TOKYO -- After taking batting practice Saturday in the Tokyo Dome, where his picture hangs on a giant beer-commercial billboard in left field, Ichiro Suzuki said "it's a special event" to have his Mariners playing in his homeland.
Suzuki, 38, is in Japan with the Mariners to play two exhibition games against Japanese teams this weekend and then two regular-season games against the A's in the Opening Series on Wednesday and Thursday. It's the first time he's played in his home country with the Mariners since coming to the Major Leagues in 2001.
"It's important for us, because this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for myself," he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "We never get opportunities like this. We had a chance in 2003, but unfortunately we didn't make it here. So this is special. This is important. And I look forward to it."
The Mariners and A's were scheduled to play in the Opening Series in 2003, but that trip was canceled just before the teams flew to Japan due to travel concerns following the outbreak of the Iraq War.
Ichiro and the Mariners worked out Saturday in front of a large contingent of Japanese media, with much of their focus on Ichiro and fellow Japanese teammates Munenori Kawasaki and Hisashi Iwakuma.
For Ichiro, being the center of attention in Japan obviously isn't new. His face is on an advertisement for an energy drink in a store in the New Otani hotel where the Mariners are staying. He has commercials on Japanese television. His Kirin Beer advertisement has been in the Tokyo Dome for years.
Ichiro said coming back to his country and being greeted at the airport Friday by about one hundred journalists and photographers as the Mariners got off the plane didn't stir any special homecoming thoughts.
"I didn't feel anything out of the standard," he said. "We had some media, but it wasn't too much. I was able to flow right by."
Ichiro has been in the Majors for 11 years now and he plays with a unique style, even now as the Mariners are asking him to bat third this season. He's always been his own player and it has worked to the tune of 2,428 hits and a .326 career batting average.
"We all need to adjust to the game of baseball," he said. "But the way I think and perform -- my style -- will never change. Because once you do, you'll see different things and you won't believe in yourself."
Ichiro believes that, as a 5-foot-11, 172-pound player, he needs every mental advantage he has found over the years.
"If you look at myself and you look at all these guys, how talented they are and how big and strong and fast and quick they are, there are certain things I can't share with you," he said, glancing around the Mariners' clubhouse. "Because we look at them and we look at ourselves and we say, 'How am I going to compete against these guys?
"And that's where you start thinking about, 'This is what I can do and what they can't do.' That's why I can't share with you everything."
He did, however, share some optimism about what the Mariners are building with a young core of players as they attempt to turn around a team that went 67-95 last season.
"We have a lot of good teammates here, we have a lot of good people and good characters," he said. "So what we need to do is put that together so we can win. And that's what I look forward to."