Ichiro Suzuki sipped green tea, elicited a few laughs and turned the tables on a media member with three questions of his own during his introductory news conference with the Miami Marlins.
It was clear from the start that Ichiro can still own a room. The Marlins are also betting the 41-year-old outfielder can still play a little bit as well.
Ichiro slipped into a Marlins uniform for the first time at a Tokyo hotel on Thursday, with a small contingent of team officials, including president David Samson, on hand for the unveiling of Miami’s newest acquisition.
“I can only say I’m extremely humbled these people traveled a total of 18 hours all the way from Miami to get here and hold this press conference for me,” Ichiro said. “This is a very unusual occurrence.”
Ichiro’s deal with Miami is reportedly for $2 million over one year.
The former American League MVP and 10-time All-Star’s pursuit of the 3,000-hit milestone is one of the most talked about aspects of his career these days. He stands 156 hits away, but downplayed the chase somewhat on Thursday.
“Of course numbers are very important,” Ichiro said. “You probably can’t continue as an active player without those numbers. But numbers are not everything. That’s something I can clearly say. Of course, becoming a champion is also important.”
Ichiro is the first Japanese player signed by the Marlins, leaving the Cincinnati Reds as the lone club to have never had a Japanese player. That, and the fact it was a player of Ichiro’s stature, made it easy for Samson to take the somewhat unusual step of holding the news conference thousands of kilometers away from Miami.
“It is important we honor and respect Japan and Japanese baseball and Japanese baseball players,” Samson said. “For us, you’re talking about a Hall of Famer in Japan and in the U.S. To not come here would seem silly. So it didn’t even occur to us not to come here.”
Ichiro’s bid for 3,000 hits could slow to a crawl in Miami. He’s joining a team that already appears set in terms of starting outfielders with a dynamic trio of twenty-somethings in Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton, ages 23, 24, and 25, respectively. So at-bats might not be plentiful.
“It’s a very long season,” Samson said. “So it’s impossible to predict. Having depth is how you win rings. What Ichiro provides is quality depth. He’s a Hall of Famer. He knows how to prepare. He’s probably the best prepared player I’ve ever met for any game, any at-bat. So our players will learn a lot.”
Michael Hill, the Marlins president of baseball operations, said the club, including manager Mike Redmond, have spoken with Ichiro about what his role with the team could consist of, and said the outfielder was on board with everything.
Ichiro, who could enter games mainly as a pinch hitter or via a double-switch, reported the same.
“That’s absolutely within my expectations,” Ichiro said. “Being in your 40s, especially in the States, you rarely have one of the three (starting) spots in the outfield. Just by being 40, you tend to be subject to being released. So I don’t have any problems being the fourth guy. I’d question myself if I’d asked to be the third guy.
“It’d be different if I was the fifth guy, though. And, I can pitch too,” he added with a grin.”
Ichiro had been without a team since wrapping up his final season with the New York Yankees in 2014. Even though it took some time to find a new home, he said he was pleased with the result.
“A lot of things went through my mind,” he said. “But when you go to a pet shop and you see a lot of cute pets, they are going to be purchased first. I feel like I was the one left unsold. But as long as someone ends up raising her, she’ll be loyal to her owner. I feel that way.”
Ichiro has 2,844 hits and a .317 career average in 14 MLB seasons for the Mariners and Yankees. He spent nine seasons in Japan with the Orix BlueWave prior to arriving in MLB and hit .353 while amassing 1,278 hits in NPB.
For the Marlins, he’s the latest addition in an offseason flurry of moves the team hopes can make it a contender in the NL East.
“We love the core that we had,” Hill said. “It was our job to supplement that and add championship-caliber players that will allow us to play into October, and we’re excited to add Dee Gordon and Mat Latos and Dan Haren and Michael Morse, and truly Ichiro is the cherry on top.”
“To think that you can add one of the greatest players of all time to your outfield’s overall depth makes us extremely proud and excited to get to Jupiter (Florida), and get things going.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.