Dee Gordon showed up at the stadium in Miami. It was an off day for the Marlins, but there was Ichiro Suzuki, working out and going over fielding drills.
So Gordon had to work out, too.
“He don’t take no days off,” Gordon said. “Off days, he’d be at the stadium. I didn’t do that until I saw him do it.
Ichiro’s hair is more gray these days now that he’s 44, and his hits won’t be as common as coffee in Seattle like they used to. Those 10 Gold Gloves he has are a bit dusty and this one-year, $750,000 contract he signed to re-join the Mariners signifies a salary and role smaller than more $140 million he made in his first stint with the team from 2001-12.
But there are some semblances of the old Ichiro, like his meticulous stretching in the on-deck circle, or his signature batting stance.
“He’s one of the best people who has come into my life and my career,” Gordon said. “He helped me a lot and he still does.”
But Ichiro hasn’t fully embraced that he’s more mentor than player at this point in his career. After all, he clarified that he doesn’t want to play until he’s 50 years old – he wants to play until he’s at least 50.
“All of these guys here are at the top of their game and that’s why they are here,” Ichiro said through interpreter Allen Turner, as Ichiro was eating some Onigiri after a game in front of his spring training locker.
“So I’m not in any position to teach them or anything like that. But if they ever have questions or they want to ask me something, I’m always happy to talk to them. And if I can help them in any way, of course I would love to help.”
He said it’s an eerie feeling to be wearing a Mariners jersey again after they traded him to New York on July 23, 2012. And he’ll likely get the loudest cheers of any player when the Mariners open the season against the Cleveland Indians on Thursday at Safeco Field.
That is, if Ichiro is healthy enough.
He’s battled a calf injury and was hit in the helmet by a pitch in a minor-league game. He’s only played in five Cactus League games, going 0-for-10 with five strikeouts.
“I don’t think he’s quite at 100 percent yet, but I think he’s getting very close,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said on Tuesday. “I’m very hopeful that Ichiro is going to be ready to go.”
A Japanese reporter asked if Ichiro might stay in Arizona for some extended spring training, considering Ichiro’s late arrival and slow start.
“We are not leaving Ichiro here, trust me on that one,” Servais laughed. “50,000 people on Thursday might break my neck if Ichiro is not there.”
Reliever David Phelps has spent as much time with Ichiro as any player in recent years, playing with him in New York and then Miami and reuniting again this spring in Mariners camp.
Phelps makes a point every day to find Ichiro, say hello and ask how he’s doing. But that wasn’t as easy, he said, when they first played together with the Yankees.
“We went through a lot in New York. We went to the playoffs together,” Phelps said. “Then we went to Miami and we weren’t in as good of a situation as far as winning. ... It’s like when you play with guys in the minor leagues. When you go through the ups and downs of a major league season, you bond. He came from Seattle to New York in a big-time role and then I got to see him in Miami and he become more of a mentor for some of our young guys. The guy is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he’s just such a blessing to be around in the clubhouse and on the field because he just genuinely loves the game.
“And everybody sees Ichiro as this serious guy. But the times we get to see him like kind of goofy and make jokes, it makes us just love him that much more.”
Edgar Martinez saw that early in Ichiro’s career, when they played together from 2001-04.
“He was always a really good teammate,” said Martinez, now the Mariners’ hitting coach. “And he has a good sense of humor. He really does. He’s serious about his business, but he also can be really funny when he starts to joke around with his teammates.”
Where Ichiro seems most comfortable is in the dugout. He has a handshake with every player, he’s loud, he’s light.
Ken Griffey Jr. revealed after his Hall of Fame induction that he used to tickle Ichiro before games.
“He had a little ritual of stretching – he would lay down a towel and start stretching and then I would jump on top of him and tickle him,” Griffey said. “He’s extremely ticklish. And he would start sweating, like instantly. But he threw out three hits and his interpreter was like, ‘Hey, you got to go do that again.’
“So it became like a ritual. It would be like 4:10 and he’d go, ‘No, no, no, no.’ ”
Otherwise, Ichiro’s preparation is considered legendary. And that was from the beginning, including 2001 when Ichiro earned AL MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season, joining Fred Lynn as the only other player to accomplish that.
“The way he goes about what he does is unique,” said former Mariners catcher Dan Wilson, who played with Ichiro from 2001-05. “His commitment to the game is obviously legendary. But it’s how he goes about it that is really unique.
“There was a lot of hype and a lot of attention around him. That’s got to be difficult to handle on a daily basis. But he came out and had the kind of year he did and answered everybody’s questions.”
And that’s probably why he’s lasted so long in this game – now entering his 17th season in America after nine seasons playing professionally in Japan.
If Phelps needs to know where Ichiro is, he said he just needs to look at the clock.
But there’s also such a reverence for Ichiro. And he’s so serious that it can be difficult for some players to comfortably approach him.
“He stays to himself,” Gordon said. “And people don’t tend to understand you when you’re by yourself, but he likes to be by himself.
“I have a really good relationship with him, man. I relate to Ichi pretty well. We good. Some other guys, possibly not. But he just might not like you that much.”
This is the seventh season Phelps has played alongside Ichiro.
“I respect him too much to just go over and sit at his locker and just chat,” Phelps said. “He is serious and especially when it comes to his game. That comes with respect of the game. He’s not going to make a joke of anything that happens on the field. But you’ll get moments in the clubhouse when someone asks a question and he’ll pop off on some sarcastic remark and it’s like – where does that come from?
“I was fortunate when I came up in New York to get to watch Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, C.C. Sabathia and Ichiro — yeah, take that in. All these guys who not only do you tell your kids you played with, but you got to see them go about their day-to-day business on a daily basis. For a young guy at the time in myself, you learn to respect the game so much more.”
Servais set up three chairs in their closed-off clubhouse, one seat for Martinez, one for Griffey and another for Ichiro as he asked them some questions in front of the team. He first asked Phelps for some advice, who told him just not to make a mockery of it. Respect Ichiro and he’ll respect you.
Servais said that meeting was his favorite Ichiro moment so far.
“His inclusion in the meetings we’ve had has been very good,” Servais said. “I just think he has so much respect from the people in the room for what he’s done in the game and I thought when I interviewed those three the other day, I thought his answers were awesome. They were very insightful. It says a lot about the player and what he values.”
For now, Ichiro has a role as a left fielder with the Mariners. The outfield is going to get crowded when Ben Gamel returns from a strained oblique, and the team did just sign 38-year-old outfielder Jayson Werth to a minor-league contract.
The future is murky. But his present is clear: Show the Seattle fans there’s still some of the old Ichiro left.
“You know, I’m just so happy to be able to come in here every day and I get to wear the Seattle Mariners uniform,” Ichiro said. “It’s a great thing. Obviously I’ve been injured and I haven’t been able to play a lot in the games with the guys, but I’m excited to be here.
“I hope to be there Opening Day. I mean, that’s what I’m focusing on is making sure I’m there.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677