BY John Hickey 05:17PM 03/31/2011

Why Ichiro wants to be a Mariner into his 40s

Age questions annoy Ichiro, but starting his 20th pro season, he copes

Ichiro Suzuki starts his second decade with the Mariners Friday night in Oakland. / Getty Images

OAKLAND – Upon the first pitch to him from the A’s Trevor Cahill at 7:07 p.m. Friday night, Ichiro Suzuki will start his 20th season in professional baseball.

He’s 37 now and much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. To say that he’s not wild about discussing questions of age as they relate to baseball is an understatement.

“It becomes annoying when you have to fight against (talk of age),’’ the Seattle Mariners right fielder and leadoff hitter told

There are some things you can’t fight, however.  Age is only one of them. Another, if you are a 37-year-old baseball player, is a barrage of questions about age. Safe to say that age is a subject to which Ichiro has devoted some time.

His Mariners contract is up after the 2012 season, at which point he will be 38. In a wide-ranging interview with Sportspress Northwest, he hinted he wants to play until he’s at least 40, and probably beyond, as a Mariner, even if it involves fighting stereotypical opinions about age while playing with a team that is rebuilding – again.

“When I first started playing (with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan in 1992), I never thought I would be playing 20 years later,’’ he said. “At the same time, I don’t think there was any guy there who thought I would be here after 20 years.’’

In those first two seasons, Ichiro bounced between the Japanese minor leagues and major leagues. He became a star in 1994 by hitting .385 for Orix while becoming the first Japanese player to collect 200 hits in a season. He had 210.

He wound up playing the next six seasons for Orix before the Mariners won a spirited bidding war to get him to come to the Northwest after the 2000 season. Since then, he’s had 200 hits 10 years in a row, a baseball first.

At the eve of the 2011 season, how much longer does he think he can play?

“That’s a hard question,’’ he said. “It’s contradictory. People look at age, and we all have different opinions when it comes to age. I have different opinions as well.

“Let’s say that I was 20 when I twisted or sprained an ankle. Three years from now when I’m 40 and I twist or sprain my ankle, people will say it’s because of age. It’s not second-guessing. It’s just human nature.’’

Human nature, the Seattle right fielder suggests, isn’t kind to those of advancing years.

“Take the talk of age. It’s something that I will have to battle,’’ Ichiro said. “When you have to think about something like that, it’s not a positive for you. I mean, it’s something you don’t have to think about, but when you have people around you talking about it, you don’t want the negatives to get in.

“As a player, you have to be aware of that; you have to prepare for that. It gets annoying when you have to fight against that, too, because baseball is really all about how you can perform on the field. And having to think about (age) is starting to get annoying already.’’

Ichiro never directly answered the question about how long he wanted to play. But there is at least one excellent reason why he should want to play until he’s at least 41.

As he starts play Friday, Ichiro has 2,244 big league hits and needs 756 more to reach 3,000 in the U.S. It’s a goal that is a great distance away, even for someone who has averaged 224 hits per season the last decade.

If he can maintain anything close to the 200-hit pace that he has set, he would get to 3,000 hits toward the end of his fourth season, at 41. The man already has built a consensus opinion that he will be a first-ballot entry into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But 3,000 is a hitter’s Olympus. It’s hard to believe Ichiro would get close and not try to make a serious run at it.

You get the sense that he feels 37 years young, not 37 years old, even with the slight bit of gray that speckles his hair.

“One of the reasons it’s hard to talk about age is because people will talk about my 40 (years old) compared to someone else’s 40. Or they will compare my 40 to someone who played in the past.

“And it’s vice-versa, too, because there are players who are 25 who play already like they’re 40. It’s hard to talk about age and it’s hard to talk about the future, because you don’t want to start (thinking) about that yourself.’’

As it is with everyone, the future is in Ichiro’s thoughts. He was part of a team that won a record 116 games in 2001. But he’s never been to the playoffs since. The hits and the records serve as motivation, but not as the entire motivation. The post-season is motivation. While some of his longtime teammates have left Seattle to pursue playoff dreams in other cities, Ichiro is very clear that his dream is to be back in the playoffs wearing a Seattle uniform.

“Everyone you’ll talk to feels that way about getting to the playoffs,’’ he said. “Everyone gets that motivation. You know, I’ve played here 10 years, this is my 11th season and being in the playoffs with this jersey on is different than being in the playoffs in a different jersey.

“It’s because you have more time in with one team, because you’ve built so much and there is so much on your back. You get very emotional thinking about this team. There is love at times, that’s why going to the playoffs with the Mariners would be totally different from just going to playoffs (with any other team).

“For me, it’s about going to the playoffs with the Mariners. It’s all the time you’ve spent getting there.’’

Age being such a ticklish subject, it’s easier to talk about the here and now, which Ichiro did before Thursday’s workout in the Oakland Coliseum. Talking with a handful of the Seattle media, he said he was upbeat about the season, even though the Mariners are a consensus choice to finish last in the American League West again.

In particular, he is a big fan of new manager Eric Wedge.

“He’s pretty clear with what he wants to do,’’ Ichiro said of Wedge. “We are all facing the same direction. He has a strong base that won’t sway. We all know our roles. We all see the big picture. That’s big for us.’’

Asked if he was a more driven player now than he was when he first came to the U.S., Ichiro paused.

“It’s tough, because the situation (now) is different,’’ he said. “Ten years ago when I first came here I only thought about myself because I was here to perform. Being the first position player from Japan, you need to perform. You’ve got your flag behind your back.

“You need to perform more to assure the path from Japan. Now I have more room in my mind, I have more space, to where I can think about the team. That said, I think about it in a different way, I think about it in a different perspective.’’

And that perspective does indeed change with time.

“You could think (the last 10 years in Seattle) went by real fast,’’ he said. “At the same time, there are times where you say `wow, it’s been a long ten years.’ ’’

Will this be another long year?

Well, as they say, that’s why they play the games.

Twitter: @JHickey3