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Ichiro hits New York trying to recapture form that made him great

Ichiro Suzuki is congratulated after scoring on a

Ichiro Suzuki is congratulated after scoring on a grand slam by Curtis Granderson in the bottom of the eighth inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox. (July 27, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

For more than two decades, Ichiro Suzuki was a magnificent performer searching for an equally grand setting.

Now, in the twilight of a certain Hall of Fame career, in pinstripes worn by Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and the rest, the 10-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove-winning outfielder finally is where he wants to be.

"The impression I have for a long time is the Yankees are just groomed to win," Ichiro, 38, said through an interpreter this past week. "Winning is what happens here.

"Mentally, the players have that. They experienced it, so they are accustomed to winning. That is the mentality."

After producing 1,278 hits in nine seasons for the Orix Blue Wave in a small market in Japan, after amassing another 2,533 hits in 11-plus seasons for the perennial also-ran Mariners, Ichiro finally is in a place where every hit will matter as the commanding AL East leaders chase a 28th World Series triumph.

If the talents of the only player to amass at least 200 hits for 10 consecutive seasons are ever to be fully appreciated, now is the time, and The House That Ruth Built is the place.

"Especially if he gets hot like he has in the past, I think it can do a lot for him," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Ichiro, who averaged 213.5 hits in his first 10 seasons with the Mariners, including a major league-record 262 in 2004 and 214 just two years ago. "He's going to be on nationally televised games a lot over the next two months because that's the way of the Yankees, so I think it could do a lot."

Red Sox counterpart Bobby Valentine, who managed against Ichiro for one season in Japan, agrees that the major leagues' first Japan-born position player can use the pennant race to remind fans how complete a player he was when he lit up pitchers in the relative obscurity of the Pacific Northwest.

"Playing in New York and playing for the Yankees will definitely allow those people who haven't figured out what he's been all about to know," said Valentine, who managed the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995 and again from 2004-09.

Valentine received rave reviews about Ichiro as soon as the manager arrived in Japan, where teams are known for practicing to the point of exhaustion. He quickly learned that the youngster lived in a dormitory adjacent to the practice facility to allow for additional drills.

Aside from his work ethic, the quality Valentine remembers most about Ichiro was his electrifying speed. "He would hit ground balls to first base," he said, "and they would be close plays at first. He was fast."

Although there is a ton of mileage on those tires -- he played at least 157 games in 10 of his first 11 seasons for Seattle -- Valentine believes the veteran still possesses enough ability to change pivotal games. Or an October series.

"It will be exciting for him and for a lot of fans," Valentine said. "I think he's a special person and a special player. And now he's in a special situation."

Seattle was anything but a special situation, which led Ichiro to ask the Mariners for a trade to a contender in the final year of his contract. The ever-rebuilding club has not reached the playoffs since Ichiro's rookie season in 2001, when Seattle went 116-46 and he batted .350 with 242 hits and 127 runs, joining Boston's Fred Lynn (1975) as the only players to win Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same season.

Given all that the 5-11, 170-pound Ichiro meant to the organization while leading or tying for the major-league lead in hits seven times, Mariners president Chuck Armstrong was happy to send him to the Yankees for the opportunity of a lifetime in exchange for minor-league pitchers D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar and cash.

"There has never been a player before like Ichiro, and I don't think there will be a player like him coming in," Armstrong said, adding, "He's got to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer for what he's accomplished here."

No matter how Ichiro finishes this season or his career, it is safe to say that his case for Cooperstown already has been made.

"When a guy gets 200 hits for 10 straight years, I don't care what uniform he was wearing," said Jack O'Connell, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. "That's an impressive thing."

"I don't think the things he did in Seattle are diminished at all by the circumstances there."

Although Ichiro hit a career-low .272 last year, a 43-point plunge from the season before, and took a .261 average into Saturday's game against the Red Sox after rapping four hits in his first 16 at-bats for the Yankees, Armstrong sees him as a good fit for his new team.

"I think it will help him that he's surrounded by so many other star players. It will take some pressure off him," he said. "He was a little uncomfortable here that the spotlight was always on him."

Then again, does the spotlight ever not burn brightly on any prominent New York athlete?

First baseman Mark Teixeira said of the pressure that accompanies Broadway's blinding lights, "New York is different from any other major-league city. At the same time, you are playing the same game, answering the same questions. It's just that more people are asking them, and more people are watching and reading about it."

In the case of Ichiro, described by Armstrong as a "rock star" in Japan, the attention is magnified because scrutiny extends to two continents. When he is done answering questions for the large media corps that regularly covers the Yankees, Asian-American reporters ask the same questions for their audience in Japanese.

Yet another challenge will be the adjustment to leftfield, a position to which he is unaccustomed, once regular rightfielder Nick Swisher is healthy again.

"The angles are obviously different. There is a lot of space to cover," Ichiro said. "You can only do so much in practice."

The greatest issue, of course, is whether his dream opportunity can spark a personal resurgence.

"I'm not sure if that's going to be the case," he said. "But this is something I was hoping for. I was hoping to be in an environment like this."

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