In the visiting clubhouse of Baltimore’s Camden Yards, 31/2 hours before a game, players are watching television, playing cards, listening to iPods.
Ichiro Suzuki spreads a towel on the carpeted floor in front of his locker, lies on his back and begins doing stretching exercises. From Ichiro’s blind side, Ken Griffey Jr. pounces, gets his hands deep under Ichiro’s armpits and digs in with his fingers.
Ichiro’s laughter is almost childlike – genuine and uncontrolled – and after about five seconds he screams the magic word to make Griffey stop.
Junior stands up, walks back to his locker and sits down. Ichiro lies quietly for a moment, letting his body relax, then goes back to stretching as if nothing had happened.
But he’s smiling.
“This,” trainer Rick Griffin said, “is the happiest I’ve seen Ichiro since 2001.”
So much has happened since Ichiro’s rookie season, to the team and the man, and not all of it good. That season, the team won 116 games, Ichiro was the American League’s Most Valuable Player and its Rookie of the Year.
It was a tough act to follow, and the Mariners haven’t been to the postseason since. Last season, they lost 101 games, fired two managers, went through three batting coaches.
Ichiro went about his job professionally, playing all 162 games, batting .310, winning another Gold Glove.
Was he happy?
Ichiro shakes his head at the question.
“No one was happy,” he said.
In truth, Ichiro hadn’t been happy in years, and in the Seattle clubhouse there were times when he seemed to be alone on an island. The roster turned over, again and again, and each new wave of players viewed Ichiro as something of an outsider.
He did things no one else did, from eating pregame rice balls to poking the soles of his bare feet with a stick. There were a half dozen Japanese reporters who followed him everywhere.
Ichiro closed down, too. There wasn’t tension between him and his teammates as much as there was … nothing.
“I’m in my ninth year in the game here, and there’s a point where you have to protect yourself,” Ichiro said. “It’s been hard to open my heart to everyone.”
Then the Mariners signed Griffey in spring training. Nothing has been the same since – especially Ichiro. At Safeco Field, his locker faces Griffey’s. On the road, they are always near one another.
Just talking about Junior gets Ichiro animated.
“It’s fun to come to the clubhouse every day and just watch him, listen to him,” Ichiro said. “He’s like a different creature than the rest of us. It’s like he’s from a different planet.
“That’s what we’ve been missing here, that’s the hole he’s filled, that’s what he does. He brings a team together just by being himself.”
Griffey is asked about Ichiro.
“Ichiro’s smart, but he’s still a little uncomfortable with some things. Put yourself in Japan, you’d have the same thing to deal with,” he said. “I’ve never found him standoffish, but this isn’t his country. He’s still learning things. He’s cautious.”
Junior laughs loudly, then says, “I love messing with him.”
The escalation has been steady and often hilarious.
Griffey is the first member of the Mariners ever to make fun of the way Ichiro dresses – at least to his face. Each day when Ichiro enters the clubhouse in street clothes, Junior goes through a five-point rating process.
“I’d wear that shirt,” he said in Denver. “The pants, no. That belt? No. Shoes? Yeah, I might wear those. But that man purse? No (bleeping) way. You’re 2-for-5 today.”
After years of being above such antics in the clubhouse or anywhere else, Ichiro’s response to Griffey’s presence has been unadulterated joy.
“Ken has always been my favorite superstar, and from the time I started following his career I thought about what a relationship with him would be like,” Ichiro said. “I wasn’t going to pursue it – that wouldn’t have been respectful.
“He’s the one who’s always doing something to me. He knows how to mess with me. It is my greatest honor to play with him.”
There is a pause as Ichiro looks at his translator, Antony Suzuki, and then Ichiro continues.
“Ken has opened the doors for me, allowed me to be me this year,” he said.
“I always thought opening my heart would be close to impossible in baseball with so many differences between me and other players. It’s been close to a miracle with Junior. We have a special relationship – something I’ve never had before.
“He changed the way I sense things. I thought time would be the biggest factor in building a friendship. Junior did it from the first day.”
When Griffey got to the Seattle clubhouse for the first time, there were only two players he knew well – Ichiro and Russell Branyan. So he got to work on them first.
“I try to be an equal-opportunity messer. I get everyone,” Griffey said. “Messing with Ichiro and Russell was easy here, because I knew both of them. Everyone else, it took a little more time.
“If I’m on a team, everybody – one through 25 – is going to get messed with. You’re part of this team, I’m gonna have fun with you.”
It’s not all laughter.
“There’s a time to get ready, and the last hour or so before a game, I’m quiet. I’m focused. So is Ichiro. In this game, there’s also time to have fun, to mess with people. I use that time well,” Griffey said.
Griffin, the trainer, said walking through the clubhouse in that final hour before a game, Ichiro and Junior can be a bit unnerving.
“Sometimes they’ll each be at their locker, just staring at one another,” he said.
Ichiro’s take: “Ken is a special person, a special presence.
“He’s brought a lot to the team, a new attitude, and he’s done it on and off the field, in the clubhouse and the dugout. He’s great for the team. We’re much closer together than we’ve been.
“It’s not just what he might say or do, it’s his character,” Ichiro said.
They have become more than friends. Ichiro plans to visit the Griffeys in Florida after the season, and has invited the entire Griffey clan to his home in Japan.
Their relationship, Junior said, is both unique and simple.
“Outside of baseball, making a friend takes a lot of time. In baseball, we’re all together every day. Not five days a week – every day. So things can happen more quickly,” he said.
“Here’s why we’ve become friends: trust. I don’t want anything from him, he doesn’t want anything from me, except friendship. There are no ulterior motives. I just want to be his friend. There’s no hidden agenda.
“For both of us, that can be rare.”
General manager Jack Zduriencik acknowledges signing Junior was, in part, an effort to change the clubhouse – and to make Ichiro more comfortable in it.
“Of course, it was a factor,” Zduriencik said. “We’d heard the stories about last year, and I knew the presence of Ken Griffey Jr. would give him instant respect in the clubhouse.
“Did I think he’d help Ichiro feel more a part of this club? Yeah, I did. Did I know it would click? No. But it has, and I hoped it would.”
Ichiro was 22 when he first met Griffey in 1995. Junior was already a major league star.
“The way he approached me in our first meeting is the same way he does today. He doesn’t base friendships on ability or status,” Ichiro said. “If he’d known I was ticklish back in ’95, he’d probably have jumped on me then, too. People can change over time, but he hasn’t – not since we first met in ’95.
“That’s one thing that keeps friendships alive, someone who doesn’t change.
“As he gets older – even when he’s a grandpa – I’d still like to have him here.”
Griffey is touched by such talk.
“We both know what it’s like to reach a certain visibility level in this game, where you’re the same person but people see you differently,” Junior said. “People who have never met you write about you. After a while, you start wondering what somebody wants when they approach you – to say hello or to ask for something.”
Is the tickling a sign of friendship? Griffey shakes his head.
“The tickling thing started the same day Ichiro’s hitting streak did, so I had to keep it going – I didn’t want to break that thing up,” he said.
Ichiro was stunned the first time Griffey attacked him, although his laughter was as genuine that day as any other.
“He’s the only teammate I would ever let do that. In Japan, all relationships are respectful, so no one would ever do that to me,” Ichiro said. “If someone else did it here, I’d probably punch them in the face.”
That said, Ichiro smiles broadly and adds this:
“This is the happiest I’ve been since 2001.”