During the winter of 2000, after managing the Mets to the World Series, Bobby Valentine was a strong advocate of entering the bidding for Ichiro Suzuki from his one season managing the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Ichiro was a 21-year-old, who batted .342 when Valentine spent his first season in Japan. That was the second season of him hitting well over .300 and led the Mariners to bid $13.25 million for his rights.
Over a decade later, Valentine was still marveling at Ichiro’s talents, this time as manager of the Red Sox getting ready to face him in the first Red Sox-Yankee game of this season at Yankee Stadium.
“We would get there for practice [and] he would already be practicing,” Valentine said. “The reason he lived in a dorm was so he could go out there and do it. His manager was a grand, established Japanese manager, who immediately told me how good this guy was. And he wasn’t the type of guy who ever went out on a limb about a player’s ability.”
Before Valentine spoke, Ichiro conducted two press conferences, one for American media and another for Japanese media. In his 10-minute session answering questions with his translator at his side and speaking to roughly 75 media members, Ichiro spoke about his motivation, the Yankees and how he hopes the fans will receive him.
Since this is the first time Ichiro has been on a division leader in July since 2003 and experienced two 100-loss seasons since, it was natural to wonder about his motivation. Ichiro calmly said that it never changed even if some scouts might have thought otherwise.
“Even when I was on team that wasn’t winning, there was no letdown ever,” he said through an interpreter. “I kept my motivations high. I worked hard. I look at this opportunity and this pennant race as the same approach in the past. I think it would have been tougher to go the other way, to go from a team that was in a pennant race to a team that was not in contention, but the approach that I’m going to take, I think I have been doing and I’ll continue to do.”
After speaking, Ichiro was part of the first group in batting practice. He was joined by Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Andruw Jones and Russell Martin and during his round he pulled a few balls over the right field wall.
When he was done with his first home batting practice session as a Yankee, Ichiro began getting acclimated with the field. He started by shagging fly balls in right field and then did the same in left field.
It is left field where Ichiro figures to spend most of his time. Ichiro has never played an inning in left field but when Nick Swisher returns from his strained left hip flexor, that’s where the Yankees will primarily use him.
And even though the platoon of Jones and Raul Ibanez has been adequate defensively, that is the one area Girardi is anticipating improving the most.
“It's one guy that can create some runs for him,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He has 10 Gold Gloves as an outfielder. He's got a great arm. He's going to cover some ground. So it's going to help a lot.”
Joba getting closer to returning
After throwing roughly 20 pitches during his bullpen session at Yankee Stadium, Joba Chamberlain spoke like someone eager to return to the majors.
“I feel like I’m ready,” Chamberlain said. “Obviously the physical part is [over]. Now it’s just the mental part of getting into a routine and trusting your pitches.”
His return from last June’s Tommy John surgery and subsequent ankle injury is won't happen until he comes through a few minor league rehab appearances with the first being Sunday in Double-A Trenton.
It is those rehab appearances that is keeping Chamberlain antsy to return, but at the same time he is motivated by anyone who doubted he would.
“I think this is the hardest point because I’m ready. I threw a bullpen today. I did my running and my lifting. During the game I got to sit and cheer them on, but I’m here and a lot of people said I wouldn’t be here.”
Chamberlain’s last major league appearance was June 5, 2011 in Anaheim. He threw 19 fastballs with an average velocity of 92.1 mph. But reports from his rehab appearances have had him throwing in the high-90s.
“[It’s] 94 to 100, so it continues to get stronger. The consistency is there,” Chamberlain said. “It’s nice to be able to have that, to be able to trust your fastball. I’ve only walked one guy in my starts. That’s a big thing for me, coming back from Tommy John to be able to trust my command to throw any pitch at any count.”
Next week will mark the fifth anniversary of Chamberlain’s hyped debut. Since that point he has pitched in every inning to varying degrees of success and his history is what he feels will help when he returns in a few weeks.
“You can watch as much hitters as you want like I have on TV,” he said. “Until you get them in the box and you on the mound, it’s going to be a little different. So it’s obviously going to be learning on the fly again but where it’s been, I’ve got to take what I learned in my previous five years and attack it from there.”
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.