Ichiro Suzuki spent most of the spring as trade bait. After the acquisition of Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran in the off-season, it seemed as if the future Hall of Famer would be traded or forced to work off the bench as a fourth or fifth outfielder. The consummate professional that he is, Ichiro did not let any of the negativity surrounding him permeate through. A less-confident player might have sulked his way through spring training and demanded a trade to a club where he could be a starter. But not Ichiro. He handled the situation with poise and grace. He accepted his role with the Yankees and knew that if he simply played well he would get his playing time.
Early spring games were not kind to Ichiro. He was hitting below the Mendoza line with a week and a half left before opening day. However, he turned it on from there, finishing the spring with a .240 average. He did not attempt to parlay his good finish to the Grapefruit League season into more playing time. He did not complain to reporters. He did not feel disrespected. He wanted to be Yankee. He wanted to play alongside Derek Jeter in his final season and with fellow countrymen Hiroki Kuroda and Masahiro Tanaka. He wanted to help the Yankees win their 28th World Championship.
Two weeks into the season and Ichiro has already been a key contributor for the Bombers. He has appeared in nine of the team’s first thirteen games and performed well. He is hitting .421 on the young season and has provided solid defense when given the opportunity. He has played all three outfield positions already this season and performed well in all three. In the series finale Sunday against the Red Sox, he made a game saving catch to rob David Ortiz of an extra base hit in right field.
The Yankee philosophy in building a bench dates back from Brian Cashman to Bob Watson and Gene Michael. The belief is that rather than fill a bench with marginal career veterans,the goal is to fill it with former great players who might have a few flashes of brilliance left in them. The Yankees did this with their great championship teams of the late 1990s, using Darryl Strawberry, Tim Raines, Cecil Fielder and Chili Davis effectively at the end of their careers to provide veteran leadership off the bench and still had the ability to provide a spark when needed. The Yankees have continued that philosophy in recent years getting results from Andruw Jones, Raul Ibanez, and Ichiro. Ichiro may be 40-years-old but he can still play at high level, even if he can no longer do it every day.