Ichiro's playoff wish comes true

For 11 straight years, this would be when Ichiro Suzuki's baseball season came to an end.

But this year, it is only the beginning and for Suzuki, who will turn 39 the day after Game 7 of the ALCS, living that difference has been like taking a long swig from the fountain of youth.

"Every year I used to watch the playoffs on TV," Ichiro said Friday night. "And I'd be saying to all the other fans, 'You suck.'"

Such were Octobers in Seattle, which after the 2001 season -- Ichiro's one and only trip to the postseason, which was abbreviated, of course, by the Yankees -- were a barren baseball wasteland of watching players on other teams live out your dreams.

That is why Ichiro decided, after 11 1/2 seasons as a Mariner, to request a trade, and why he acquiesced to a list of conditions set down by the Yankees -- that he bat at the bottom of their order after a career as a leadoff hitter, sit against lefties and play left field, a position he had never played in the majors -- that most future Hall of Famers would have balked at.

That's how badly Ichiro wanted to taste postseason baseball again. Like Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez before him, Ichiro had had every kind of success in the game but the kind the Yankees could provide.

So, like them, he orchestrated a move that he believed would give him a chance to add a World Series to his 10 Gold Gloves, two batting titles, his MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, both won as a 27-year-old "rookie" in 2001.

And so far, the move has worked out to the benefit of both parties.

The Yankees have kept up their end of the bargain, bringing Ichiro into meaningful October baseball for the first time since that rookie season, in which the Mariners were baseball's best regular season team, with 116 wins.

And in return, Ichiro has provided an element to the Yankees lineup that was missing from the day Brett Gardner went down with an elbow injury in April.

His high-contact, slap-hitting style and speed and aggression on the basepaths has added a dimension that the Yankees' home run-happy lineup had lacked, and having him in the batting order, whether batting ninth, or more recently, second, has given Joe Girardi the "circular" batting order he had with Gardner batting up against Jeter.

But most of all, the move seems to have re-energized a player who seemed destined to trail off into mediocrity in Seattle, a player who was mirroring his team rather than leading it.

As a Mariner, Ichiro was hitting .261, by far the lowest batting average of his major-league career, and his on-base percentage was a pathetic .288. But in 67 games as a Yankee, Ichiro hit .322 and despite only walking five times, has raised his OBP to .340.

In a long clubhouse interview Friday night with what he called, jokingly, the "scary New York media," Ichiro essentially admitted that he was playing down to his surroundings in Seattle.

"I played a lot of Septembers where we were already out of it, and you have to find ways to motivate yourself," he said. "There wasn't a day when I didn't give it my all, but it really took a lot of energy out of me to be motivated to continue to come out to the park and prepare myself everyday to play to the best of my ability. Obviously, here it's a different story."

And the change of scenery as done more than revitalize Ichiro's game. According to a source who knew him in Seattle, it has recharged his personality as well. In his short time with the Yankees, he has developed humorous relationships with many of his teammates, notably Derek Jeter and Russell Martin, both of whom he refers to by their middle names, "Sanderson" and "Coltrane," respectively.

Other Yankees watched in fascination as Ichiro went through his elaborate pre-game stretching routine on the clubhouse rug right in front of his locker, and delighted in his outlandish wardrobe, which features skin-tight jeans rolled up above his ankles, an ever-changing variety of high-top sneakers and colorful striped socks, which are often pink or purple.

"Put this on the record," Jeter said the other day. "I will never borrow clothes from that man."

He is also the only Yankee to keep his bats in a padded, locked steel trunk, the way a hunter might safeguard his rifles or a guitarist a prized instrument. Bats, after all, are Ichiro's weapons and his instruments.

But over the past two months, Suzuki's Ichiro-syncrasies have become commonplace in the Yankee clubhouse, rituals that now seem as familiar as Jeter's daily trip to the sock bin to pick out a pair of fresh sanitaries for the day's game.

"Coming here, just the atmosphere of this clubhouse, and this ball team, I just felt like I fit in," he said. "I just felt comfortable here in this clubhouse right away. I just look at it like this was my destiny, to have it work out this way."

Allen Turner, Ichiro's interpreter, said Ichiro actually finds the hectic Yankees clubhouse "a peaceful place, a place where he can concentrate and relax before the game. No loud music, plenty of room."

Indeed, Suzuki spent the entire half-hour interview stretching on the floor with the aid of a padded cylinder he rolls beneath his lower back.

There have been many players who have come to the Yankees as trade deadline acquisitions and made a difference; in recent years alone, Bobby Abreu, Lance Berkman and Kerry Wood joined the team in August and made important contributions into October.

But it is unlikely a player of this caliber has ever come to the Yankees this late in a season, because it is rare that a player as good as Ichiro becomes available basically for nothing; the Yankees parted with two middling pitching prospects and about $4 million add him to their roster.

At the time the deal was made, I wrote than it was a no-lose situation for them. Either Ichiro would regain his form and be a huge help, or he would not. In any case, it was a gamble worth taking. So far, it has turned to be a win-win.

He has proven to be too good to hit only against righties and too valuable to bury near the bottom of the lineup, although as a 9-hole hitter, he provides the kind of 1-2 punch with Jeter that Gardner provided last year. And when Nick Swisher needed to move to first base to fill in for an injured Mark Teixeira, it was awfully handy to have a 10-time Gold Glove guy ready to step in.

"What Ichiro has done and shown is that he's still a great player and he can really impact a game," Girardi said. "He's excited to be here, he's had a lot of fun and you see that every day. I don't anticipate sitting him."

In two months time, he's gone from loser to winner and from aging part-time player to a valued full-time part of the Yankees playoff lineup. And over the next month, Ichiro Suzuki will have the chance to do something he did not have for the past 11 years in Seattle -- play in, and maybe even win, a World Championship .

"Maybe on other teams just making it to the playoffs is one of the goals," he said. "But here with the Yankees, this is just where the goal-setting starts."

After 12 seasons, Ichiro Suzuki has rediscovered that October need not be an end, but a whole new beginning.

And clearly, he relishes it.