NEW YORK -- The last time Ichiro Suzuki was spied in a clubhouse setting, he was still with the Mariners. Disgruntled about being benched for a night, he came out the next and went 4-for-5 to tie and surpass the 2,500-hit mark in his 12 Major League seasons. Afterward, he spoke about the criticism he had endured as his Seattle career was obviously winding down. They had tried to bat him third. That didn't work. On the moribund Mariners there was no spark. No enthusiasm.
Spin forward to Friday night as he donned the home pinstripes at Yankee Stadium for the first time. Scurrying around his new locker, he was asked if he felt any better. "Much better," Ichiro said with a smile. After he pounded out a single, hit the ball hard four times and scored two of the Yankees' runs in a 10-3 win over rival the Red Sox, Ichiro was even more succinct. "I haven't had this much fun playing baseball in a long time," he said. No wonder. It's a new lease on life on a new stage, the biggest he's regularly played upon either in the U.S. or his native Japan. New York, New York. The city so nice they had to name it twice. Seattle is a beautiful little secret tucked away in the corner of the Pacific Northwest and the American League West. Even in Japan, where he is a household name, he played on a team called the Orix BlueWave that once was a member of the Pacific League and located in an industrial town called Kobe, some two hours south of Tokyo by bullet train. It's a franchise that for all intents and purposes no longer exits. Owner Orix, a bank, merged it with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2004. The team now plays half its games in Osaka and is named the Orix Buffaloes. Hideki Matsui, in contrast, was a big part of the Yomiuri Giants before jumping to the Yankees, for whom he helped win the 2009 World Series against the Phillies by batting .615 with three homers and eight RBIs. Matsui was named the MVP of that six-game series. Matsui is the Michael Jordan of Japan, having won championships with the premier teams in the two major professional baseball leagues on two continents. When he played there, his visage hung on the side of buildings and airplanes. "Ichiro didn't play for the big team, so he wasn't as much of a megastar over there back then," said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, who had two tours managing Chiba Lotte, winning one Japan Series title. "Matsui was. Ichiro was just a great player." Now it's Ichiro's turn. The Yankees, at 60-39, seem destined for the playoffs, and Ichiro has two months to help them get there and beyond. He hasn't been back to the postseason since 2001, his first year with the Mariners when he was named both AL Rookie of the Year and MVP. The Mariners set an AL record that year by winning 116 games, but lost to the Yankees in a five-game AL Championship Series. By then, Alex Rodriguez had already left via free agency. Ichiro lost his supporting cast and the Mariners lost their way. In the end, more than anything, that's why Ichiro sought a trade as the last year of his contract headed into its final eight weeks. "I was hoping to play in an environment like this," he said. The Yankees told him as a condition of the trade that he wouldn't regularly lead off and would move from his more accustomed spot in right field to left, accommodating Nick Swisher. Ichiro had four words in response to the Yankees. "No problemo at all," he said, when asked about those new rules after the game. So far it has been well worth it. Playing in his first Yankees-Red Sox game was a gas, he said. Acknowledging the chants of his name by the Bleacher Creatures as he settled into right field during the first inning was something special. "Usually I come in and the fans behind me are pretty tough on me," he said. "Tonight, they were great. They were awesome. They were on my side. Obviously, it was only one game, but hopefully that continues." Ichiro is a creature of culture and baseball history with a museum dedicated to his life and career in his hometown of Nagoya. He has visited Monument Park in the old Yankee Stadium and has been to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., at least four times by his own count, as recently as 2009. That says much about the type of person he is. The type of player he is knocked out his 2,537th Major League hit on Friday night, four with the Yankees since the trade on Monday. He also had 1,278 hits in a little less than nine seasons playing for the BlueWave. What he will be able to accomplish for the Yankees is still an open question. "He fit in great tonight," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I think he's enjoying being here. He seems to be having a lot of fun. He has a sense of humor -- something I really didn't know a lot about him when he came over here." He speaks English well, too, answering questions in Japanese quickly before they're even interpreted. As for the niceties, a happy Ichiro has always been easy to deal and converse with. He's one happy camper right now. To quote Ichiro, no problemo.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.