The Marlins handed Ichiro Suzuki a uniform bearing the No. 15 — the reverse of his cherished No. 51. He laughed.
So did everyone in Japan when he joked about it.
“Last night, they gave me the new uniform,” the newest member of the Marlins said Wednesday through a translator at a press conference in Tokyo. “But the number on that uniform was 15, and I wondered why. I came to the conclusion that those people drive on the right side of the road and we drive on the left.”
Never has there been more fanfare involving the signing of a 41-year-old reserve outfielder by the Marlins than the landing of Suzuki, one of pro baseball’s most accomplished all-time hitters.
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The Marlins dispatched a contingent of no fewer than five front-office executives to Japan, not to mention medical personnel to make sure Suzuki was still fit to play, to reel in the Japanese-born baseball icon.
“The guy’s age says he’s 41,” remarked Marlins general manager Dan Jennings, who was among team officials on hand for the signing ceremony. “His body says he’s 30 or less. He certainly has plenty of ability remaining.”
The Marlins aren’t expecting Suzuki to play a prominent role.
But they are counting on the franchise’s first Japanese-born player to provide a spark off the bench on what could be a limited basis. The Marlins are flush with three highly regarded outfielders in Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcel Ozuna.
Many now regard that potent outfield as the best in the majors.
Barring injury to any member of that trio, Suzuki’s playing time figures to be limited after years spent serving in a more prominent role.
But the Marlins say they aren’t concerned he’ll have trouble adapting.
“It’s something he’s never had to do,” Jennings said of Suzuki’s backup role. “But it’s understood he’ll be a left-handed hitter off the bench, and fourth outfielder.”
The Marlins signed Suzuki to a $2 million base contract that could blossom to as much as $5 million through bonus incentives tied to plate appearances.
For the frugal Marlins, that’s a lot of cash to pay out to a role player.
But they’re banking on his veteran leadership, not to mention his past talents, to pay dividends. Suzuki needs only 156 more hits to reach the 3,000-hit milestone in the majors.
“It’s okay for everyone to think about the numbers and records, but it’s not everything I’m thinking [about],” Suzuki said.
Suzuki said he was impressed that the Marlins sent a contingent to Tokyo for his official signing.
“I am extremely humbled that these people traveled 18 hours from Miami to hold this press conference for me,” he said.