PEORIA, AZ For a decade now, Mariner fans have become used to the sight of Ichiro Suzuki stepping in to lead off virtually every game, tugging on his right sleeve before every pitch, getting his 200-plus hits every year.
In repetition there is familiarity, perhaps too much so. It seems as if Ichiro is as unchanging as the Space Needle. And at least as special.
And he is special. Ten All-Star Game appearances, 10 200-hit seasons, 10 Gold Gloves all tell how special.
Talk to Ichiro, however, and you quickly learn that he doesnt see it that way at all.
“I never thought that I am special, Ichiro told sportspressnw.com in a wide-ranging interview. “But back playing in Japan, a lot of people said. ‘that guys different, ‘that guys special, ‘that guys got the talent. I hear that now here as well. I have never felt that before.
“I would hear people would say ‘dont imitate him because hes special, ‘you wont be able to be like him because hes special, because hes unique, because hes different from others. But Ive never felt that way.
Well, no one has done what he has done, starting his Major League career with 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons, putting an exclamation point on his mastery of the base hit with his record 262 hits in 2004. Hes on a streak of five consecutive years leading the Major Leagues in hits.
Hes 37 and hes entering his 20th professional season. He credits much of his success to bringing the same philosophy into his first 19 seasons.
“Every time we come to spring training, I always have the feeling I have to compete, even against the minor leaguers, Ichiro said. “You may not believe that, but thats how Ive felt from Day One. From my first year until now, my 20th professional season, I still feel that way. That will never change.
“Obviously as we get closer to the season, you see guys getting cut, you can visualize the 25-man roster, you kind of see the big picture from there on. But right now, at this time of the spring, Ive always had the same feeling I had since the first year.
He doesnt show up at 7 a.m. as some of the hungriest youngsters do. Its not unusual for him to still be getting into his uniform as the Mariners daily morning clubhouse meetings convene.
On the other hand, he has a routine, and that routine often dictates that hes still working when the kids have bolted for the day. Being there late backs his words that he doesn’t feel special.
“People say that Im special, I dont feel that way, he reiterates. “Because if you do feel that way, thats like saying, Im the starting right fielder. If you do that, you can get carried away. I dont like for that to happen. We all play on the same field, on the same team.
Of course, he is the starting right fielder in Seattle, and for better or worse the Mariners are built around him. Its an ongoing project, because building a team around a great singles hitter is an ambition better handled a century ago.
Baseball in the 21st century is given over to the home run, power hitters becoming coin of the realm. And one of the issues that Seattle faces this spring is one the Mariners have faced the last few years the lack of power in the middle of the lineup.
Thats not Ichiros problem as much as it is an issue for Seattle manager Eric Wedge. The new manager and the star right fielder talked a few times between Wedges signing and the start of spring training.
And on the day Ichiro arrived in camp, he made it clear the new manager is the right man to deal with the lack-of-power issue and the Mariners as a whole.
“Hes not the kind of guy who will sway, Ichiro said upon his arrival, something of a swipe at some of the staggering total of managers Seattle has sent Ichiros way, seven in 10 years. “Hes got his own strong feelings and will come right after you, which is good and which is what this team needs.
“My impressions were he has such a strong base that its not just him talking with his emotions. I think he has a very big and long picture in his mind and is definitely a different type of manager than weve had in the past.
The special player-who-isnt has a manager he believes to be special.
Will that be the start of a baseball renaissance in Seattle?
Maybe its a start.