Mac Engel

A favorite: The time the rookie Ichiro talked to me 1-on-1

At age 44, Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is leaving the field and moving to the front office.
At age 44, Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is leaving the field and moving to the front office. The Associated Press

For whatever the reason, the news was lost, or ignored, or minimized, but Ichiro leaving the field is a much bigger deal than the coverage it's receiving.

This is what just happened: Elvis just left the building.

On Thursday, Ichiro Suzuki didn't necessarily retire, but he is leaving the game to step into a front office role with the Seattle Mariners.

He is 44, and has nine singles this season in 44 at bats. He's retired.

He will finish with 3,089 MLB hits. Remember - he didn't come to the U.S. until he was 27. Don't think Pete Rose doesn't know that (probably bet on it, too).

Forget what Ichiro did on the field and ponder the perception he personally crashed, the door he opened.

Ichiro was the first Japanese position player to play in a big league game in 2001. Until then, there had only been a few pitchers to make the jump. The thought was a Japanese hitter would be out-matched against big-league pitchers.

The game doesn't care where you are from. Can you hit? There have been few that hit a ball better than Ichiro.

Now, MLB is stuffed with imports from all over Japan and Korea. That does not happen without Ichiro dominating MLB pitchers.

During Spring Training in 2001, I hoped to do a story on the "rookie" from Japan, but quickly learned Ichiro didn't do many interviews, despite the gang of reporters from Japan assigned to cover him. I figured I would write it without him.

This was my first year covering the Texas Rangers, and MLB, and I had no clue what I was doing. Most contend I still don't.

After a Mariners' spring training game in Peoria, Ariz., I sat inside a mostly empty Mariners clubhouse - Ichiro sat talking to a Mariners' scout directly across from me.

The scout said to Ichiro, "He's talking about you."

Ichiro smiled.

I asked the scout, who spoke Japanese and could interpret, if I could ask him a couple of questions.

Ichiro looked and smiled at me and said, "Of course!"

The following is a reprint of the story on Ichiro arriving to the U.S. in 2001. It's long-form journalism, and it is fun to re-visit the arrival of a man who changed an entire sport, and essentially built a bridge over the Pacific Ocean.

Ichiro Suzuki sits alone with his legs crossed on a stool in the Seattle Mariners' clubhouse performing some sort of acupuncture on his right foot.

He presses, strains and smiles. The only noise comes from a television more than 15 feet away. In a world of clutter, noise and intrusiveness, moments of silence are bliss.

"What I like most about America is the individual freedom of being able to move around without people following me," Suzuki said. "In America, people respect your space."

Space is not something he had in Japan. Spring training provided a glimpse at how little space Suzuki, the first Japanese position player to sign with a major league team, had at home.

When Suzuki, 27, would drive out of the Mariners' spring training facility in Peoria, Ariz., he would roll past hundreds of fans who made the trip from overseas and a makeshift tent covering the dozens of Japanese reporters chronicling his every move.

"He's the Japanese Elvis," Mariners outfielder Jay Buhner said.

On April 6, at the Ballpark in Arlington, Suzuki left the building. He hit a game-winning home run to defeat the Rangers. It was his first home run in America. Such acts have elevated him into the role of pop culture icon in Japan.

"He's more like Michael Jackson or Madonna," said Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who has pitched for the Anaheim Angels since 1997. "I went one time to have dinner with him, but usually we can't. We can't go out with him. He can't walk down the street. He has no space there."

On Opening Day, 25 percent of major league players were foreign born, but none of them are like Suzuki. The seven-time Japanese batting champion has created curiosity and coverage unseen since Japan's Hideo Nomo took the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.

The Mariners issued more than 160 media credentials to Japanese reporters this spring and have 75 for reporters who will follow Suzuki every day during the season.

"The hardest part," Suzuki said through an interpreter, "is dealing with the Japanese media every day. I give that same answer all the time, that I don't like the Japanese media, and then they find out I say it to the American press and [the Japanese press] gets mad at me."

The reporters ask and cover everything. From the number of Ichiro's batting practice swings to what types of "rice balls" his wife makes for him to innocuous plays made in the field. For example, in the middle of a spring training game, Suzuki stood at first base while teammate Mike Cameron trailed 1-2 in the count. Suzuki took off for second while Cameron swung and missed and Ichiro was caught stealing for the third out.

"Why did you miss the ball when Ichiro ran?" a Japanese reporter asked Cameron after the game.

Suzuki does not talk to the Japanese media every day. The amount of coverage became so heavy that at one point this spring the good-humored Hasegawa put a sign on his locker that read: "Ichiro is good today. I will not talk about him. Thank you."

"Maybe they think he's good-looking," Hasegawa joked. "I don't think so, but maybe they do. . . . Japanese press is different. Like in America there is USA Today that has a sports section with two or maybe three pages for baseball. Japan has sports newspapers that are separate. They have to write 10 or 20 pages every day, and baseball is the biggest sport in Japan. It's all sports; they love sports. They ask me, or Ichiro, every day, 'How is practice?' It's the same as it was yesterday. It's not the media's fault, it's just the system."

Suzuki is not used to American baseball, but he likes the challenge.

"In baseball in America, everybody is a baseball fan," he said. "Even if the opposing team makes a good play, everybody stands and cheers. They really love baseball. People are really big baseball fans. I love that; it's very different from Japan."

In Japan fans root for their team, not players, which makes Suzuki's celebrity all the more amazing.

Suzuki played for the Orix BlueWave. In Japan, the Yomiuri Giants are the only team in the country to have all of their games televised, and the company that runs the team owns the three newspapers that cover the team.

"They're more than the Yankees," Hasegawa said. "The Yankees are big in the U.S., but the Giants can spend 20 times more than every other team. If you don't play for the Giants, it's tough to be popular."

Suzuki broke the mold. When he was 21 he set a Pacific League record with 210 hits. At BlueWave home games, the right field bleachers always were the top ticket, so fans could be closer to him.

Last season he hit a career-best .387 to win his seventh consecutive batting title, a Japanese-league record. He was named to the Pacific League "Best Nine" end-of-season all-star team for the seventh consecutive year and won his seventh consecutive Gold Glove.

For the Mariners, Suzuki was batting .359 through Thursday. He has also shown exceptional bunting ability, something he did not do in spring training so other teams could not scout him.

"Man, the guy can fly," Oakland first baseman Jason Giambi said. "Hopefully, he'll add some culture to baseball in the [United] States. I think it's nice to see things like that added to the game."

Culture aside, there will be other adjustments.

"Here, everyone hits, fields and throws differently," said Chicago Cubs first baseman Matt Stairs, who played for Japan's Chunichi Dragons in 1993. "Over there, it seems like when they are young, they all hit alike. They all have the same windup and the same swing; that's how they're taught. He's going to find he's going to have to change his style of hitting. A guy who likes to slap a ball to left field is going to be pitched inside.

"The other difference is if you struggle you're on the bench. It's not like here when you have a bad year and you get a raise. There, if you have a bad year you get a pay cut."

Suzuki will not be getting a pay cut anytime soon. He signed a three-year, $14 million contract that pays him just less than $5.7 million this season. The Mariners had to pay his Japanese team $13 million just for the right to negotiate with him.

"He's done a good job . . . especially considering the circumstance," Buhner said. "Think about it. You're coming over to a new country, you have to learn all about that, then you have to talk to 40-something reporters every day and then go out and play. And you don't know the pitchers a whole lot, you have to get to know the league and it's pretty tough."

Suzuki does not have to look far for an example. Mariners reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki saved 37 games last season and was named the American League rookie of the year.

"Day by day," Suzuki said, "it's getting better."

Trucks hauling dirt for the $1.1 billion stadium will continue for another 3 to 4 weeks. But fans will start to see the new stadium emerging out of the ground over the next year.

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