Ichiro Suzuki, Best Player in the League?

The Japanese are famously reserved but not when it comes to their heroes. And in 130 years of Japanese baseball there's never been a hero quite like Ichiro Suzuki.

"There's only one Ichiro," said former teammate Alex Arias. "He's a legend. Girls go crazy. Guys go crazy. It's unbelievable."

Ichiro, he prefers to be called by his first name, won the batting title in each of his seven full seasons in Japan. He holds the single season records for both batting average and hits.

Practice Made Perfect

But he is hardly a natural. As a youth, he spent countless hours in a batting cage. Today, that same batting cage is a shrine to Ichiro.

Now that he's crossed the Pacific and succeeded beyond anyone's expectations he's an even bigger star.

Despite the 16-hour time difference, Seattle Mariners' games are broadcast live in Japan and draw huge audiences. At the baseball café in Tokyo, lunchtime is Ichiro time.

Why did Ichiro decide to leave all this behind? In a rare interview, he says it was a feeling that somehow his progress had stalled.

"I thought to myself, 'Man what can I do to pull myself out of this?' The only idea that really came to mind was changing my surroundings," he said.

Six years ago, American marketing executive Jack Sakazaki took Ichiro on his first visit to the U.S.

"We went to see Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey, Jr. and all these players and he was just awed," Sakazaki said. "We went to see the Bulls play and he was jumping around like a kid. So, I think that at that time he knew he wanted to go to the States."

This spring, Ichiro made his major league debut. Before Ichiro, only a handful of Japanese pitchers had played in the United States. No Japanese position player had ever dared test his skills in the land where baseball was born.

"His departure was because he knew he wanted to play in the best environment with the best possible competition and he knew that he wanted to win," Sakazaki said. "He knew that he wanted to win. He knew that he could win and that he could do well outside of Japan and he proved it."

Makes Fans Cry

When Ichiro played his final game in Japan fans openly wept.

But they may have more to cry about soon. Some are worried that Ichiro's success will encourage further defections among Japan's top talent.

"America is cherry picking their stars and Japan is turning into a farm system for the United States," said Robert Whiting, who writes about Japanese baseball.

If this really is the beginning of a flood, a mass exodus to the U.S. what happens to Japanese baseball.

"It's doomed, I think," Whiting said.

Strong words, but interest and attendance are already declining. Attendance for the Blue Wave, Ichiro's old team has dropped this season by more than fifty percent.

As part of an agreement with the Osaka Buffaloes Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda is sent across the Pacific every few weeks to coach.

But he also comes to evaluate Japanese talent.

"Well, the third baseman that we got, Nakamura here, he's got power," Lasorda said. "If he played in the big leagues, he'd hit a lot of home runs." Over here, Ichiro is still working on his English.

"The tendency that somebody who doesn't speak your language is to try humor and dirty words," Ichiro said. "Most of the things my teammates have tried to teach me I don't think I can say in front of the camera here."

But clearly, Ichiro has already mastered the American pastime. He received more votes for the all-star game than any other player. He's led the Mariners to the best record in the game. He may already be the best all-around player in the major leagues. But he retains a distinctly Japanese sense of modesty.

"I feel like I should be more in touch with the nuances of this game," he said. "I've made far too many mistakes. That's the way I feel."

null
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...