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'The best player I ever saw' returns to the Trop Wednesday

Miami Marlins center fielder Ichiro Suzuki (51) at bat in the first inning of the game between the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays in Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, May 25, 2016.
Published May 3, 2017

Who is the best baseball player you ever saw?

Your answer likely depends on your age. Older generations will say Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. More recent generations will say Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds. Today's generation might say Mike Trout.

My vote might surprise you. He will be at Tropicana Field tonight: Ichiro Suzuki.

The best player I ever saw.

Someone out there agrees with me.

"You know? You just might be right.''

Who said that? Tampa's own Lou Piniella, Ichiro's first manager with the Seattle Mariners back in 2001.

"Complete student of the game,'' Piniella said. "Impeccable shape. Just outstanding skills. And more important, just a fun guy to watch play.''

Piniella first met Ichiro in 2000 at the Mariners' spring training camp in Arizona. Ichiro was already 26 and an established star in Japan. He wanted to play Major League Baseball and Piniella knew from the first time he met him that he wanted him in Seattle.

"He could run like a deer,'' Piniella said. "He had a cannon for a throwing arm. He was very well schooled in his baseball acumen. And we knew that he wanted to come over. We wanted him.''

Smart move.

Ichiro is 43 now, in his 17th major-league season. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

And despite his numbers — more than 3,000 hits, more than 500 stolen bases, a lifetime .312 hitter, 10 All-Star appearances, 10 gold gloves, rookie of the year and MVP — he might be underrated.

"Fundamentally,'' Piniella said, "Ichiro is as sound as any player I've ever seen.''

Piniella knew almost from the start that he had something special. His only concern was whether Ichiro could handle the fastballs of North American baseball.

"In Japan, they don't throw as hard as consistently as they do over here,'' Piniella said.

In Ichiro's first five or six exhibition games, all he did was slap the ball past third as he ran to first — a patented Ichiro move.

"You can't teach that,'' Piniella said.

But after five or six spring training games, Piniella wanted to get a message to Ichiro.

"He had an interpreter because he didn't speak English and I didn't speak Japanese,'' Piniella said. "So I call his interpreter over to me in the dugout and I said to him, 'Listen, could you talk to Ichiro? I'd like to see him pull the ball.' They huddled and we talked and they were laughing.''

An inning later, Ichiro led off.

"And he hits the first pitch into the right-centerfield bullpen for a home run,'' Piniella said. "So he rounds the bases, steps on home plate and comes to the dugout and he tells me, 'Happy now?' ''

Lou laughed and said, "Ichiro, you can do anything you like the rest of the time your here.''

He was the 2001 American League Rookie of the Year in leading the Mariners to a 116-46 record, tying a major-league record for wins.

"I was so happy for him for a couple of reasons,'' Piniella said. "One, he deserved it. And, two, he took a title off of me. I was the oldest rookie of the year prior to Ichiro.''

Three years later, Ichiro set the record for most hits in a season — an incredible 262. It was one of seven times in his career that he led the league in hits.

Piniella said there's nothing Ichiro couldn't do. Ichiro never hit more than 15 homers in a season and had just 115 in nearly 10,500 plate appearances.

"I said more than once if he had been in a home run hitting contest at the all-star break, that he would win them,'' Piniella said.

Meantime, as talented as Ichiro was with a bat in his hands, he might have been better in the field. Just a week into his regular-season major-league career, he put the league on notice.

"We're playing at Oakland and they got a guy on first base,'' Piniella said. "They hit a ball to rightfield. I'm looking at Ichiro fielding the ball, and I'm looking at the runner and I'm saying to myself, 'Throw the ball to second base.' So he throws the ball to third and I'm thinking to myself, 'What's he doing?!' And he threw this guy out by a full two steps. As good of a throwing arm as you want to see.''

Go to YouTube. Type in "Ichiro's iconic throw to 3rd base.'' See for yourself just how awesome that throw was.

Ichiro spent 11 seasons in Seattle. He went to play for the Yankees and now in his third season in Miami.

He doesn't have much left in his tank these days. He's hitting just .171. He only plays part-time.

But he still occasionally reminds you of how great he was. The way he stretches in the batter's box. The way he circles a ball in the outfield and throws it like a laser. The way he moves, runs, swings that bat as he runs to first.

"A good teammate, a good pro, he's a credit to his country,'' Piniella said. "And a credit to the game of baseball.''

Contact Tom Jones at tjones@tampabay.com. Follow @tomwjones

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