JUPITER, Fla. — Ichiro Suzuki once took teammate Dan Straily out for a sushi dinner during a road trip in Philadelphia.
The invitation didn’t surprise Straily. But the time by which Ichiro said he’d meet him in the hotel lobby did.
“He told me to be there by 7:19,” Straily said. “I was like, ‘That’s weird, so precise.’ He had looked up that it took exactly 11 minutes to get from the hotel to the restaurant, and we had a 7:30 reservation.”
No detail was ever too small or too insignificant in life or in baseball for Ichiro as Marlins players learned about the baseball icon during his three seasons in Miami.
From the way he kept his bats in cases and carefully cleaned them to clipping the tiniest pieces of string on his clothes, everything was kept neat.
“I saw him one day take one of those lint cleaners out and start sweeping the whole rug around where his locker was,” shortstop Miguel Rojas said. “Everything had to be clean and how he wanted it. He once had two sets of hangers in his locker, some light blue and some darker blue. He got rid of the light blues and hung his stuff only in the dark blues.”
Baseball may never again see someone as meticulously prepared to play the game as Ichiro was.
On Thursday morning, in a scene that unfolded across clubhouses in the Grapefruit League where teams were up early enough to watch it live, Marlins players, clubbies and coaches gathered around the TV to watch Ichiro take his final swings as a major leaguer at the Tokyo Dome in Japan.
After 18 seasons, the iconic 45-year-old future Hall of Famer called it a career — at least in Major League Baseball.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he kept playing in Japan after this,” Straily said of Ichiro, who has mentioned before with a straight face that he intends to play until he’s 50.
Rojas, one of the more vocal Marlins in the clubhouse, narrated each pitch from A’s reliever Lou Trivino as he watched his battle with Ichiro during his final at-bat in the eighth inning Thursday.
Ichiro hit a grounder to shortstop Marcus Semien and nearly beat the throw to first. He’ll have to settle for 3,089 hits collected as a major leaguer and 4,367 overall (if you add his nine seasons playing for the Orix Blue Wave in Japan).
“Yeah, it looked like for a second (the umpire) didn’t want to call him out,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said with a chuckle.
Mattingly, who managed Ichiro during the final two of Ichiro’s three seasons in Miami, always marveled at Ichiro’s unique style, even going back to the days when he was playing for Seattle while Mattingly was a coach with the Yankees.
“The way he hit was a little different,” Mattingly said. “Just his speed and his defense and everything about him. He was fun to follow.”
Marlins outfielder Curtis Granderson was a teammate of Ichiro’s for two seasons with the Yankees (2012-13) and lived in the same building in Manhattan at the time, although he said he only saw him at the ballpark or during outings with teammates.
Granderson was one of the first players to speak to Ichiro on July 23, 2012, when he was traded from the Mariners to the Yankees during a series between the two teams in Seattle. The two played catch in the outfield that day and would later share lockers near each other in the Yankees clubhouse.
Granderson witnessed firsthand the care that Ichiro took with his body — and even his skin.
“I remember he’d always put on a lot of lotion,” Granderson said. “He said he had bad skin. He had this back-scratcher that he’d use to put some on his back.”
One of the most memorable moments of Ichiro’s career came as a Marlin on Aug. 7, 2016.
With a towering triple off the right-field wall at Coors Field, Ichiro joined the 3,000-hit club. Weeks earlier, his overall hit total surpassed that of MLB’s all-time leader Pete Rose’s 4,256.
Rojas remembers that day vividly, including the speech Ichiro gave to his teammates after the game as they toasted the milestone.
But what stuck with Rojas was how Ichiro never changed his routine, demeanor or attitude in all the weeks and months leading up to the moment.
At a time when the Marlins looked very different than they do now, Ichiro stood out.
Jose Fernandez was still alive and thrilling Marlins Park crowds with every memorable start.
Giancarlo Stanton was still smashing home runs at a record pace.
He, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna still formed one of the best outfields in recent memory.
In his three seasons with the Marlins, Ichiro hit .256 with a total of five homers, 63 RBIs and 22 stolen bases. But he meant more to the team than his statistics. (Steve Mitchell / USA Today)
But Ichiro, who was the fourth outfielder behind those three All-Stars, commanded the moment with every at-bat as fans far and wide — even at the often desolate Marlins Park — flocked with their “3,000” signs hoping they would catch the milestone moment.
“Every at-bat was important,” Rojas said. “He was always calm and on the same plane. That’s something I’ve always tried to do in my own career. Even when you’re trying to reach something amazing like he was, he was even keel. All those emotions and pressure, if it was getting to him you couldn’t tell.”
A year later, there was more Ichiro magic as a Marlin.
In what at the time was believed would be his final at-bat at Safeco Field on Apr. 19, 2017, Ichiro cranked a solo home run, trotting the bases to a standing ovation from the Mariners faithful he played in front of for the first 12 years of his major-league career.
“The way he went about his business was perfection,” Rojas said.
Ichiro knew how to keep things light around his teammates as well.
Ichiro, who knows at least three languages, always had a fun quip or some playful banter for his teammates, whether it was in Japanese, English or even Spanish.
“He’d joke with guys in Spanish who knew Spanish — or even if they didn’t understand Spanish,” said former Marlins teammate Martin Prado. “But he always knew when to get serious and respect the game.”
Ichiro’s insights and preparation are still examples that his ex-teammates try to emulate to this day.
Straily marveled at the way Ichiro took the constant intense daily attention from media in stride.
Ichiro often had a throng of reporters and photographers documenting his every move from the moment he arrived at the stadium to the moment he left after a game.
“For some people, that would get old really fast. But he knew how to handle it,” Straily said.
“You could always see his absolute dedication to the game of baseball. Everything he did was precise and calculated, and there’s never a waste of time. Even keeping the baseball side out of it, getting to know Ichiro as a person. He’s a very kind person and you just hope you can learn something from his work ethic. It was fun being around him every day.”