As you grow older — and I started growing older earlier than most people, sometime in junior high — you grasp onto a handful of things to feel safe and comfortable. I no longer have my boyhood exuberance for baseball, but I still enjoy cherry-picking the box scores, whether online or in the morning newspaper, looking for tidbits of joy.

Over the last decade, Ichiro Suzuki has been my guaranteed daily morsel of joy.

This year, that agate-type happiness is being threatened – perhaps by the ravages of time.

In all 10 of his seasons with the Seattle Mariners since coming to Major League Baseball from Japan at age 27, Ichiro has batted over .300 and accumulated at least 200 hits.

As we reach midseason here in 2011, Ichiro, now 37, is batting only .271 and is on pace for a 181-hit season.

Ichiro also has won 10 straight Gold Gloves — with never more than five errors in a season — but in 2011 he has been subpar at times defensively and already has committed three errors.

Hey, 60 might be the new 50 and 50 might be the new 40, but on a baseball diamond, 37 just might be too old.

The thing is, Ichiro Suzuki might be the most underappreciated great player of his generation. Part of this is he’s been stuck on a losing team most of his career. Part of this is because he’s Japanese; on our field of dreams, we prefer homegrown athletic superstars. Part of this is he’s playing in the Pacific Northwest; many Americans couldn’t locate the Pacific Northwest on a U.S. map, and most Mariners games end about the time Carson Daly is interviewing some indie actress I’ve never heard of.

Just think about Ichiro’s 10-year MLB career again: 10 straight .300 seasons, 10-straight 200-hit campaigns, 10 straight Gold Gloves, 10-time All-Star.

If he played in New York, there might be a Baby Ichiro candy bar in every mini-mart and sushi bars bearing his name on every corner.

(Column Intermission: I am reminded of NFL contemporaries, quarterbacks Phil Simms and Dave Krieg. From 1979-93, Simms played with the New York Giants; from 1980-91, Krieg played with the Seattle Seahawks. Simms’ stats: 95-64 record, 199 touchdown passes, 157 interceptions, 55.4 completion percentage, 78.5 passer rating. Krieg’s stats: 70-49 record, 195 TDs, 148 interceptions, 58.6 completion percentage, 82.3 passer rating. Simms, of course, has Super Bowl glory and could be headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame; Krieg, meanwhile, is sitting at this very moment in an Applebee’s. I wonder how things might be different if Simms played in Seattle and Krieg played in New York.)

(P.S. to Phil Simms: I hated you as a Giant but love you as a TV analyst. But you really should send Dave Krieg some type of sympathy card.)

If you include Ichiro’s Japanese major league numbers — where he won seven straight batting titles — the outfielder now has hit .300 in a remarkable 19 consecutive seasons.

I’ll always remember the exact words I uttered the first time I saw Ichiro on TV, in 2001:

“Boy, he can hit.”

But in 2011, Ichiro’s ball-on-a-string, two-singles-a-day-keep-the-curveballs-away brilliance has been wavering.

Now, I do recall that Ichiro scared me once before — in 2006, when he was batting .177 on April 18 before finishing at .322 with a league-leading 224 hits. But that was April and this is June, and it’s possible that Ichiro is in the deep autumn of his baseball life.

Earlier this month — mired in a .149 slump over three weeks that dropped his season average to .248 — Ichiro was given a night off, ending his streak of 255 consecutive games played.

Yes, they benched him, which is like yanking Placido Domingo out of “La Traviata” because his voice squeaked on a couple of notes.

Ichiro took the benching in stride, and since then, went on an 11-game hitting streak — with eight multiple-hit games — to raise his average 23 points. Suddenly, those box scores are looking a lot better with my morning Metamucil, and Ichiro still might extend his .300-average and 200-hit streaks. So maybe 37 is the new 27.

Ask The Slouch

Q. The wedding registry of New Jersey Nets forward Kris Humphries and Kim Kardashian includes a $1,600 coffee pot. Does Humphries earn enough to offset Kardashian-style spending? (Chris Jones; Columbia, S.C.)

A. To your point, I just ran into Lamar Odom moonlighting at Best Buy as sixth man on the Geek Squad.

Q. Nationals manager Jim Riggleman resigned abruptly and unexpectedly. Was Couch Slouch advising him? (Marc Samuels; Euclid, Ohio)

A. Listen, pal, I would never walk away from a marriage if I’d had 11 good days out of 12.

Q. North Carolina just designated NASCAR the official state sport. What’s the official state sport of Los Angeles? (David Schwartz; Rockville, Md.)

A. Traffic.

(However, the $1.25 is being withheld until Shirley verifies that L.A. has become a state.)

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