SEATAC, Wash. – Last year, Ichiro Suzuki looked bored, like someone had dragged him to the Mariners’ annual education day.
Elementary school children hissed when their hero, the face of Seattle’s franchise, had a coach speak for him during a 15-minute talk on life values. Ichiro sat motionless, quiet, detached. He was the only one of a contingent of M’s not in team gear. He exited out a side door with a wave, his back to the room.
Ichiro, the incomparable performer on the field – All-Star appearances and Gold Glove awards in each of his eight major league seasons, the first modern player with eight consecutive 200-hit seasons – wouldn’t talk that day about his nonperformance at school.
Then-Mariners manager John McLaren was left saying, “Maybe he had a cold or something. I don’t know.”
The scene was representative of a sad, interminable season for Ichiro and his bickering Mariners. The $90 million man was batting .282 at the time, 51 points less than his career average. McLaren and general manager Bill Bavasi were on their ways to getting fired. Seattle eventually became the first team with a $100 million payroll to lose 100 games.
What a difference a Junior makes.
On Tuesday, at this year’s Mariners education day, Ichiro was a kid again among a gym full of students at suburban McMicken Heights Elementary school, a home run away from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The intensely inward 35-year-old Ichiro was a laughing, outgoing participant in a starry, six-man group that included manager Don Wakamatsu and Ken Griffey Jr., the franchise’s old face and current trendsetter.
The active leader in home runs may not be bopping ’em like he did in his MVP, self-titled candy-bar prime in Seattle a dozen years ago, but Griffey has transformed the Mariners’ vibe – Ichiro’s in particular.
Previously withdrawn from his teammates, Ichiro seems almost in awe of playing with the star he idolized while he was coming up in the Japanese League in the 1990s. He still cherishes the No. 24 Griffey Mariners jersey he’s had for two decades.
“Griffey has always been my hero. To be able to wear a uniform with a hero of mine is special for me,” Ichiro said through interpreter Ken Barron.
The 39-year-old Griffey, making one of his first off-field appearances since returning to the franchise where he first starred 20 years ago, led a comedy act into McMicken Heights Elementary.
As usual, Ichiro looked more hip than a high schooler. He wore dark designer jeans folded up at the ankles over black skateboarder sneakers.
But this time, he had on a Mariners team jacket to match his five colleagues.
With a curtain drawn in front of the players as kids filed into the gym, Griffey jokingly assigned seats backstage to Ichiro, five-time All-Star Mike Sweeney, catcher Rob Johnson, hitting coach Alan Cockrell and Wakamatsu.
Sweeney spoke about staying drug free. Afterward Griffey, one of the few big-name sluggers untouched by scandal during baseball’s Steroid Era, gave Sweeney a fist bump.
Ichiro got up next and spoke on respect. He joked that “Junior likes to pick on people. So be a kind and respectful person. And also, we would like Ken to become a kind and respectful adult.”
The kids roared. Griffey grabbed the microphone from Barron and said in sullen voice, “I’m sorry.” Then he walked across the stage to Ichiro, who had retaken his seat, and gave him an exaggerated hug. The slugger went down the row and hugged each of his teammates.
A day after their school visit, Griffey presented Ichiro with a freshly printed, white T-shirt with his No. 51 on the front beneath Japanese characters that spelled out the off-color nickname given to Ichiro by former Mariner star Jay Buhner.
Ichiro laughed out loud.