TOKYO (AP) — Ichiro Suzuki is enjoying it while he can.
He’s back in Japan and sure to play at the Tokyo Dome when the Seattle Mariners face the Oakland Athletics in two games to open the Major League Baseball season. He’s 45 and knows it can end any moment, but if he has a grand retirement plan, he isn’t revealing it.
“This is a great gift for me,” he said, speaking through an interpreter at a Saturday news conference. “I will treasure every moment here on the field. One week after this event, I will be reflecting back on these days, so I will make sure I remember every moment here in Japan.”
At least one reporter asked him the question directly. “How will you know when it’s time to stop playing? How will you know when it’s time to step aside?”
“I have no idea when I will know that,” he said. “I’m not used to questions like that.”
Suzuki can do the math that raises the question .
He has hit .080 in spring training this season and was hitting .205 when he stepped aside early last season, temporarily retiring to become a Mariners special assistant. The Mariners can accommodate him now with a special 28-man roster for the Japan visit, but it will revert to 25 when the season resumes in the United States a week later.
Suzuki recounted previous springs when he hit poorly and then produced, or seasons when he hit in the spring and then struggled en route to 3,089 hits in the majors and 1,278 more in Japan.
“Based on my spring training, I shouldn’t be here,” he said, seated next to Mariners manager Scott Servais and Japanese rookie pitcher Yusei Kikuchi. “You can never predict what is going to happen based on spring training. Now I am back in Japan, and (a) country I love, to show what I can still do.”
Suzuki called himself “lucky,” acknowledging that “being Japanese” is a key reason why he’s included to play in Tokyo, where he remains a huge draw. He will be the first Japanese inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and is almost certain to go in on the first ballot.
He hooked several line drives to right field in batting practice, then jogged in the outfield with youth players on the field — it’s artificial grass in the Tokyo Dome — shouting to him, “Ichiro, Ichiro.” The youngsters were joined by hundreds of Japanese reporters and TV crews parked around the batting cage — just some of the 1,000 Japanese reporters accredited for the games Wednesday and Thursday games.
Suzuki tried to slip though the arrival area on Friday at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, wearing a black and-gray cap pulled down to cover most of his head. Of course, hundreds of reporters and fans were there to catch a photo or a quick glimpse as he left without speaking.
The Mariners and Servais are on the spot. Suzuki is revered in Japan, partly for longevity and breaking though at the top. He’s still highly visible on television commercials around the country, and some Japanese are aware that some of his attraction is now partly commercial.
“We’re really taking it a day at a time,” said Servais, whose team is rebuilding with younger players. “We’re looking at the two games here against Oakland. He’ll be available in those two games and we’ll see how it goes.
“Well take it from there,” he added. “He’s had an unbelievable career.”
Suzuki looked calm and cool taking the questions, sunglasses perched on the bill of his cap — giving more answers than many reporters expected.
He also knows the score. This is his 19th season since joining the Mariners in 2001, when he was both the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year, and he’s still doing it his way.
“I was traded to New York in 2012, and after that, I knew I’d live each day to the utmost,” he said. “After that, I moved to Miami, and I did the same thing. Day after day I trained. Major League Baseball — it’s a tough world. You can be told anytime you are gone. Right? So that is my basic understanding. I’m battling and I’m still here.”