Ichiro, Meet The Bleacher Creatures


Ichiro didn't get it the first time. After he had been traded by the Mariners earlier in the week, visiting Yankee fans at Safeco Field began their familiar Roll Call.

The chants of each player's name by the Bleacher Creatures at Yankee Stadium are traditionally met with a wave of the glove. Standing in right field in Seattle, however, Suzuki heard "Ichi-ro! Ichi-ro!" And he didn't do anything.

"They had to come around to me twice," Ichiro said sheepishly Friday though interpreter Allen Turner. "Hopefully, I will be ready this time."

And so he was. Seconds after the first pitch by Phil Hughes in the Yankees' 10-3 rout of the Red Sox, Ichrio heard his name. He turned toward the bleachers and doffed his Yankee cap.

And a fine Bronx "konnichiwa" to you, Mr. Suzuki.

"I wanted to bow down, but it is during play," Ichiro said after he went 1-for-4 in his Yankee Stadium debut. "But if a ball was hit to me while I was bowing down, those cheers would be turning to boos."

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he has only been surprised by one thing about the 38-year-old Ichiro. He didn't know he had such a good sense of humor.

"This guy has been through a lot in his career," Girardi said. "You think about the expectations and the media coverage that has surrounded him. We're pretty confident New York isn't going to be anything too big for him."

Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, who managed in Japan and called Ichiro one of the five best players in the world before he ever arrived in the majors, didn't disagree.

"World-class athletes perform in world-class fashion," Valentine said. "He's one of those guys."

There are varying levels of delusion, of course, and Valentine sure sounded as if he was pushing the boundary Friday when he said, "I think we can go 10, 15, 20 games over [.500]." At 49-51, how many of you Sox fans are willing to bet a shekel that your team will finish 42-20? Go ahead, raise your hands. Wave your pink hats.

Didn't think so.

At the end of his 17-minute pre-game press conference, Valentine smiled and said, "I didn't think this was ever going to end." That remark came after a half-dozen questions about Ichiro and one wondering if his enthusiasm had waned through his first 100 games as Boston manager.

"I don't think so," Valentine said. "I'm a lucky guy. Hell's bells, it has been exciting. Challenging for sure."

Back in spring training, when hopes were high if not eternal, July 27 was circled on the calendar as Bobby V's homecoming to New York. The Red Sox didn't figure to be 10 1/2 games behind the Yankees going into the game. They didn't figure to be in last place. The debate heading into the trade deadline figured to be whom should be added, not whom should be dumped.

And certainly in March, this July night didn't figure to be Ichiro's Yankee Stadium debut.

Ichiro ripped three line drives before grounding into a fielder's choice. The second liner went past Dustin Pedroia for a single. OK, 1-for-4 isn't anything to do somersaults over, and neither is 4-for-16 since his acquisition form Seattle.

It would be an unfortunate delusion to expect the .372 Ichiro of 2004 to suddenly appear, yet it also would be a colossal miscalculation to write Ichiro off as another washed-up, high-priced name brought in by the star-gathering Yankees.

Ichiro, who hit .261 and had an OBP of only .288 with Seattle this year, should enjoy some kind of resurgence down the stretch. He says it has been a long time since he's had this kind of fun. Who knows what happens when his contract expires at the end of the season? Maybe he slips off to somewhere else in search of 3,000 hits. Maybe he decides to go home to Japan. Yet with Brett Gardner out for the rest of the season, he fills a need for speed on the bases and defensive acumen in the outfield.

Right fielder Nick Swisher, nearly recovered from a mildly strained hip flexor, sounded more than a bit antsy Friday to get back in the lineup. And general manager Brian Cashman is playing a good hunch in deciding that Ichiro, whom Cashman openly says is a better right fielder than Swisher, should play left field. Cashman said he doesn't want to damage a first-place team's harmony. Interestingly enough, the last time Ichiro played left field was the last time he was in the playoffs at Yankee Stadium in 2001. And sure enough, there was Ichiro taking fly balls in left before the game, figuring out angles, etc.