NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — It’s one of the rarest and most impressive feats in all of sports.
Ichiro Suzuki slashed a single the opposite way with his unique swing for the 4,000th hit of a career split between Japan and the major leagues.
The 39-year-old Suzuki hit a liner off Toronto’s R.A. Dickey that bounced just beyond diving third baseman Brett Lawrie in the first inning Wednesday night for the milestone hit.
“It’s unbelievable, 4,000 hits,” Alfonso Soriano said after hitting a tiebreaking two-run homer that led New York to a 4-2 victory over the Blue Jays. “To get 4,000 hits, you have to be a great hitter.”
Pete Rose with 4,256 hits and Ty Cobb with 4,191 are the only two players that have reached the number solely in the major leagues.
Suzuki broke a tie with Lou Gehrig when he got his 2,722nd major league hit in his 13th season. The speedy outfielder amassed 1,278 hits in nine seasons with Orix of Japan’s Pacific League.
Suzuki’s teammates streamed out of the dugout and surrounded him at first base, Curtis Granderson giving him the first hug. A grinning Suzuki then faced the cheering fans and bowed, doffing his helmet. He bowed several more times, facing the Toronto dugout with the last one.
“It was supposed to be a number that was special to me but what happened tonight I wasn’t expecting,” Suzuki said. “When my teammates came out to first base it was very special, and to see the fans. I wasn’t expecting so much joy and happiness from them and that’s what made it very special tonight.”
When he went to his position in right field for the second inning, Suzuki tipped his cap to the fans who greeted him with a standing ovation.
“You never want to be the guy that gives up the milestone,” Dickey said. “That being said, what an incredible achievement. The manner that he’s done it is equally impressive. Just the longevity, the endurance, the durability. Having played with him in Seattle, it was a real treat to play with him and it couldn’t have happened to a more professional hitter.”
Ken Griffey Jr., a former teammate with the Seattle Mariners, congratulated Suzuki with a message shown on the video board at Yankee Stadium.
The Mariners tweeted a statement: “Ichiro’s historic milestone is testament to his position as one of the greatest hitters in the game of baseball.”
Suzuki’s postgame news conference with the Japanese media lasted a whopping 47 minutes.
According to STATS, Suzuki has the most hits through the first 13 seasons of a big league career. Paul Waner is second. He had 2,648 for Pittsburgh from 1926-38.
Even though the approach to the unprecedented milestone didn’t generate a lot of buzz in the United States because it doesn’t count in the record books, players have great respect for Suzuki’s accomplishment.
“That’s a lot of hits, man,” Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said last week. “It’s pretty impressive. I don’t care if it’s 4,000 in Little League. It shows how consistent he’s been throughout his career. It makes you look at how many hits he’s got in a short amount of time. That’s difficult to do, so Ichi has been as consistent as anyone.”
To Suzuki, though, the rarefied number means one thing.
“Not necessarily the 4,000, just the fact that you’re getting a hit in the game,” he said through an interpreter after getting three hits in the opener of a doubleheader Tuesday to leave him at 3,999. “If you don’t produce you’re not going to play in games. Me producing in games is what’s good for me.”
He has been producing since he was an 18-year-old rookie with the Blue Wave.
A career .353 hitter in Japan, Suzuki became the first Japanese-born non-pitcher to sign with a major league team. He smoothly made the move from Orix to the Mariners in 2001 when he was 27. He was selected AL Rookie of the Year and MVP in his first season when he batted .350, had 242 hits and stole 56 bases.
The slender 10-time All-Star seemingly could place the ball wherever he wanted with a slashing swing that makes him look more like an epee-wielding fencer than a professional baseball player.
Suzuki had at least 206 hits in each of his first 10 years in the majors, peaking in 2004 when he set the record for hits in a season with 262, topping George Sisler’s mark of 257 established in 1920.
His hit Wednesday night was the 2,209th single of his career.
“It’s an amazing feat,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s a testament to how hard he’s worked, how long he’s been in the game, how he stays healthy, how he goes about his business.”
Uniquely fashionable, Suzuki often wears skinny jeans cuffed at the bottom to show off a rainbow of shoes and socks. Sporting clothes by his favorite designer, Thom Browne, he looks more like a 20-something than a graying star.
Despite his age, Suzuki should have a good shot at the revered major league mark of 3,000 hits, one that doesn’t come with debates over the merits of the achievement. He is signed for one more year with New York at $6.5 million, and the 10-time Gold Glove winner is still is an outstanding outfielder.
But he’s not thinking about that mark.
“I don’t make goals that are so far away,” Suzuki said. “What I do is what I can every day and really build off that and see where that takes me.”
After a down season in 2011 in which he hit a career-low .272 for a Seattle team that lost 95 games, Suzuki was traded to New York in July 2012. Accused of isolating himself in the young Mariners clubhouse, Suzuki easily fit into the star-studded Yankees room and hit .322 the rest of the season.
He is batting .275 with New York this year, and he’s really enjoying his time with the team. His treatment Wednesday reinforced that.
“What I realized today is that the Yankees are so used to things like this happening that they’re so good at ceremonies like this,” Suzuki said.
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