Change in scenery, standings give Ichiro new life
Adjusting well to New York, Yankees star bringing flair to field, clubhouse
The speedster has rejuvenated his batting stroke, assimilated seamlessly into a clubhouse full of veteran talent and rediscovered a winning smile that seemed to be dampened by those losing seasons with the Mariners.
So what's the issue? Life with the Yanks is working out great for Ichiro and his wife, Yumiko, who are enjoying calling New York home. Now, if only his dog would warm up to the change.
"I'm OK. My wife and I are OK adjusting," Ichiro said through an interpreter. "It's my dog, Ikkyu, that is having a hard time adjusting to the city life. So I'm definitely worried about him, and hopefully he can get used to New York City."
Yes, Ichiro's beloved Shiba Inu may be the only one who might complain about the July 23 trade that shipped his master to the Yankees in exchange for two Minor League pitchers. For a canine, Central Park and its taxi-clogged roadways are no match for the Seattle suburbs.
"He grew up with a lot of greens around and a lot of fields, and he could run around," Ichiro explains. "Now he's in a high-rise building with a lot of noise, so he has a lot of stress."
Otherwise, Ichiro has been thrilled by his first month with the Yanks, delivered into the heat of a pennant race after recognizing that he -- at age 38, and with dreams of winning a World Series -- no longer belonged on a Mariners club that needs to rebuild.
Ichiro has batted .302 with three home runs and 13 RBIs since the deal, including a two-homer game at Yankee Stadium, where the right-field porch is an inviting target for a player who practically trademarked the art of slashing the ball to left at spacious Safeco Field.
It was suggested that Ichiro might raise his game to his new surroundings, and after 29 games, that seems to be the case.
"Obviously you still have to keep your motivations high when you're on a team that's not contending," Ichiro said. "When you're on a team that's contending, it is definitely easier when all you need to do is prepare yourself. You're going to automatically be focused, because everyone is going after that common goal. You just prepare yourself and then the focus is always there."
As Ichiro speaks, he is multitasking: he's about halfway through a rigorous stretching routine on the carpet of the visiting clubhouse at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, contorting himself into various pretzel shapes in front of his locker.
This is every day for Ichiro, and a new audience has been introduced to the speedster's dedication to flexibility. His wild wardrobe choices have also become can't-miss theater for teammates.
Before a recent game, Ichiro arrived wearing jeans rolled to his ankles, a yellow-and-black-checked shirt with a silver 1960s tie, a red rubber belt and old-school Converse sneakers. His socks -- green, white and black stripes -- would not have looked out of place in a recreation of "The Wizard of Oz."
Marveling at the scene, outfielder Nick Swisher leans into a nearby microphone and offers in a raspy whisper, "Ichiro is my hero."
"Man, every time I look at that guy, he makes me smile," Swisher glowed later. "I don't know what it is. He's a star among stars in our locker room. I think it's a great fit for him, because he can be himself and he doesn't have to try to do anything else. He can just be him. He's such a true professional."
Of the suggestion that Ichiro can now just be one of the gang on a Cooperstown-bound roster, the 10-time All-Star and two-time American League Most Valuable Player Award winner strikes a note of modesty.
"I really can't say that I was a star in Seattle," Ichiro said. "People say that, and I'm happy and grateful for that. It's not like I'm a fan here, but I have a lot of interest in the guys that are stars here. It's really fun to be here. I really want to get to know what they do and how they do things. That part has really been fun for me."
The Yankees did their best to cool expectations after the trade, making it clear that they did not expect to be acquiring Ichiro circa 2004, when he led the Majors with a .374 batting average. With Brett Gardner out for the season, all the Yanks have asked Ichiro to do is approximate what they had hoped to get from Gardner. So far, he has.
"He's played extremely well," manager Joe Girardi said. "He's added the speed element, defense; hit some pretty big home runs. I think he fits well in our clubhouse. I think that the guys enjoy having him, and I think he enjoys being here."
That seems true. Before a recent game, Yankees captain Derek Jeter was dropping a bag off at his locker. Ichiro looked up with a smile from the carpet and said, in perfect English, "Hey, Sanderson, how you doing?"
Sanderson is Jeter's middle name, and it's not one that's often heard off the cuff. As evidenced by Jeter's wide grin, Ichiro can get away with it, a flash of the kinship developed by sharing all those All-Star Game clubhouses over the years.
"After the first few days, I realized that everybody is adults, and they're just very experienced guys," Ichiro said. "It made it easier for me and definitely less stressful."
Jeter said he knew from their in-game chats at second base that Ichiro had "a fun personality" and spoke English better than he'd let on, and the captain has also seen nothing but positives from Ichiro's production since the trade.
"Ichi has been swinging the bat," Jeter said. "Everybody knows how good of a hitter he is. I don't care what the scoreboard or statistics say. We've played against Ichiro enough. He's tough to pitch to."
Ichiro is a free agent after the season, which raises the chance that all of those No. 31 jerseys and T-shirts sold in recent weeks around Yankee Stadium may be out of date by the holiday shopping season.
Indeed, Ichiro can't say for sure where he'll be when next season begins, but that also isn't much of a concern right now. He's loving where he is right now.
"To be honest, I'm really not thinking about 2013," Ichiro said. "I've been given an opportunity here with the Yankees, and I'm going to give it all I have, all to the Yankees, and then go from there. Right now, I'm just really focused on this season and what I can do to help."