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Ichiro and the young Marlins outfielders

3/25/2015

JUPITER, Fla. -- Miami Marlins coach Brett Butler subjects the team’s outfielders to an intriguing ritual during drills to ensure that bad behavior doesn’t stick. Whenever one of them misfires with a throw, he has to chase down the ball and personally retrieve it.

The rule applies to everyone -- even Ichiro Suzuki.

"If he overthrows the cutoff man, he has to go get the ball like everybody else,’’ Butler said. “He understands the foundation of what we have here.’’

In short, Ichiro is just one of the guys -- or as much of a regular guy that he can be as a cultural icon and future Hall of Fame lock.

In 10 seasons with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan and 14 more with the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees, Ichiro has amassed 4,122 hits. He’s a 10-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner who signed a one-year contract with Miami in late January for a couple of reasons: (1) He liked the Marlins’ sales pitch and the attentiveness they showed during the courtship process; and (2) other suitors weren’t exactly wearing out his agent’s cellphone.

His presence in Miami makes for an intriguing baseball chemistry experiment. It begins with one of the most talented young outfield alignments in the game. Right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, fresh off an MVP-caliber season at age 25, agreed to a record $325 million deal in November. Left fielder Christian Yelich, who hit .284 with a .362 OBP and 30 doubles and added a Gold Glove at 22, signed a $49 million contract Sunday. And center fielder Marcell Ozuna, who hit 23 homers and slugged .455 at age 23, might be in line for a multiyear deal if his agent, Scott Boras, weren’t advising him to just be patient.

Ichiro’s $2 million salary reflects his waning production at age 41. But if the kids need a veteran who can constantly remind them of the sacrifice required to enjoy longevity and prolonged success in the game, he will be well worth the investment.

Yelich was 9 years old in 2001, when Ichiro banged out 242 hits for a 116-win Seattle team and captured the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year awards. So after the news conference to announce his new contract Sunday, Yelich was thrilled to introduce Ichiro to his mom in the parking lot outside the facility at Roger Dean Stadium.

“You just watch how he prepares and gets ready for a season, a game, an at-bat,’’ Yelich said. “Anytime you have a question about anything, you can go pick his brain and he’ll be more than happy to help you. I just see him as one of the guys. We’ve all been having a great time this spring. He’s been awesome.’’

Ichiro-watchers agree that he’s happy in Miami and is shaping up as a good fit, even if the meager South Florida Japanese population won’t do much for gate receipts. The Marlins showed Ichiro the ultimate respect in January when team president David Samson, president of baseball operations Michael Hill and general manager Dan Jennings all flew to Tokyo for the announcement of his signing. In laid-back Jupiter, club officials from owner Jeffrey Loria on down have made sure to drop by to make sure that Ichiro is comfortable and content in his new surroundings.

Last year in New York, Ichiro developed a case of spare part-itis and was reportedly perplexed over the way that Yankees manager Joe Girardi dealt with his situation. The Marlins, in contrast, are going out of their way not to treat him like a complementary player.

“People talk about him being the fourth outfielder,’’ Butler said. “He’s one of four outfielders, and he’s just as valuable as the rest.’’

It’s natural to think that Butler is simply being diplomatic. Ichiro hasn’t logged an OPS above .700 since 2010, and he rarely if ever drives the ball anymore. It’s also tempting to wonder, as Ichiro tries to collect the 156 hits necessary to reach 3,000 in the majors, how content he will be with extended stretches on the bench if Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna are burning it up and consuming all the outfield at-bats.

Nevertheless, several of Ichiro’s natural gifts have aged well enough that he can still contribute in his projected role with the Marlins.

“Absolutely, he can still play,’’ said an American League scout who has seen the Marlins frequently this spring. “He can pinch hit and still runs above average, and he can play all three outfield positions. There aren’t many fourth outfielders in baseball who can do all of those things.’’

Of the three young Marlins outfielders, Ozuna has been the most intrepid in developing a rapport with his heralded new teammate. Ozuna has plunged headfirst into the process, in a cross-cultural display of linguistically mangled banter that generates smiles and guffaws through the clubhouse.

“I was sitting here listening to them the other day, and it was almost like I was in a transverse universe.’’ Butler said. “You’ve got Ozuna with his broken English trying to speak Japanese, and Ichiro trying to speak Spanish. It was fun just sitting there watching them.’’

The Marlins have given Ichiro the requisite wide berth to prepare his own way. He brought his own stretching and weight training equipment to Jupiter with him, along with an offbeat accoutrement or two.

“He has all sorts of little balls with prickly things on them that he rubs on his feet,’’ said outfielder Reed Johnson. “And toe socks. But as far as the baseball stuff, it’s just the standard flips and tee work. He’s not doing anything crazy where guys say, ‘Why are you doing that?’’’

At an age when few players can withstand the rigors of a 162-game season, Ichiro continues to amaze and astound his teammates with his regimen of stretching, bending and other contortions. That’s been a staple of his routine since his formative years in Japan.

“It’s like watching a yoga instructor or something,’’ said Stanton.

“He’s extremely flexible, like a rubber band,’’ said Yelich.

“He’s able to do stretches that some guys would never even dream of,’’ Johnson said. “It hurts just watching him sometimes. I’m like, ‘I couldn’t do that, man. It might be the end of my career if I tried that.’’’

In some respects, Ichiro is always destined to be different. About eight to 10 Japanese media members are following him around the Grapefruit League, and the routine is firmly established. Two designated reporters approach him to ask about his outlook for the day, or what he had for breakfast in the morning, and they’re entrusted with the responsibility/privilege of sharing those morsels with the rest of the group for public consumption.

Even though Ichiro still conducts interviews with the U.S. press through an interpreter, teammates and reporters say he has a much firmer grasp of English than is commonly believed. Foreign-born players routinely bond with their American-born counterparts by teaching each other curse words, but Ichiro is a wise old hand at locker room banter and well-acquainted with the saltiest language America has to offer.

“He’s pretty good at that already,’’ Johnson said. “He’s a professional. You’re not going to say a swear word that he doesn’t understand.’’

At the moment, Ichiro’s relationship with his new teammates is built more on respect and a shared goal than personal warmth and familiarity. But if the Marlins are as good as the early hype suggests -- and Ichiro still has something left in the tank -- they could all be in for an entertaining summer.