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MINNEAPOLIS — During a game for the Orix Blue Wave in Japan in 1999, Ichiro Suzuki struck out and returned to the dugout unusually frustrated. In a fit of anger, he destroyed his black Mizuno bat. Embarrassed, Suzuki wrote a letter of apology to the craftsman who had made his bats by hand from Tamo wood, grown on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Such was the respect that Suzuki felt for the process that created the bats, which he wielded with such skill.
Today, after a decade in the major leagues, Suzuki still displays that same reverence on a daily basis, caring for his bats like Stradivarius violins. While most players dump their bats in cylindrical canvas bags when they are not using them, Suzuki neatly stacks his best eight bats inside a shockproof, moisture-free black case that he keeps close by his locker at home and on the road.
“He dresses like a rock star and he carries his bats around in a case like a rock musician with a guitar,” Yankees pitcher Boone Logan said. “It fits his style perfectly.”
The case, which looks like a mini trunk, not only protects the bats from jostling and banging during transports, it also serves as a dehumidifier, drawing moisture out of the bats during the hot, humid American summers.
“In New York, Texas, Baltimore, you take your bat from the clubhouse to the dugout and it’s like it’s sweating from all the moisture,” he said through his interpreter. “It’s really shocking to see it.”
For Suzuki, a preeminent scientist in the field of hitting, regulating the amount of moisture in his bat is critical to the touch and feel of it. A hard, dry bat with just the right amount of water content has helped Suzuki become one of the best hitters in the game. Since he came to the United States in 2001 to play for the Seattle Mariners, he has led all of baseball in regular-season hits on seven occasions and recorded 200 hits in each of his first 10 seasons.
Apparently, that cannot be done with spongy, sweaty bats.
“The moment when the ball leaves the bat, that feeling of a moist bat, it doesn’t feel as good,” he said. “That feel of the ball coming off the bat is different.”
At the bottom of his bat case, which is made for him by Mizuno, the same Japanese equipment manufacturer that still makes his bats, are two bags of moisture-absorbing blue pellets, much like larger versions of the small packets that come with some packaged goods. As the pellets absorb water they turn pink and Suzuki can monitor the level of humidity by how quickly the pellets change colors.
“Depending on how fast that turns you can get the barometer of how much moisture is in there,” he said.
During the Yankees’ recent series at Boston’s Fenway Park, Suzuki sat at his locker and clicked open his box like a sharpshooter opening a rifle case. He gently pulled out a bat and examined it from tip to handle, and every place in between. He banged it with the heel of his hand and listened to the tone that followed, then he ran his fingers across the bat to check the grain before carefully placing it back in the case.
Suzuki keeps four game-ready bats laid out on the top row of the spongy foam inside the case. Underneath that top row is another layer of four bats that could be promoted to game duty after he tests them in batting practice and assesses their worthiness.
Each of Suzuki’s bats is precisely 33.46 inches in length and weighs 31 to 31.75 ounces, depending on how much moisture is in it at any given time. If a game bat breaks, or if one collects too much moisture on the bat rack during a particularly humid night, Suzuki might exchange it for one of the lower four in the case and then use that one in a game.
“Whatever he is doing,” said Derek Jeter, a master hitter himself, “it’s working.”
Since being acquired from the Mariners in a July 23 trade, Suzuki was batting .331 going into Monday night’s game against the Twins in Minneapolis. Over his last six games before Monday, he was 15 for 25 (. 600) with 2 home runs, 3 doubles and 7 runs scored, numbers that earned him American League player of the week honors.
Suzuki’s case travels with him — on the equipment truck to the plane and then back on a truck and into the clubhouse in whatever city the Yankees are playing.
He has been using a bat case since he played in Japan, as a number of Japanese players do, and some American players have caught on, as well. His former teammate in Seattle, Chone Figgins, uses one, as does Jarrod Saltalamacchia of the Red Sox.
Suzuki also takes excellent care of his mitt, which is customized and handcrafted. And his Asics spikes are exceptionally light, like sprinters’ shoes. They weigh only a half a pound and can only be used for a few games before they wear out.
But they have helped him steal 450 bases and beat out hundreds of hits, all of them off the bats that are so delicately cared for.
“In Japan we take care of our instruments, our bats and our gloves,” Suzuki said. “We take care of them well because these things are very important.”