Hitting Japanese


SEATTLE—The street that leads to Safeco Field may as well be called “Ichiro Merchandise Avenue.” One hundred feet wide and a quarter-mile long, the rutted, usually abandoned stretch of pavement becomes as clogged as a midtown Manhattan sidewalk before Mariner home games. Along the left side of the street is Paul Allen’s latest multimillion-dollar construction project, the future playground of the Seahawks. Along the right side are makeshift vendor booths of T-shirts, stuffed bears, visors, and caps, emblazoned with the number 51 and “Ichiro.”

Ambling toward Safeco during a recent game against the lowly Kansas City Royals (even this one is sold-out) are beer-bellied men and their well-coiffed wives, children at their side, all wearing Ichiro hats and T-shirts. A headline in a baseball weekly heralds Ichiro Suzuki as an “instant star in the U.S.A.”

Yes, the lean, lithe leadoff hitter, who this year became the first position player to make the jump from Japan to Major League Baseball, is a star. But while the U.S. media, and certainly their Japanese counterparts, have marveled at Ichiro’s ability to beat out infield singles and zap out runners with laserlike throws from right, a few questions loom. Is he a modern-day version of Jackie Robinson, battling xenophobia? Is Ichiro, as veteran baseball writer Leonard Koppett recently postulated in the Seattle press, “the main figure in the final globalization of major league baseball”? And lastly, is Ichiro (like Madonna and Pelé, a one-name pop icon) even willing to accept the role of superstar, or will he recoil from such a label? Former Mariners Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez were okay with being superstars, but Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain were reluctant heroes.

Ichiro certainly resembles a rock star on the field before the game against the Royals in mid July, with his scruffy stubble, sunglasses, and tight uniform. Ichiro sprints past photographers and into his domain, the area in right field that’s named after his uniform number and has come to be known as “Area 51.” The double entendre—that he’s foreign, and thus an alien—is not believed in Seattle to be a slam. People here take it to mean the mystical culture that’s sprung up around Ichiro. After all, even his teammates call him the “Wizard,” and he’s been so mysterious that he won’t even divulge the name of his dog.

He hasn’t had a huge impact on everything. A vendor of kettle corn (a sweet variation on popcorn that’s a staple at regional events), asked whether Ichiro has cast a favorable spell on sales, notes that the combination of Ichiro and Kazuhiro Sasaki, last year’s American League Rookie of the Year for the Mariners, has increased the throng of Japanese tourists, but most of them don’t buy kettle corn.

A big-haired, bottle-blond vendor takes time from her hawking to say, “All I know is he’s an excellent player, and he doesn’t speak English yet.”

Such snippiness from Caucasian vendors in Seattle obviously doesn’t approach the vicious slurs shouted at the Brooklyn Dodgers’ No. 42 on the field and from the stands in 1947, but one event early in Ichiro’s U.S. career hinted of at least a little resentment from fans. In April, during the Mariners’ first trip to Oakland, rowdies in right field hurled coins and, according to some reports, “ice cubes and other debris” at Ichiro as he stood at his position. He endured two nights of “You suck!” from them, though no overtly racial insults were reported. But then, in the eighth inning of the third game, Ichiro responded with an astounding play, just as Robinson often answered taunts. As the A’s speedy Terrence Long sprinted from first to third on a teammate’s single, Ichiro fielded the ball smoothly and threw a dart, nailing Long.

A writer for the New Jersey-based webzine raved, “It wasn’t 1947, but on a chilly three-hour night in Oakland, I think I now have an idea what it might’ve looked like.”

Typically, Ichiro offered a cryptic response to the barrage. “Something came out of the sky and hit me,” he told reporters, through his translator. “I thought it was from the gods. I thought it was rain.”

That Ichiro turned out to be a bigger summer blockbuster than the us-versus-them movie Pearl Harbor suggests that any lingering bitterness against Japan may be mostly confined to the so-called Greatest Generation, which, spurred on by propaganda about “Japs” and “Nips,” learned to hate the Japanese in World War II. But even with all the scrutiny surrounding Ichiro, in a part of the country where Japanese Americans were interned in camps during the war, no less, the question of prejudice hasn’t been confronted.

On the field before the Mariners-Royals game, I raise the specter of xenophobia with Tim Hevly, the Mariners’ director of baseball information. Has he witnessed any backlash against the Mariners’ Japanese stars? Would he say so if he did?

“I think most of the reaction is geared toward the players as players,” he says.

But you have to wonder whether the skepticism that greeted Ichiro’s out-of-the-gate numbers—he batted safely in 42 of his first 45 regular season games—had anything to do with his being Japanese. During the Mariners’ first visit to Yankee Stadium, Yankee radio announcers John Sterling and Michael Kay stated with conviction that Ichiro wouldn’t be able to sustain his production throughout the full season, this despite the fact that he won seven consecutive batting titles in Japan, averaging .353 in nine years with Kobe’s Orix Blue Wave. At the time of the first Yankees-Mariners series at Yankee Stadium April 24-26, Ichiro already led the league in hits and had an average around .350. When he comes to town this week for a weekend series with the Yankees, he’ll still be leading the league in hits. His average will be around .330. Sterling and Kay weren’t alone; several ESPN analysts questioned Ichiro’s ability to continually play at a high level. During Ichiro’s first prolonged slump, which didn’t come until after he’d appeared in his first All-Star Game—at Safeco, where he singled against Randy Johnson in his first All-Star at bat—pundits doubted whether Ichiro could endure a 162-game season; Japanese seasons last only 135 games.

The twist to Ichiro’s story is that, by all accounts, he didn’t cross the Pacific to jot down business contacts on his Sony Clié as do many U.S. athletes hungry to be marketed. Why did he want to become the first Japanese position player to sign a major-league contract (beating the Mets’ Tsuyoshi Shinjo to the dotted line)? Ichiro’s been obtuse about this and every other subject. He clearly reveres the game. He appeared genuinely touched to pay his first visit to Yankee Stadium as a player, and his responses to questions after the All-Star Game diverted all praise to his colleagues. Asked about his hit against Johnson, Ichiro replied, “Randy is a great pitcher, and he was a Mariner and he wore number 51 before me. One of the things I always keep in my mind is to keep this number 51 with good dignity, because I inherited good things from Randy with the number 51.”

Such deflections and his inaccessibility—as if his lack of English weren’t enough, he’s turned down sit-down-interview requests from practically every U.S. outlet—may point to the real story. Ichiro’s a man in exile, a man who became so popular in Japan that he couldn’t go out in public with his wife. After his arrival in Seattle, Japan’s NHK network began broadcasting every Mariners game. Between innings, NHK doesn’t cut to commercials. Rather, an Ichirocam follows his every move. Last month, he and Sasaki staged a weeklong boycott of the Japanese press covering him in Seattle, after photographers swarmed his car as he tried to leave his home in the suburbs. His old team is suffering through a 47 percent drop in attendance, as the Japanese media have turned their focus from their own country’s baseball leagues to émigré players in the States.

He’s not the first international sports star to hide out in America; Yannick Noah famously became lost in New York City during his reign as France’s most popular tennis player. But Ichiro’s combination of caginess and nonchalance makes him seem like a Camus protagonist.

“He’s a star, but he doesn’t act like one,” his manager, Lou Piniella, told Fox Sports Network.

Ichiro’s stardom has led the Mariners to the best record in baseball, but even if he wins the Rookie of the Year award, the MVP, or the World Series, he appears to be unwilling to step into the spotlight and become baseball’s poster boy for globalization.