The only thing Ichiro Suzuki can say for sure about this season is he has no plans to continue in the role he concluded 2015.
That is, no repeat performance of his surprise appearance pitching the final inning of the season for the Miami Marlins in Philadelphia.
Although the escapade delighted fans and players — and he was fairly effective in retiring three of the five hitters he faced, allowing a run — the longtime Seattle Mariner and future Hall-of-Famer said emphatically this week, “That’s it. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
At 42, Ichiro can’t be as assertive about when and where he will play. Consequently, as spring training began he wasn’t counting on getting the 65 hits he needs to reach 3,000 in the major leagues.
“Obviously, it would be an unbelievable great thing. But you’ve got to look at it where I’m at, a fourth outfielder,” he said via his interpreter, Allen Turner.
“If I was penciled in as a starter, leading off, playing right field every single day, I could say, ‘Hey, yeah, in two months I should be there.’ But right now, I just don’t know. Obviously, I’m hoping I do get enough opportunities to get there.”
The Japanese star is approaching the situation with a lack of urgency that’s perhaps surprising given his age. But in his mind, reaching the milestone isn’t a now-or-never proposition.
Regarding how long he intends to play, Ichiro didn’t hesitate in responding, “At least 50,” putting extra emphasis on “at least.”
No reason to think he was joking, particularly in light of what another aging superstar in South Florida, Jaromir Jagr, is doing in leading the Florida Panthers in scoring. Jagr has also set the target of playing hockey until 50, and the two share much in common in terms of training and preparation to ensure they remain viable in their sports.
Consider that Marlins batting coach Barry Bonds, who had the precise number of hits in the majors as Ichiro has, is 51 and has been retired for eight years.
Marlins manager Don Mattingly referred to Ichiro’s workout regimen as “kind of legendary.”
Mattingly also said Ichiro probably played too much last season, when he led the Marlins by appearing in 153 games. He batted a career low .229 and showed signs of wearing down as he hit .208 in the second half and just .139 over the final month.
“If we get to that situation, we’re probably not in a very good situation injury-wise,” Mattingly said. “We’ll try to not necessarily limit his playing time, but make sure that we’re not overusing him.”
In 2015, Ichiro was pressed into playing more regularly than anticipated in the outfield as Giancarlo Stanton missed more than half the season with a broken hamate, Christian Yelich had two stints on the disabled list and Marcell Ozuna endured a demotion to the minors because of a lack of production.
“For me, I never feel like I’ve played enough,” Ichiro said. “I’m in a situation where, obviously, I want the three guys that are the starters to be healthy and play. But at the same time, I want to play too.”
The intriguing aspect of watching Ichiro at this stage of his illustrious career is that, similar to Jagr, with every accomplishment in a game he climbs closer to the top of an all-time list.
Even before he reaches 3,000 hits in the majors, Ichiro’s combined total of hits in Japan and the major leagues will surpass Pete Rose’s standard of 4,256. Ichiro is 43 hits behind Rose.
The significance of that is up for debate. Rose has pointed out that if the achievement is hits as a professional, then Rose’s 427 in the minors should also be considered.
Ichiro said he prefers to leave that discussion for others to assess. He made it clear that the various statistical milestones aren’t what motivates him to continue playing.
“In the offseason, I practiced every day. Today was an exciting day for me to come in here and play baseball again,” he said following the first day of spring training. “There’s not a number or a certain thing that I’m trying to reach. That’s not why I’m playing the game. I play the game because I love the game.”
Watching him going through that “legendary” workout routine, and attacking fundamental hitting and fielding drills with the exuberance of a rookie, it is evident that’s what he most shares with Jagr, more so than the staggering statistical totals.
“Wherever I am — if I’m a starter or if I’m on the bench — I prepare the same. Nothing changes for me,” Ichiro said. “It’s going to be the same way, going day to day. Everything is going to be the same the way I approach the game.”
And don’t be surprised if he is still doing it at 50.