JUPITER, FLORIDA – Ichiro Suzuki sits at his locker, an interpreter by his side, and the nature of conversation with the future Hall of Famer gives him extra time to craft a response to the question: How much longer does he expect to play?
The query is relayed to him in Japanese. Ichiro smiles as he replies with a joke that loses nothing in translation.
“At least until 50,” he says in Japanese.
Everyone laughs, despite the serious subject matter. Baseball does indeed have a clock, and Ichiro is racing it.
At 42, the Miami Marlins outfielder is the second-oldest player in the majors, three months younger than Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon, according to STATS.
Ichiro’s productivity declined dramatically last year, his first in Miami. Even though he played in 153 games due to injuries to teammates, including slugger Giancarlo Stanton, he batted a career-low .229. His .279 slugging percentage ranked 230th and last in among hitters with at least 325 plate appearances, and his .561 OPS was fourth-worst.
It wasn’t a sudden drop off: Ichiro— who has played in at least 143 games each of the past 15 seasons, the longest such streak in the majors, according to STATS — has a career average of .314, but hasn’t batted .300 since 2010.
He has 2,935 hits (he also amassed 1,278 regular-season hits for the Orix BlueWave), however, leaving him on the verge of a milestone that tempers any temptation to retire. Anyway, he’s not yet ready to make concessions to the clock.
“Nothing has stopped me because of the way I feel or the way I’m performing physically,” he said. “That may come down the road. Right now I haven’t changed anything.”
He denies that chasing 3,000 is the motivation to keep going, saying he plays because he loves the game. But the countdown will add some uncharacteristic drama this season for the perennial also-ran Marlins.
“It would be an unbelievable great thing,” Ichiro said. “But I’m a fourth outfielder. If I was a starter heading into this year it would be different. I could say in two months I should be there. You don’t know what kind of opportunities I’ll have.”
The Marlins would like to play Ichiro less. He had 398 at-bats last year and appeared to tire at the end, going 12-for-97 (.124) over his final 36 games.
“He probably played more games last year than he needed to play,” new Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “You’re asking a lot. If we get to that situation, we’re probably not in a very good situation injury-wise. We’ll try to make sure we’re not overusing him.”
If Ichiro bats .260, he would need 250 at-bats to reach .300. If he hits .229 again, he would need 284 at-bats.
And will a team give him a chance again in 2017 if he falls short of 65 hits?
“I’d like him to get them,” Mattingly said. “But we’re here to win, and we’ve got to try to play the guys who put us in the best position to win.”
The milestone would reinforce Ichiro’s elite stature. He could join Ty Cobb, Paul Molitor, Eddie Collins and Honus Wagner as the only players with 3,000 hits, 500 stolen bases and a career .300 average, according to STATS.
Even Barry Bonds is impressed. The home run king is the Marlins’ new hitting coach, but don’t look for him to tutor Ichiro much.
“When you’re getting close to 3,000 hits,” Bonds said, “what do you want me to tell you?”