Ichiro Suzuki and the Dignity of Work

The 4,278 career hits do not give weight to Ichiro. The 4,278 career hits are given weight by the way Ichiro achieved them.
August 9, 2016, 3:05pm
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In November, David Ortiz announced that 2016 would be his final season. Last week, Mark Teixeira said the same thing, not that anybody cared that much. On Sunday, Alex Rodriguez declared he would not make it through the week as a major league ballplayer. Tim Lincecum was designated for assignment by a team 16 games out of first place.

And Ichiro Suzuki, who is older than all of them—older than Lincecum by a decade—struck a flyball triple off the wall in Coors Field for his 3,000th major league hit. It was anticlimactic in the way that inevitable things tend to be. If you sit by the beach for long enough, you will see 3,000 waves crash onto the shore. The purple-clad Rockies fans stood and cheered. Ichiro's Marlins teammates and coaches streamed out of their dugout to congratulate him.

2016 has felt in many ways like a season of endings: Ortiz and Rodriguez are making their exits. Jimmy Rollins barely lasted a month trying to hang on with the White Sox. And yet Ichiro continues.

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When the Marlins debuted as an expansion team in 1993, Ichiro was already playing in Japan. 23 years later, he is batting .317 and walking more than he strikes out in Miami. This may seem like an obvious thing to say, but Ichiro has nothing left to prove. His game and his personality have been dissected endlessly. He has been a savior, a clubhouse pariah, a glorified pinch runner, and lately has come to be seen as some sort of baseball mystic.

(My favorite Ichiro legend—which totally plays into the mystic thing, and went around Seattle a decade or so ago and cannot possibly be true—is that he chooses not to use his prodigious batting practice power in games because he believes his body to only contain a finite number of home runs, and does not wish to waste them.)

The thing that makes Ichiro transcendent, as opposed to merely great, is his sameness. The Ichiro of 2016 is the Ichiro of 1993. He is a testament to the power of not only prodigious athletic talent, but an unrivaled capacity for routine and consistency. The pre-game workout. The on-deck routine. The care for his bats. Ichiro's career is a living example of the dignity of work. The 4,278 career hits between the United States and Japan do not give weight to Ichiro so much as the 4,278 career hits are given weight by the way Ichiro achieved them.

"I am not limping to that number," Ichiro told ESPN last month as he approached hit 3,000. "I am playing the game, and I happen to get to that number because that's where I am."

Ichiro at Shea Stadium in 2008. Photo: Andrew J. Klein, Flickr/Creative Commons.

In that way, Ichiro's success transcends baseball. One gets the sense that while contemporaries like A-Rod and Ortiz were destined for greatness in baseball and only baseball, Ichiro could have been great in something else—anything else. Baseball, after all, is manual labor, and Ichiro is a skilled and careful craftsman. His desire to succeed never seemed to stem as much from competitive fire as it did from a desire to honor the task before him. Watching Ichiro is a daily reminder that work is meaningful in and unto itself.

It's understandable that if, at some point in his career, Ichiro's teammates shared this perception, they could have been put off. In Seattle, he was accused by some teammates of being selfish—of caring more about his individual performance than the team's. He was aloof, the story went. So often in pro sports, we mistake physical displays of passion for competitiveness, as if wanting to win can only look like Kobe Bryant snarling at an opponent or shooting jumpers at 3 a.m.

And I suppose it's also possible for us to cry that Ichiro wasted his prime playing on those truly awful Mariners squads of the middle and late 2000s. But I doubt Ichiro would have seen it that way. After all, doing good work is never a waste, even when only 7,000 fans a night are coming to the ballpark to see it. Even when your team loses 100 games. Even when your teammates don't appreciate it.

The point is not simply the winning or the losing. It's the playing. For fifteen years in the United States, Ichiro has given us the gift of Ichiro—as both a ballplayer and an example. He says he wants to keep going until he's 50. I hope he does. I hope he plays until Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw are old men in the world of baseball. I hope he gets to 5,000 professional hits. I hope by the time he does, we all realize that the numbers never mattered at all—what mattered was the work.