I perked up and smiled when I read a report that 44-year-old Ichiro Suzuki had agreed to a contract with his original team, the Mariners.
He had to pass a physical, which he likely did.
Ichiro is a slender package of sinew, speed and grace who never gets out of shape and looks virtually the same as he did when he broke into American baseball at 27.
He played the last three seasons for the Marlins, and before that he was with the Yankees for 2½ years. But his home has always been with the Mariners, who have a large Japanese following and brought him to the U.S. in 2001.
The joy in this late-career move is that Ichiro is such a rarity that merely watching him do what he does — even with the diminishment of age — brings pleasure, the way watching a cheetah or transcendent chef at work can. At 5-11, 175 pounds and with more hits (3,080) than any active player, Ichiro is a phenom who makes us rethink the role of the slight wizard in the land of marauding giants.
A left-handed hitter whose batting eye is like that of a bird of prey, Ichiro has a base-hit swing that is basically a slap and propels him toward first base as if launched by a pinball flipper. Sometimes it seems he has already started running toward first before the ball has touched his bat.
He has gotten so many ground-ball hits between the 3-4 and 4-5 holes that it must have driven a generation of infielders mad.
People such as massive Aaron Judge lumber up to the plate and swing so hard that the ball either disappears into orbit or a mighty breeze cools the spectators. Ichiro is the quiet tactician who hits ’em where they ain’t and runs like a deer.
Nor is this Ichiro’s only choice. He could aim for the seats, if he chose. Within his wiry body is the power to hit the long ball, to become another low-average, all-or-nothing masher.
Indeed, even with his dart-throwing motion, he has hit 117 career home runs. And then there are his 509 stolen bases, second-most among active players (Jose Reyes has 512). Speed and deceptive power. Plus an outfield arm that is pure laser, once touching 92 mph on a gun.
But that willingness to play the game like a chess match rather than a sledgehammer bell-ringing contest is what sets him apart from most current players. And he knows it. He even flaunts it.
“Chicks who dig home runs aren’t the ones who appeal to me,’’ he once said. “I’d rather impress the chicks with my technique than with my brute strength. Then, every now and then … I might flirt a little by hitting one out.’’
Baseball as the eternal sexual hunt. Interesting.
But Ichiro comes from another country, speaks another language, grew up in a different culture. And when I’d watch him in clubhouses before and after games, hounded every step of the way by an intense, relentless horde of Japanese reporters, I knew he was under a microscope few American athletes could comprehend.
A relief pitcher named Masanori Murakami came to this country from Japan and played for the San Francisco Giants in 1964. He has been called the “Jackie Robinson of Japanese baseball.’’ Lots of other Japanese and Korean players have made their way to the majors in the years since.
But only Ichiro has been spectacular, up there with the great gods of baseball, with stats that are dazzling. Ten straight All-Star selections. Ten straight Gold Glove Awards. Ten straight seasons with more than 200 hits. Twelve straight seasons with at least 20 steals.
And if he’d come to this country when his career began in Japan?
Add his 1,278 hits for the Orix Blue Wave to his major-league total, and you get 4,358 career hits, better than Pete Rose’s record of 4,256. Plus, Ichiro has never been thrown out of baseball for gambling.
And don’t forget, Ichiro can add to that hits number this year, even as the end approaches.
Which brings up a key fact: Five years after his career is done, Ichiro will be a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer, making him the first Asian player to be enshrined in Cooperstown.
It’s the American game, but sometimes it takes an outsider to remind us how it can be played.
Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.