt.
"I know he's been criticized for not always risking his body on defense, but not by me,'' Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu says. "I think he sees the big picture better than anybody. He knows that making one catch may not necessarily be worth it if the byproduct is that he's injured and out for a week or two.
"If [the Mariners are] going to be as good as we can be, he's got to be out there. I know that. We all know that. And he knows that.''
Ichiro's performance Tuesday is an indication that he's willing to take more risks, that a newer, freer Ichiro Suzuki will be roaming right field for the Mariners this year.
"The stress and pressure of [chasing Keeler's record] is what I fought until last year,'' Ichiro says. "Now I don't have to fight with somebody who played 100 years ago. Now the fight is within myself. That's the challenge for me now. I feel now I can play baseball in a pure state. An example of that is the catch I made. When you feel good and you are happy in yourself and feeling relaxed, that's the kind of play that can happen.''
As Ichiro speaks about playing baseball in a pure state, teammate Ken Griffey Jr. arrives at his locker. It's located about 10 feet from Ichiro's, immediately across an aisle littered with laundry carts and empty shoe boxes.
Ichiro is asked if he's focused at all on 3,000 hits. He reached 2,000 last year in his ninth year in the big leagues and also reached 3,000 career hits combined between Japan and the U.S. A total of 3,000 here would lock him in for the Hall of Fame.
This topic of conversation never gets off the ground.
"I don't think about it at all,'' Ichiro says through his interpreter. "It's still spring training. I'm getting ready for the season in my own way.''
He grins, points at Griffey and switches from Japanese to English. "I have this thing with Junior. I have to have two times as many hits as he does at the end of the season to win. When people ask me about numbers now, that's the number I'm thinking about.''
|Most 200-Hit Seasons Since 1901
|Six players tied with||6|
"I'll win,'' Griffey says, standing up and copping a pose with his bat. "You know Ichiro's going to get his hits. But he's going to need more than ever. I'm going for 180 hits this year, so he's going to need 360 to win. And anyway, what's a friendly steak dinner between friends?''
In 2004, Ichiro set the all-time, single-season hits record at 262, erasing Cardinals first baseman and Hall-of-Famer George Sisler's 256 hits in 1922 from the record books. Getting 360 hits would be a super-human accomplishment for Ichiro. As for Griffey, it would be a stretch for him to reach 180. He came up 97 short of that total in 2009 and hasn't had 180 hits in a season since 1998. Both men, however, seem supremely confident of making their numbers. Being the athletes that they are, they could hardly be expected to feel differently.
The relationship between Griffey and Ichiro is one of the true marvels in the Seattle clubhouse.
The two first met in 1998 when Ichiro's Japanese team, the Orix Blue Wave, worked out in Arizona during Griffey's first tour with the Seattle Mariners. But in 2000, Griffey asked to be traded and was with the Cincinnati Reds when Ichiro left Japan in 2001 to join the Mariners.
Ichiro's talent made him an instant star in the U.S. But it isn't just his talent that sets him apart from other big leaguers. On road trips, his carry-on items include a bat. He takes the bat with him to his hotel room so he can practice his swing during his down time. When other players are relaxing before a game, Ichiro goes through a long stretching and running program to get ready, even on Sunday mornings when nobody else feels the drive. He gives himself a pedicure after every game to keep his feet supple.
These practices have tended to distance Ichiro from his teammates.
Ichiro was off at the World Baseball Classic when Griffey re-signed with the Mariners last year. After helping Japan win its second title, Ichiro found Seattle's clubhouse a revelation during the final days of the spring when he finally joined his club. Credit Griffey.
"I wasn't here for [most of] last spring because of the WBC,'' Ichiro says, "so it's hard for me to say how different this is from last spring. But when you compare it to two years ago, there's a huge difference. This team is a lot closer.''
Griffey, a star in the U.S. for a decade before Ichiro crossed the Pacific, has always been a player to whom he looked up. Griffey and another Mariners veteran, Mike Sweeney, have widened the scope of clubhouse tomfoolery to include Ichiro and make the right fielder feel more comfortable.
Ichiro is both more accepting and more accepted as a Mariner in the 12 months since Griffey showed up. And that's worked well for everybody. Seattle won 85 games last year despite being outscored by 52 runs. It won by doing many little things well, by winning lots of one-run games and by buying into Wakamatsu's belief system that the more the Mariners play as one, the better the individual performances will be.
"Ichiro's a huge, huge part of that,'' Wakamatsu says. "Our offense starts at the top with him and now with [Chone] Figgins. The kind of pressure those two can apply to the other team is intense.''
Now that Ichiro is feeling less pressure, he's in a position to apply more to opponents.
"I think it will be easier now that I won't have to think so much about the [Keeler] record,'' he says. "I want to show people what I can do.''
And here we thought he'd already done that. Immortality knocks.