Suzuki fitting in nicely
He finds splendor in surroundings
NEW YORK — Ichiro Suzuki sat at a table beside interpreter Allen Turner in a cavernous interview room, sunglasses perched on his cap, Yankees logos everywhere. The faces of American and Japanese media stared at him. His sentences were punctuated by the rat-a-tat-tat of cameras capturing history.
Suzuki had arrived in the Big Apple, donning pinstripes in Yankee Stadium for the first time, thrust into baseball’s biggest rivalry in perhaps its most frenzied market.
When Suzuki was growing up in Japan, he fancied himself a big fan of major league baseball, collecting jerseys of all kinds.
“I had the Yankees uniform,” Suzuki said. “Obviously it’s different, but it feels like I’ve worn it before.”
But never like this. Suzuki’s 100th career game against the Red Sox was his first while in the Yankees dugout, coming four days after the Mariners swapped him for minor league pitchers D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar. He entered hitting .304 lifetime against the Red Sox, with 44 stolen bases in 48 attempts.
Hearing constant chants of his name, Suzuki went 1 for 4 with two runs in New York’s 10-3 win Friday night.
“As a visitor, you come in here, a lot of the fans in the stands are pretty tough on players,” Suzuki said. “Right now, I’m wearing the pinstripes. Hopefully when I go out there, the fans will be on my side this time.”
A devout student of the game and a frequent visitor to both Cooperstown and grave sites of baseball legends, Suzuki is wearing No. 31, formerly worn by Dave Winfield. Suzuki wore No. 51 during his 11½ seasons with the Mariners, but no Yankee has used that number since Bernie Williams retired after the 2006 season.
“I don’t think I know as much as all of you,” Suzuki said when asked about the Yankees’ illustrious history. “But as a visitor coming in for 12 years, I’ve gotten to see some of what goes on here. What I’ve realized is really mentally, it really is different from the teams I’ve been on.”
Suzuki shifted from the cellar-dwelling Mariners to the team with the American League’s best record, from a relatively small media market in Seattle to a city buzzing with excitement over the 10-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner, and 2001 AL MVP.
“This guy has been through a lot in his career," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “You think about the expectations and the media coverage that has surrounded him, the ability that he has. I think we're pretty confident that New York isn’t going to be anything too big for him.”
Count Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine among those who have seen plenty of Suzuki, and the impact he can make. Valentine began his first managerial stint in Japan with the Chiba Lotte Mariners in 1995, back when Suzuki was with the Pacific League’s Orix Blue Wave.
“His manager [Akira Ogi] was a great, established Japanese manager, who immediately told me how good this guy is,” Valentine said. “And he wasn’t the type of guy who went out on a limb about a player’s ability.
“He was so fast. We had an AstroTurf field and so would they, and he’d hit ground balls to the first baseman that were close plays at first.”
Suzuki still possesses the speed and defensive prowess that wowed Valentine nearly two decades ago. Though he was hitting a career-low .261 entering Friday, Ichiro is Girardi’s newest asset in an injury-riddled outfield.
And on Friday night, Suzuki tipped his cap when the Bleacher Creatures in right field chanted his name, and received a standing ovation before his first at-bat.
“I would say here for the next couple weeks and beyond, considering this could be a postseason berth for Ichiro,” Valentine said of the New York hype. “I think it’s going to be revved up. I think he’s going to be back center stage.”
It has already begun.