Before each of his new team’s games this season, Ichiro Suzuki, like all players, will need to get loose. Like all players, Ichiro will stretch. But Ichiro will start earlier than most players, and Ichiro won’t really ever stop.
“Sometimes I think I’m stretching in my sleep, too,” he said.
The pliability connoisseur is one of the few major-leaguers who doesn’t lift weights. Instead he prefers a rigorous flexibility routine that requires specialized machines, targets often-overlooked joints and promotes improved blood circulation.
What Ichiro does is not Pilates and it is not yoga, although people have told him similarities exist. It’s a complex circuit that takes up to eight machines to complete and pays special attention to the scapula and pelvic areas.
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It’s also a major reason the outfielder, whose game relies so much on his legs — 487 stolen bases, 666 infield hits, six infield doubles — has been placed on the disabled list just once in 14 seasons, and how, even as the oldest Marlin by eight years, he is able to stay spry.
“Sixteen, seventeen years, the same program,” said Ichiro, who missed two weeks in 2009 with a bleeding ulcer. “I want to do it every day.”
He will repeat the routine up to four times per day — when he wakes up, before team stretches at the ballpark, before the game and again at home after the game. The machines are in Jupiter and will be shipped to an emptied storage area within Marlins Park, separate from the weight room, for the season. Where weight lifting left him feeling constricted, these exercises, which he has done since his playing days in Japan, findIchiro liberated.
What separates Ichiro from other players isn’t his work ethic. Instead it’s a meticulousness that touches every aspect of his preparation and makes him a fiercely revered figure in Japan and a fascinating one here at 41.
“He’s the most interesting man in the world,” Marlins hitting coach Frank Menechino said.
The first Japanese player in Marlins history is a former MVP and 10-time All-Star, a gray-haired, red-gloved, trilingual sage that uses a flip phone and comes with a media entourage.
While most players spit in their gloves, he treats his like a trophy, polishing it with oil every day. While others make conscious efforts to grime their bats with tape or tar, Ichiro gauges the health of his like a chemist. A custom-made dehumidifier sits inside a trunk atop his locker, sucking unwanted moisture from the wood of his Mizuno bats.
The dehumidifier keeps used bats close to their original state. Before he owned one, Ichiro would leave bats in the sun to dry like laundry. Dehumidifiers are not common in major-league clubhouses, but since his debut in 2001 their use has increased (he once gave one to teammate Michael Morse as a gift).
It’s hard to argue with Ichiro’s results.
He’s one of just three players to collect more than 4,000 professional hits, and he’s 156 from becoming the 29th player with 3,000 in North America. He has done it all swearing by a formula for success nobody else wants to follow.
“A lot of people have come to me. They’ll do it a few times, but they don’t continue to do it,” Ichiro said about his unique program. “That has been most of the cases.”
He says it with a shrug, and not a semblance of scorn. This is simply the best thing for him alone, a singular offensive talent of his time. He has been so successful while being so different.
In many ways, he’s the player he has always been. In many ways, he’s not.
Ichiro’s .275 batting average during the past three seasons sits well below his career mark of .317. He was only a part-time player for the Yankees last season, and barring injury, will have the same role for the Marlins in 2015.
But he’s still a hit with fans, as evident by the ovation he received before his first at-bat of spring training on March 3 at Roger Dean Stadium. Before the game against the University of Miami, Hurricanes players snapped photos of Ichiro in awe. Adult Japanese women peaked through the stadium gates for glimpses of him like teenage girls at a Taylor Swift concert.
Ninety Marlins games will broadcast in Japan this season, compared to two last year.
“In Japan, he’s like Roger Federer in tennis, Tiger Woods in golf or Michael Jordan in basketball,” said Kimikazu Shimizu, a writer who covers baseball for Sankei Sports.
Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka are current MLB stars, and Hideo Nomo and Hideki Matsui qualify as legends in baseball-crazy Japan. But Ichiro rises above them all, transcending sports in his native country in large part to the discipline and focus he has utilized his entire career. Japanese fans are floored by his talent and find his regimented, detail-oriented approach admirable. Really, the best way to describe what they feel is rabid love.
“In Japan, even if people don’t care about baseball they care about Ichiro,” said Setsko Nagano, a Japanese fan who now lives in Boca Raton. “He’s a hero to us.”
At this point, what could be the last year of an incredible career, that doesn’t feel like much of a stretch.