Ichiro in Back-Up Role Again as 3,000-Hit Plateau Looms
JUPITER, Fla. – Back-up player. Making spot starts. Pinch hitter. Not in starting lineup. Platooning.
It’s going to be all different again for No. 51 of the Miami Marlins this season, just like it has been for him for the last few seasons in his career.
At the ripe young age of 42, Ichiro Suzuki is taking this not-new scenario facing him with much acceptance. After playing most of his time in Japan’s pro leagues and in North America’s big leagues as a regular, the outfielder will not see his name among the starting nine on the lineup card. He will be listed as a reserve.
”He’ll be one of our off-the-bench guys,’’ Marlins manager Don Mattingly told a recent scrum. “He’ll fill in for the other outfielders.’’
As one Japanese reporter told me, “Most people don’t understand what it takes to play in the major leagues when a player is over 40 years of age.’’
Yes, it’s mostly about hand-eye coordination or lack of it. The older you get, the harder it is to get the bat around. A lifetime .314 hitter with the Mariners, Yankees and Marlins, Suzuki hit .229 in 398 at-bats last season, his lowest BA by far in North America.
Another season in a part-time role means that it will take longer for Suzuki to reach 65 hits, a plateau that will give him the coveted 3,000 hits in the majors. In a perfect world, Suzuki would retire after this season and be a first-ballot Cooperstown inductee in 2022 but he has already told writers that he wants to keep playing until he’s 50. Odd but true.
“Not necessarily in the major leagues here but somewhere,’’ one Japanese writer told me about Suzuki’s plans to play until the mid-century mark of his life. It means he could go back to playing in his native Japan to full his goal of playing longer.
After winning seven consecutive batting titles with the Orix Blue Waves in Japan, Suzuki posted 10 consecutive, 200-hit seasons with the Mariners with his explosive season of 2004 standing out the most: a career-best 262 hits to go along with an eye-opening .372 average, also his career-high in the majors.
Odd as it may seem, Suzuki posted better statistics in other areas of his game in 2005. His hits total was 206 and his BA slipped to .303 but he had 15 homers and 68 RBI, compared to eight homers and 60 RBI in 2004.
In his very first season in 2001 when former Blue Jays executive guru Pat Gillick was Mariners’ general manager, Suzuki collected 242 hits, scored 127 runs and batted .350 when Seattle posted a 116-46 record, 70 games over .500. And there is this odd trivia item: Suzuki collected 111 runs in four different seasons.
If you are a Blue Jays’ fan wondering how Suzuki did over the years against Toronto pitching, this is what he did, courtesy of Marty Sewell of the Marlins’ baseball-information department. In what amounted to a full season of 576 at-bats going back to 2001, Suzuki averaged .325 against Toronto with 80 runs, 187 hits, 23 doubles, two homers and 41 RBI. In 2004, Suzuki batted .500 (20-for-40) against the Jays.
We can’t forget that Suzuki won 10 consecutive Gold Glove awards with the Mariners. Throw in the fact he has committed only 37 errors in his North American career and you have one, mighty, fine ballplayer. All you can do is stand back and admire the guy. After each of his games this season, many of us will be checking the boxscore to see what he did.
It’s interesting that Nobuyuki Kobayashi, a reporter with Japanese newspaper Daily Sports, has covered Suzuki since he started with the Mariners. After all of these years, Kobayashi is still following the superstar along with Keizo Konishi of the Kyodo News. Not far behind in following Suzuki is his interpreter Allan Turner, whose mother is Japanese.
Just the other day, as I wandered into the Marlins’ clubhouse, Suzuki and Turner were sitting beside each other having lunch and standing up talking with them was Kobayashi. In the background, I could see another Japanese reporter bowing to Suzuki as he was leaving the clubhouse to go to the press-box.
A bow of respect to one of the prolific hitters in baseball history. A player so beloved that the Marlins sent a contingent of personnel to Japan to officially announce his signing in January of 2015, even though he was just a reserve player. On the trip were team president David Samson, baseball-operations director Michael Hill, GM Dan Jennings, former Marlins player Jeff Conine and vice-president of broadcasting and communications P.J. Loyello.
“Ichiro had already agreed to a deal before we went to Japan,’’ Loyello explained the other day. “We wanted to find a distinct way to announce the signing, to have him introduced to the Japanese media.
“We thought it would be a really good introduction to the Marlins’ brand and what it means to the Japanese people. We thought it would be really cool to do the press conference in Japan for the Japanese fans and for Ichiro’s fans, as opposed to doing a press conference in Miami.’’