TAMPA, Fla. -- The alligator, as Ichiro Suzuki tells the story, came into sight somewhere around the sunny water hazard of the 14th hole, its sleepy-yet-intimidating figure interrupting what had been a perfectly pleasant afternoon of golf.
Ichiro still nervously checks for roaming gators every time he spots a fish bubbling to the surface of the lake near his rented home, but that has been nothing compared to the daily chore of navigating the busy highways leading to the Yankees' complex.
This is Spring Training, Florida style. After years of spending his months of March in Arizona with the Mariners, Ichiro has been finding his way through an eventful first full season with the Yankees, one where his most memorable adventures thus far have seemed to take place away from the ballpark.
"In Japan, you really don't have to look out for yourself safety-wise," Ichiro said through his interpreter, Allen Turner. "Coming here, obviously there's things that I have to be aware of, but even more here in Florida you have to be aware of the surroundings and protect yourself."
That has been especially true during a spring where the Yanks have not exactly had great fortune, absorbing serious injuries to Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira. They are perhaps most thankful that Ichiro was able to avoid joining that group when his sport utility vehicle was totaled in a three-car pileup on the afternoon of March 2.
"It takes a while to get used to any place, but regarding the driving, it's been really scary, even after the accident," Ichiro said. "Even [Saturday] night, there was a guy that almost rear-ended me. He had to slam on his brakes. There's been a few times where there's nothing I could do; just people around me were speeding or whatnot. It's really kind of scary."
|"I've said this before, but I have this ideal clubhouse, this ideal team."|
|-- Ichiro Suzuki|
No wonder, then, that Ichiro's sanctuary has been found in a corner locker at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Having re-signed with the Yankees for two years and $13 million this past winter, Ichiro landed in the choice real estate once inhabited by Bernie Williams, who'd burn off hours of the spring by strumming his guitar.
Ichiro's instruments of choice are his bats, which the outfielder carries from city to city in special foam-padded cases to avoid any premature damage not caused by impacting baseballs.
It is just a short walk down the hallway, passing Derek Jeter's locker with the often-heard, always-humorous greeting of "Hello, Sanderson" -- Jeter's middle name, which only Ichiro seems to use -- for Ichiro to arrive at the batting cages, where he is perhaps most comfortable.
"What I've noticed coming here is, just like last year during the season, the Yankees allow each individual to really govern themselves and really give that flexibility of you doing your work," Ichiro said.
"They expect you to do it, and you either do it or you don't. Maybe there's some guys that obviously do their work and do what you're supposed to, but if you wanted to just take it easy, you can."
That trust has been earned, and the Yankes have no reason to wonder about Ichiro's commitment. Ichiro batted .322 with five homers, 27 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 67 games with the Yankees after coming to New York in a July trade with the Mariners, and upon returning to Japan after the season, it was suggested that he had raised his game to match his new surroundings.
"What I got a lot was that they would say to me, 'It looks like you're having a lot of fun playing baseball,'" Ichiro said. "That's probably the most thing that I got from people. It's not like I wasn't enjoying baseball before, but to them it looked like I was really enjoying baseball in New York."
There's a good reason for that. By the end of Ichiro's tenure with the Mariners, he looked around and saw a clubhouse filled with young, inexperienced players, and no longer saw a place for himself on a franchise that needed to look toward the future to truly compete.
The Yankees, of course, boast a roster where Ichiro's name blends in with other proven veterans like Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, players with whom Ichiro can go toe to toe comparing resumes and credentials.
The challenges of adapting his life into the Florida scene may be ongoing, but as far as the Yanks go, Ichiro seems to have found a home he truly enjoys.
"I've said this before, but I have this ideal clubhouse, this ideal team," Ichiro said. "A team that is really strong and really good is going to be this kind of team. I've always had that in my mind. I felt like last year coming over, there it was. Those ideal things that I was hoping for was here in the Yankees' clubhouse. I think that's one thing that I could say that is big for me."