Outfielder one of baseball's greatest, quirkiest players
By Terence Moore
Think quirky. Now combine that with baseball greatness for those already in Cooperstown or near its city limits. Yogi Berra comes to mind, and the same goes for Dizzy Dean, Harry Caray and Rickey Henderson.
Yep, that elite group clearly includes Ichiro, the Japanese icon turned American star, who proved long ago that our national pastime doesn't just flourish between two oceans. He's a Baseball Hall of Famer soon after he retires, and that's assuming he ever does. Courtesy of his efficiency at hitting, fielding, running and thrilling over the decades, he ranks among the game's all-time best in both the United States and Japan.
There also is that other thing: This guy really is quirky.
When Ichiro came to Atlanta earlier this season with his Marlins, I was struck by several things after seeing him up close and personal for the first time. He was more slight than I thought, especially since I didn't see a hint of fat on his frame at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds. Ichiro also continued his habit of challenging the Major League record for pregame rituals. Then there was that matter of him resembling a rock star instead of a baseball player.
As for that last point, Ichiro is both. Rock stars capture your attention before they open their mouth, and Ichiro gives you this feel of The Beatles merging with The Rolling Stones and The Monkees -- spanning from his 21st century version of mod glasses, psychedelic shirt and groovy shoes. Let's just say his wardrobe featuring fashionable jeans rolled halfway up his calves and thin tie complementing his colorful footwear screams, "Charisma."
Not only that, despite Ichiro's role as a reserve outfielder for the Marlins, he often becomes a 42-year-old wonder after he strolls to home plate with one of his bats that he keeps in a moisture-free container (See, I told you he was quirky). Ichiro is hitting .335 with an on-base percentage of .408, which is 51 points above his career average over 16 Major League seasons. He also has nine steals in 11 attempts.
If Ichiro played more, he'd likely do enough to put an 11th Gold Glove in his trophy case, but he's not complaining. He sits two hits shy of becoming only the 30th player in history to collect 3,000 hits.
That's Major League hits. Before coming to the United States in 2001 to spend 11 seasons with the Mariners, Ichiro accumulated 1,278 hits during his nine years starring for the Orix BlueWave in Nippon Professional Baseball. He won seven consecutive batting titles with NPB, and he was as much of a consistent All-Star in Japan (seven times) as he was during his years with the M's and the Yankees (10 times) before he joined the Marlins last season.
Nobody not named David Ortiz does this kind of stuff at Ichiro's age, but while that Boston Red Sox slugger announced during the spring that this is his last season, Ichiro recently said he wants to play until he's 50.
Why not 60?
For Ichiro, age is irrelevant.
"Very few players play past the age of 35 or 36. That's really the cutoff point," said Lou Piniella, speaking to reporters earlier this month on a conference call about Ichiro, who joined the Mariners in Piniella's final two seasons as the club's manager. "When you get older, it becomes extremely difficult. I played until I was 41, but by the time I was 36 and 37, I was no longer an everyday player.
"It's difficult. The pitchers are getting younger and stronger and throwing harder, and the body is getting a little older ... Every player slows down. You look at all the great players who played this game for a long time. You lose bat speed. Your mind is as sharp as ever, but your body doesn't react the same."
Well, usually it doesn't. It's just that among those quirky things for Ichiro is his elaborate stretching before games. He applies special massage balls to his feet. He does something with a vibrating foam device with his hamstrings. This is in addition to the twisting and flipping he does on the field that doesn't resemble any of the stretching of his teammates nearby.
All that happened after I watched Ichiro sit at his locker inside Turner Field for the longest time with his jersey across his legs. I thought ... Actually, I didn't know what to think. I discovered later that, before every game, he checks his jersey for needless threats, and then he snips them away with scissors. I also was told that he keeps the manufacturers of disinfecting wipes in business. Ichiro sanitizes everything in his world before sitting or touching.
Whatever works. It just makes you wonder how extraordinary Ichiro's Cooperstown resume would be if he joined the Major Leagues with his splendid baseball skills and his disinfecting wipes before his 27th birthday. After all, during his first season in the Major Leagues, which consisted of battling a steady barrage of smoking fastballs after a career in the softer-throwing NPB, he did the unthinkable. He dominated. He led the Majors in hits (242) and stolen bases (56), and he grabbed the American League batting title after hitting .350.
If that wasn't enough, Ichiro won both the AL Rookie of the Year Award and the AL Most Valuable Player Award.
No wonder those Mariners won a Major League record-tying 116 games.
"[Ichiro] had a tremendous impact on our team that year, and I'm so proud of him," said Piniella, now a special consultant for the Reds. "To think in that first year that this young man would be playing at the age of 42 and going for 3,000 hits, I didn't think it was possible then."
Later, Piniella summed up everything you need to know about Ichiro, the guy who just might play forever and is among the world's leaders in quirky, by saying, "It's a really good story."
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.