He stands in the batterâ€™s box, extending his right arm like a referee signaling a first down. With his 33 Â˝-inch, 32-ounce black bat pointing to the sky, he reaches with his left arm and tugs at his right sleeve. For Ichiro Suzuki, this is the bold declaration of a duel he has won at a better rate than almost any other hitter in the major leagues.
Suzuki has performed this routine roughly 8,500 times in a major league uniform. But he has never done it in pinstripes in the Bronx, until now. Suzuki, the Yankeesâ€™ latest famous addition, will make his home debut Friday night against the rival Boston Red Sox.
The Yankees hold a comfortable division lead, and the last-place Red Sox are listless. Suzuki will be front and center. He is used to the role, as a pioneer for Japanese ballplayers in the United States and a 10-time All-Star. But New York is not used to him.
Until this week, Suzuki had spent all 12 of his major league seasons in Seattle, where most games start after 10 p.m. in New York. He has rarely been part of a pennant race. His style is familiar even to casual fans, but to watch him every day is to notice and appreciate his idiosyncrasies, his distinctive approach to his craft.
To be sure, Suzuki is not the same player he was in his prime. He will be 39 years old just before the World Series, where he hopes to be playing with the Yankees, who have the best record in the American League, at 59-39. Suzuki asked for a trade from the last-place Mariners, who accommodated him on Monday, when the Yankees happened to be in town.
Suzuki, who went 3 for 12 in his first three road games as a Yankee, wants a championship before it is too late. In this way, he is like several other established stars who came to the Yankees late in their careers, in hopes of an elusive title. It worked for Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens in the 1990s, and while Suzukiâ€™s .261 average this season is far below his career mark of .322 â€” third among active players, behind Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer â€” the Yankees believe he can help.
Suzuki still has the speed and instincts to make a difference in the field and on the bases. And with 3,814 hits between Japan and the majors, he has plenty of experience to draw on as he tries to summon his former self.
â€śI still think heâ€™s got some gas left in the tank,â€ť said John McLaren, who coached and managed Suzuki with the Mariners. â€śTheyâ€™re not going to quite see the guy we saw, but itâ€™s going to be a nice fit for everybody.â€ť
Bobby Valentine, the Red Sox manager, was one of the relative few who predicted Suzukiâ€™s greatness. As Mets manager in 2000, Valentine, who had also managed in Japan, declared that Suzuki was one of the five best players in the world. But the Mariners, not the Mets, won his negotiating rights, and at first they wondered what they had.
In 2001 spring training, Suzuki seemed overmatched by major league fastballs, continually fouling them over the third-base dugout, as if he could not whip his bat around in time. After a while, Suzuki assured his puzzled coaches that he was flicking the fouls on purpose, so he could see as many offerings as possible from the new pitchers he would be facing.
When he finished that first season, captivating two continents by winning the rookie of the year and Most Valuable Player awards, Suzuki took one final road trip. He visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and in the decade since, he has returned three times.
â€śEver since Iâ€™ve been here, which is 18 years, thatâ€™s more than any other current player,â€ť said Jeff Idelson, the president of the Hall of Fame. â€śHeâ€™s spent many hours delving into our collection and learning about the roots of the game.â€ť
Suzuki took a special interest in equipment, Idelson said, especially bats from the 19th and early 20th centuries. He inspected the grain in the wood, comparing the weights and circumferences, studying the tools of the masters who came before.
When he broke George Sislerâ€™s single-season record for hits, in 2004, the Hall of Fame presented Suzuki with a replica model of Sislerâ€™s bat: all 36 inches and 46 ounces of it. Suzuki felt a kinship with Sisler, who set his record in 1920, and visited his grave site in St. Louis before the All-Star Game in 2009.
The next year, before a series at Yankee Stadium, Suzuki visited Calvary Cemetery in Queens to see the grave of another Hall of Famer, Wee Willie Keeler. Suzuki had broken Keelerâ€™s record of seven consecutive 200-hit seasons, which had stood for more than century.
One record Suzuki has never approached is Joe DiMaggioâ€™s 56-game hitting streak. Asked a few years ago if any modern player could break the record, the Yankeesâ€™ Derek Jeter said Suzuki would be the only possibility â€” and even then, only if he played on turf. But Suzukiâ€™s career-best hitting streak is 27 games, and he has called DiMaggioâ€™s mark the toughest record to break.
For all of his interest in history, Suzuki has never tried to imitate a predecessor. His slashing hitting style, in which his legs start churning for first base in midswing, is all but impossible to duplicate, like Mariano Riveraâ€™s cut fastball. And his taste in clothing stands out, too.
â€śHe dressed different than we did,â€ť McLaren said, laughing. â€śHe dressed like a rock star. He had some Michael Jackson-type outfits.â€ť
Suzuki sometimes seemed lonely in the Seattle clubhouse, where some teammates privately groused that he cared only about compiling singles. He would squat in silence on his clubhouse chair before games, balancing on the balls of his feet to stretch his surprisingly strong calves. The players who found him aloof, McLaren said, misread Suzukiâ€™s intense pregame focus.
Reticent sometimes, Suzuki could also be the life of the party. For years, he made a tradition of giving a rousing clubhouse speech, filled with expletives, to his A.L. teammates before the All-Star Game. And his public comments, which once tended toward the mystical, have become more animated with time.
â€śChicks who dig home runs arenâ€™t the ones who appeal to me,â€ť Suzuki told The New York Times in 2009. â€śI think thereâ€™s sexiness in infield hits because they require technique. Iâ€™d rather impress the chicks with my technique than with my brute strength. Then, every now and then, just to show I can do that, too, I might flirt a little by hitting one out.â€ť
The newest Yankee is full of surprises. If his talent is still up to it, it could make for a fascinating finish to the Yankeesâ€™ season.