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In twilight of his career, Ichiro still capable of brilliance

New York Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki needs just three more hits to reach 4,000 for his career in Japan and North American combined.

Adam Hunger/REUTERS

How best to describe the sunset of Ichiro Suzuki's career to someone unfamiliar with him or with baseball?

That Suzuki – in his 22nd season – still can play the outfield walls like Spider-Man?

And that, on his best days, Suzuki can still flick his magic bat the way Gene Kelly danced with that umbrella during Singing in the Rain?

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Or that Suzuki, who turns 40 on Oct. 22, can still sometimes leg out infield hits and steal bases with effort, speed and guile that few players show at any age?

At this stage of Suzuki's peculiar and fascinating career, watching his gradual and inexorable decline in his second summer with the New York Yankees is a little like watching Wayne Gretzky's last three NHL seasons spent with the New York Rangers.

As it was for Gretzky through the spring of 1999, Suzuki's brilliant moments can be just as dazzling as ever. However, like hot days in late summer, they come fewer and further between. Still, there are the milestones.

Suzuki needs three hits to reach a debatable 4,000 plateau, occupied only by Pete Rose at 4,256 and Ty Cobb at 4,191. (Skeptics stress Suzuki's first 1,278 hits in Japan might have been against pitching weaker than found in the American or National Leagues.)

He could reach 4,000 against the Toronto Blue Jays, who play the Yankees seven times in nine days, beginning with Tuesday's day-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium.

Earlier this season, he said the 4,000 milestone interested others more than him. Lately, he's acknowledged the attention and admiration of the media and the fans.

"I'm very thankful for it," Suzuki said. "It's a very important thing as a baseball player that you are being watched and that people are watching these numbers."

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He spoke through an interpreter while twisting his gymnast's body in elaborate stretches on the blue-carpeted clubhouse floor.

Even between pitches in right field, he does knee bends and deep dips.

"My mom giggles at the amount of stretching she sees him doing," said Curtis Granderson, another Yankees outfielder. Suzuki's agility impresses Joba Chamberlain, a relief pitcher who shags fly balls with him in right field during batting practice.

"He does things I'd never even try, like catching it behind his back," Chamberlain said. "One day, I said 'I'd love to have a glove.'"

Soon an Ichiro glove appeared in Chamberlain's locker.

Suzuki won 10 Gold Gloves in the AL from 2001 through 2010. Labelled as aloof in Japan and in Seattle until traded on July 23 of last season, he is more approachable now to North American media, while still shunning many Japanese reporters.

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Perhaps he is learning to say "hello" when it is time to think about "goodbye," smelling the flowers while passing out a few bouquets.

Earlier this month, when former teammate Ken Griffey Jr. entered the Mariners Hall of Fame, a video was played on the Seattle scoreboard.

"You were my hero growing up," Suzuki said to Griffey, in English. "I have always admired you. In 2009, my dream finally came true and I got to be your teammate. … Congratulations to my hero on a great honour."

Regarding personal honours: Under contract for next year, Suzuki has said he might catch Cobb and Rose. Naysayers diminish this quest because his first nine years were played in Japan with the former Orix Blue Wave (now Orix Buffaloes) of the Pacific League.

Baseball loves its figurative asterisks (and eternal debates) and this one is serious. But all those hits were in real games, just like Gretzky's goals in both the NHL and World Hockey Association.

And, with caveats, you can flip the script. Didn't Cobb hit before baseball became integrated and international? Didn't Rose bounce ground balls through hard, primitive, artificial infields of the NL in the 1970s and '80s?

Suzuki took a pay cut from $17-million (U.S.) last season to $6.5-million this season and next. What salary – and what team – would he work for after 2014 if he is within range of Cobb or Rose?

Like Griffey Jr., who hit .214 and .184 in his last two seasons, Suzuki's numbers are down. On an older team of fading stars, he is batting only .271. (His career average is .320).

After going 2-for-6 in last Sunday's 9-6 Yankees' victory, Suzuki has five hits in his last 33 trips to the plate, an average of .151. His second hit Sunday came on a gorgeously well-placed bunt.

Sometimes, after failing to hit a pitch safely to the outfield, Suzuki seems to intentionally slap the ball into a soft, short roll in order to race the infielders' throw to first base. On some of those plays, he is out by a half-step.

When asked whether Suzuki may be pressing for the milestone, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said "I'm sure it's a possibility." Girardi rests him from time to time.

Previously, Suzuki's only significant time off came in 2009, with a bleeding ulcer at the start of the season after getting the clinching hit for Japan to win the World Baseball Classic championship over South Korea.

Certainly, he takes his work and his nationalism seriously along with a sense of his place in history. After his 262 hits in 2004 beat George Sisler's record of 257 set in 1920, and his 10 consecutive seasons of 200 hits beat Wee Willie Keeler's streak of eight that ended in 1901, Suzuki has visited both men's graves.

Until Buck O'Neil died in Kansas City in 2006, Suzuki used to visit him – at least once at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Several times, Suzuki has visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. His induction there is likely.

He looks a little like a player from a century ago, with shirt all buttoned-up and knee-high socks and exquisite bat control. He still strokes some pitches like purposely sliced golf shots or tennis backhanders, placed just so, like a man from the "dead-ball" era. Like Keeler, he "hit[s] 'em where they ain't."

"He can create hits out of bad swings," pitcher C.J. Wilson of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim said. "He can be standing on one foot, leaning, looking for a fastball, and they throw him a slider and he can still make good contact. His hand/eye co-ordination and balance are better than everybody else's."

Although pitcher CC Sabathia of the Yankees said Suzuki is "one of the best at hitting bad balls and pitcher's pitches," Wilson said: "It's not a 'bad ball' if you can hit it."

When asked about Suzuki's oft-elegant fielding, Granderson said: "He's always leaping. And he is able to land in a position to make another play."

Girardi added: "He gets a good jump. He's got a good arm."

And legs, too. Despite his age, Suzuki is second among Yankees players in stolen bases with 17 in 20 tries. When asked if a special coach or a mentor taught him sound fundamentals in his youth, Suzuki said no, because he spent his high-school years as a pitcher.

"I would watch the other players and I took what I saw and made it my own and did what was good for me," he said. "Not just defence, but also hitting."

There are legends of Suzuki training by hurling car tires and hitting Whiffle balls with a shovel. Derek Jeter said Suzuki spent the all-star break tossing baseballs in New York's Central Park.

But critics say his dedication and eccentricities disguise a self-centred personality. Although Suzuki led Japanese position players into the majors, he does not appear close to Hideki Matsui, another Japanese outfielder who followed him to North America.

When the retired fan favourite was honoured at Yankee Stadium a month ago, Suzuki did not linger near home plate or in the dugout for the ceremony. Instead, he stretched in the clubhouse.

The official explanation was he did not want to detract from Matsui's honour. After stretching, Suzuki went 4-for-4, his best day of the season, in a 6-5 Yankees victory.

Of his nationalistic legacy, pitcher Hiroki Kuroda of the Yankees said it shows "possibly that a Japanese player can out-do American players."

Boston Red Sox pitcher Koji Uehara joked he would love to throw a pitch down the middle to give up Suzuki's 4,000th hit. "I could leave my name in history," he said.

Griffey predicted the milestone hit would be a home run, although Suzuki has hit only six this season, and 110 in his North American career.

Despite playing during baseball's performance-enhancing drugs scandal, his name is never mentioned in the investigations.

Regarding his unusual athletic grace, with its poetic and almost musical quality, Suzuki was asked whether he trained as a child in dance or other performing arts.

For the first time in the interview, he seemed to smile before answering: "I don't know how to dance and I don't know how to sing. All I know how to do is play baseball."

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