Ichiro's pinstripe finale lacks DJ's fanfare

Unlike Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki wants to keep playing after 2014. But he most likely won't be doing so as a member of the Bronx Bombers. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

TAMPA, Fla. -- There are two future Hall of Famers in the Yankees' clubhouse this spring, two all-time greats coming to the end of their careers, two members of the 3,000-hit club preparing to take their last licks.

So many similarities, and yet, the way Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki are heading into their final season with the Yankees could hardly be more different.

Having announced his impending retirement before training camp even started, Jeter will no doubt enjoy a season-long victory lap of the type enjoyed by Mariano Rivera in 2013.

But Ichiro, eight months older than Jeter and without the tremendous storehouse of goodwill between Jeter and the fans built up over two decades of superior play, is likely to have a very different type of experience.

In fact, right now Ichiro Suzuki, with 2,742 major league hits and another 1,278 in the Nippon Baseball League -- a total of 4,020 overall -- barely has a role on the 2014 Yankees.

The Yankees, of course, committed more than a quarter-billion dollars to three outfielders this offseason -- $153 million and $45 million respectively to free agents Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, and another $52 million to their own farm-raised Brett Gardner -- and that means that barring something unforeseen, there is no real job for Ichiro, except to expect nothing but be ready for anything.

Asked last week how he planned to use Ichiro this season, Joe Girardi was at the same time circumspect and crystal clear.

“We signed a number of outfielders as free agents, and things have a way of working themselves out in spring training," Girardi said. “Exactly how he fits in right now I can’t tell you, but my job is to keep everyone fresh, healthy and contributing, and I’ll have to figure that out."

Translation: “I have no idea."

Ichiro understands the situation and knows what his Yankees future looks like.

He also knows this: Unlike his friend Jeter, he has no intention of retiring, either before this season -- the Yankees owe him $6.5 million for this, the last year of a two-year deal -- or after it.

“Retirement from baseball is something I haven’t even thought about," he said.

Asked how many more seasons he thought he could play, Ichiro laughed. “Not just a few," he said. “Many. For me, I feel there’s no reason for me to retire right now."

At some point this season, this could cause a problem for Girardi because although Ichiro says he will accept any role the Yankees give him, it is going to be very difficult for this proud and accomplished hitter to live the life of a bench player.

“I don’t know how I’m going to feel once the season starts," he admitted. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like. But right now, it doesn’t change the way I prepare myself throughout the spring."

Ichiro Suzuki

Ichiro Suzuki

#31 RF
New York Yankees

2013 STATS

  • GM150
  • HR7

  • RBI35

  • R57

  • OBP.297

  • AVG.262

That means working hard every morning in batting and fielding drills, and continuing to engage in the most entertaining clubhouse show in baseball, his extensive and painful-looking stretching routine.

“There’s no reason for me not to play every day," he said.

Certainly, Ichiro’s recent numbers do not help his case for much, if any, playing time. After rallying to have a good second half in 2012 after being traded from the Mariners to the Yankees at the deadline, Ichiro reverted in 2013 to the type of player he had been over his last couple of seasons in Seattle.

He started slowly, had a pretty good run of four to six weeks in midsummer, and then plummeted in August and September. After Aug. 1, the .319 career hitter plunged to .222 over his final 150 at-bats, and his on-base percentage dropped nearly 100 points. His final numbers -- .262 BA, .297 OBP and .639 OPS -- were the second worst of his career.

Still, with the Yankees decimated by injuries and under-performance, Ichiro played 150 games last season, 128 of them in right field. This season, that job belongs to Beltran.

“When I first signed here I knew what I was getting into," Ichiro said. “I knew every year there would be changes and things would happen that maybe we can’t control. But I can’t allow that to affect the way I prepare or go into the season."

Ichiro, who almost immediately struck up a good-natured, bantering friendship with Jeter upon joining the Yankees in July 2012, said he was “shocked" to read of Jeter’s retirement announcement while back home in Japan.

“The timing of it kind of shocked me," he said. “But more than that, the fact that he did it on Facebook, that shocked me more than the actual news. He’s the type of person who doesn’t show much, you can’t really read him. So I thought one day he was just going to say, that’s it for me, and go out."

Instead, Jeter will bask in a season of celebration, much the way Rivera enjoyed his own Summer of 42 last year. Ichiro said that kind of a thing wouldn’t really interest him.

“I don’t think it’s going to have any influence on anybody if I say I’m done anyway, so no," he said. “I haven’t thought about it at all. But I saw obviously what Mariano went through last year and I thought, that looked tough, going through that all year. It can be hard on a player."

So, too, can riding the bench for a player with the kind of credentials Ichiro has, and the depth of pride that goes along with them.

“For me, what’s important is what’s going on today and in the future," he said. “What’s happened in the past really doesn’t matter. Obviously as a player you have pride. It’s not that I don’t have any of that. Of course I do. But if anyone else thinks I don’t deserve this or that, that’s not going to make me angry at all. That’s how I approach this."

At this point in his career, Ichiro really has no choice but to accept his fate.

Jeter’s final season is likely to leave baseball fans all over the country wanting more, and perhaps even leaving Jeter to think that maybe he left too soon.

Ichiro’s final season, as a Yankee at least, is likely to be quite the opposite.