- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2004

SEATTLE — Ichiro Suzuki relies on routine.

Before every at-bat, the Seattle Mariners’ Japanese outfielder squats and stretches, wiggling his shoulders to limber up. On every trip to the plate, he takes a deep breath, holds his bat at arm’s length and tugs his right sleeve with his left hand. Each and every time.

And then, in what also has become routine this season, Suzuki swings his bat, makes contact with a pitch that could approach 100 mph, and smacks a hit — more hits in 2004 than anyone ever has in a single season of major league baseball.

If Barry Bonds is arguably the greatest slugger ever, then Suzuki could make a strong case that he’s the greatest singler.

With three singles Friday night, Suzuki broke George Sisler’s 84-year-old record of 257 hits in a season in Seattle’s 8-3 victory over the Texas Rangers. Suzuki raised his total to 259 with games left last night and today.

“To see the fans and to see my teammates, it was just a very exciting time for me,” Suzuki said through an interpreter. “It was a very special moment — definitely the highlight of my career.”

Suzuki is nothing like baseball’s super sluggers, not with his slaphitter’s swing and slender figure. Bonds, the San Francisco Giants’ star who recently became the third player to top 700 homers, is a muscular 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds. Suzuki is 5-9 and 172, with wispy whiskers on his chin and a steely focus in his eyes.

It’s not that Suzuki can’t hit the ball out of the park. He has eight homers this season, and he routinely smacks balls into the bleachers during batting practice.

“To hit a ball far, I don’t think it comes from power,” Suzuki said. “I think it comes from balance, the way you use your body.”

Yet while Bonds draws gasps for the length of his hits, Suzuki inspires awe with his consistency and speed — and, frankly, just how short some of his hits are. Even when he grounds the ball to an infielder, there’s no guarantee that the throw will beat Suzuki to first base.

“It’s not a brute strength thing,” Texas manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s more like an artist at work.”

Or as Suzuki himself put it in 2001, when he became just the second big league player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same season: “I’m slim, slender and don’t have power, but I won the MVP today. If I tried to hit for power, I’d probably lose who I am as a player.”

The way he surpassed Sisler’s record Friday was perfect.

With flash bulbs popping, and thousands of fans chanting “I-chi-ro,” Suzuki chopped a leadoff single in the first inning that bounced in front of and over the third baseman. Then he topped Sisler with an innocent-looking bouncer up the middle in the third. He seemed stunned briefly as fans roared in approval and teammates left the dugout to swarm him.

“If you’re talking about sending a guy up for a hit, this is the guy you want up there,” Mariners manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s the best in the history of the game at getting hits. I don’t see where that should be diminished because the balls aren’t leaving the ballpark. It’s an art in its own and just as important.”

For good measure, Suzuki added a sixth-inning hit — his 54th infield single this season. He’s leading the majors with a .373 batting average, nine points ahead of Bonds.

“He’s the consummate professional,” catcher Dan Wilson said. “He handled this very well. It is an amazing feat.”

After Friday’s game, Suzuki wore a huge smile and danced to loud music in Seattle’s clubhouse as teammates showered him with beer.

“That’s the most emotional I’ve gotten in my life,” Suzuki said.

His pursuit of the hits record was big news in baseball-crazed Japan — as is anything Suzuki does.

There’s an Ichiro Museum in the city of Nagoya, which includes baseball memorabilia as well as toys from his childhood, a bicycle he rode to elementary school and his exams.

Suzuki, wife Yumiko and their brown-and-white Shiba dog spend part of the offseason in Seattle to escape the intense scrutiny he faces in Japan. He can move freely around Seattle, going shopping or golfing without being besieged by fans clamoring for autographs and photos.

“He’s superhuman,” said Daiei Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh, who holds Japanese baseball’s record of 868 home runs. “It’s amazing that he has been able to stay focused during all of this.”

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