OAKLAND Upon the first pitch to him from the As Trevor Cahill at 7:07 p.m. Friday night, Ichiro Suzuki will start his 20th season in professional baseball.
Hes 37 now and much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. To say that hes not wild about discussing questions of age as they relate to baseball is an understatement.
“It becomes annoying when you have to fight against (talk of age), the Seattle Mariners right fielder and leadoff hitter told www.sportspressnw.com.
There are some things you cant fight, however. Age is only one of them. Another, if you are a 37-year-old baseball player, is a barrage of questions about age. Safe to say that age is a subject to which Ichiro has devoted some time.
His Mariners contract is up after the 2012 season, at which point he will be 38. In a wide-ranging interview with Sportspress Northwest, he hinted he wants to play until hes at least 40, and probably beyond, as a Mariner, even if it involves fighting stereotypical opinions about age while playing with a team that is rebuilding again.
“When I first started playing (with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan in 1992), I never thought I would be playing 20 years later, he said. “At the same time, I dont think there was any guy there who thought I would be here after 20 years.
In those first two seasons, Ichiro bounced between the Japanese minor leagues and major leagues. He became a star in 1994 by hitting .385 for Orix while becoming the first Japanese player to collect 200 hits in a season. He had 210.
He wound up playing the next six seasons for Orix before the Mariners won a spirited bidding war to get him to come to the Northwest after the 2000 season. Since then, hes had 200 hits 10 years in a row, a baseball first.
At the eve of the 2011 season, how much longer does he think he can play?
“Thats a hard question, he said. “Its contradictory. People look at age, and we all have different opinions when it comes to age. I have different opinions as well.
“Lets say that I was 20 when I twisted or sprained an ankle. Three years from now when Im 40 and I twist or sprain my ankle, people will say its because of age. Its not second-guessing. Its just human nature.
Human nature, the Seattle right fielder suggests, isnt kind to those of advancing years.
“Take the talk of age. Its something that I will have to battle, Ichiro said. “When you have to think about something like that, its not a positive for you. I mean, its something you dont have to think about, but when you have people around you talking about it, you dont want the negatives to get in.
“As a player, you have to be aware of that; you have to prepare for that. It gets annoying when you have to fight against that, too, because baseball is really all about how you can perform on the field. And having to think about (age) is starting to get annoying already.
Ichiro never directly answered the question about how long he wanted to play. But there is at least one excellent reason why he should want to play until hes at least 41.
As he starts play Friday, Ichiro has 2,244 big league hits and needs 756 more to reach 3,000 in the U.S. Its a goal that is a great distance away, even for someone who has averaged 224 hits per season the last decade.
If he can maintain anything close to the 200-hit pace that he has set, he would get to 3,000 hits toward the end of his fourth season, at 41. The man already has built a consensus opinion that he will be a first-ballot entry into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But 3,000 is a hitters Olympus. Its hard to believe Ichiro would get close and not try to make a serious run at it.
You get the sense that he feels 37 years young, not 37 years old, even with the slight bit of gray that speckles his hair.
“One of the reasons its hard to talk about age is because people will talk about my 40 (years old) compared to someone elses 40. Or they will compare my 40 to someone who played in the past.
“And its vice-versa, too, because there are players who are 25 who play already like theyre 40. Its hard to talk about age and its hard to talk about the future, because you dont want to start (thinking) about that yourself.
As it is with everyone, the future is in Ichiros thoughts. He was part of a team that won a record 116 games in 2001. But hes never been to the playoffs since. The hits and the records serve as motivation, but not as the entire motivation. The post-season is motivation. While some of his longtime teammates have left Seattle to pursue playoff dreams in other cities, Ichiro is very clear that his dream is to be back in the playoffs wearing a Seattle uniform.
“Everyone youll talk to feels that way about getting to the playoffs, he said. “Everyone gets that motivation. You know, Ive played here 10 years, this is my 11th season and being in the playoffs with this jersey on is different than being in the playoffs in a different jersey.
“Its because you have more time in with one team, because youve built so much and there is so much on your back. You get very emotional thinking about this team. There is love at times, thats why going to the playoffs with the Mariners would be totally different from just going to playoffs (with any other team).
“For me, its about going to the playoffs with the Mariners. Its all the time youve spent getting there.
Age being such a ticklish subject, its easier to talk about the here and now, which Ichiro did before Thursdays workout in the Oakland Coliseum. Talking with a handful of the Seattle media, he said he was upbeat about the season, even though the Mariners are a consensus choice to finish last in the American League West again.
In particular, he is a big fan of new manager Eric Wedge.
“Hes pretty clear with what he wants to do, Ichiro said of Wedge. “We are all facing the same direction. He has a strong base that wont sway. We all know our roles. We all see the big picture. Thats big for us.
Asked if he was a more driven player now than he was when he first came to the U.S., Ichiro paused.
“Its tough, because the situation (now) is different, he said. “Ten years ago when I first came here I only thought about myself because I was here to perform. Being the first position player from Japan, you need to perform. Youve got your flag behind your back.
“You need to perform more to assure the path from Japan. Now I have more room in my mind, I have more space, to where I can think about the team. That said, I think about it in a different way, I think about it in a different perspective.
And that perspective does indeed change with time.
“You could think (the last 10 years in Seattle) went by real fast, he said. “At the same time, there are times where you say `wow, its been a long ten years.
Will this be another long year?
Well, as they say, thats why they play the games.