Search

Rising Son The defection of Ichiro Suzuki, a career .353 hitter, isn't seen as all bad news in Japan, if he becomes a sensation with the Mariners and brings honor to his country

Dec. 04, 2000
Dec. 04, 2000

Table of Contents
Dec. 4, 2000

Rising Son The defection of Ichiro Suzuki, a career .353 hitter, isn't seen as all bad news in Japan, if he becomes a sensation with the Mariners and brings honor to his country

Ichiro, I wish you have some good business with Sasaki in Seattle.
--Fan's sentiment expressed in a message book at the Orix BlueWave
souvenir shop

This is an article from the Dec. 4, 2000 issue Original Layout

Resting snug on her mother's chest against the afternoon chill,
Chinatsu Tanaka is a smiling, moon-faced, four-month-old girl who
is one chromosome from having been called Ichiro Tanaka. Her
mother, Aki, admits she rooted fervently for a boy so she could
have named him after her favorite baseball player and didactic
device, Ichiro Suzuki. No fairweather fan--she hasn't abandoned
the idea of trying for a baby Ichiro even though she's 41--Aki is
on maternity leave from her job teaching English in a junior high
school, a break that affords her the luxury of congregating with
20 other fans outside the parking lot of the Orix BlueWave's
practice facility in Kobe on this blustery Tuesday. When
instructing her students, she often uses Ichiro's name in sample
sentences.

Ichiro is a good baseball player.
Where does Ichiro live?

Ichiro is, indeed, a textbook player--a seven-time Pacific League
batting champion with gap power, a fleet base runner, a polished
rightfielder and, now, the first Japanese position player to move
to the North American major leagues, with the Seattle Mariners.
Aki, with Chinatsu and a homemade sign declaring her affection
for Ichiro in hand, would like to tell her hero about namesakes
and junior high English classes and her faith in his ability to
thump big league lefthanders, but in the two weeks since she has
been keeping a vigil at the BlueWave's facility, he has yet to
favor the fans with a word. This day is no different. Ichiro
wheels a gray, bite-sized Nissan through the gate and into a
parking space. Seemingly deaf to screams of "Ichiro-san!" he
strides off, around a corner, gone.

"At first I felt sad when he signed with the Mariners," says Aki,
"but now I want to go to Seattle to cheer him. I like his dream.
His dream is bigger and bigger."

The reaction in Japan to Ichiro's imminent departure has been a
touching mixture of barely concealed pride and barely expressed
sorrow, the emotions of a parent driving his only child off to
college. There's no more reason for the Japanese to be angry with
the 27-year-old Ichiro for leaving than there is for a father to
be angry with his son for growing up. Japan has been on a
first-name basis with Ichiro for years--he dropped his last name,
Suzuki, in 1994, the year he had a Japanese Leagues-record 210
hits--and his signing of a three-year contract with the Mariners,
reportedly for between $15 and 18 million, has been treated as if
it were a family matter. He's the special son, the perennial
leader in the All-Star balloting, a cottage industry of
endorsements, a player so admired that the yellow Nike Air Max
'95 model sneakers he favored touched off a minor wave of Air
Jordanesque shoe-jackings (oi hagi) by roving gangs in nearby
Osaka.

Righthander Hideo Nomo's early big league triumphs with the Los
Angeles Dodgers and righty Kazuhiro Sasaki's 37 saves and
American League Rookie of the Year performance last season with
Seattle stirred a nation, but Nomo and Sasaki are pitchers, not
every-day icons. If the lefthanded-hitting Ichiro bats .300 for
the Mariners, he will reflect well on Japanese baseball and, by
extension, Japan. If he fails, well, that's inconceivable. The
national conversation, played out in Japanese newspapers,
concerns the degree of Ichiro's stardom in the U.S., not whether
he'll be a star at all.

"There's no doubt he'll succeed," says Isao O'Jimi, a New York
Mets scout in Japan. "Defensively he's already one of the top
players when compared to major leaguers. The same with his speed.
If you hit .300 in the States, you're a real good player, right?
Ichiro's first year I think he'll hit at least .280, and more
than .300 his second year." Stronger praise comes from Mets
manager Bobby Valentine, who saw Suzuki play while managing in
Japan five years ago. "He's one of the top five players in the
world," says Valentine. "He's the real thing."

The discussion in Japan has sweated the relatively small stuff:
Ichiro's hitting technique, his mental toughness, the rigors of
major league travel, the new pitchers he'll have to study, the
adjustments to a new language and culture he will have to make.
The central issue has been avoided like Ichiro himself at the
plate with a 3-and-0 count and first base empty. The question
shouldn't be how well will Ichiro do in Seattle, but how well
will Japanese baseball do without Ichiro--and the other stars
likely to follow him? Put it this way: Is Japanese baseball on
its way to becoming a branch of MLB Inc., a glorified minor
league? "With every player who goes over," says Robert Whiting,
author of the brilliant 1989 study of baseball in Japan, You
Gotta Have Wa, "the Japanese grip on their own game becomes less
firm."

"This might be good for Ichiro, but it's a tragedy for the
Japanese professional leagues to lose their best and most popular
player," says Masaru Ikei, political science professor emeritus
at Keio University in Tokyo and a rabid fan of the Fukuoka Daiei
Hawks. "This is just like hockey in Russia. The best players all
went to the NHL, and most of the teams in their pro league lost
popularity."

Ichiro's defection, for what may amount to little more than a
small bump in pay--Orix paid him 530 million yen ($4.8 million) in
2000--probably would be devastating if not for the solid
underpinnings of Japanese baseball. At the grassroots level more
than 4,100 high schools and colleges have teams. Ichiro, who
joins seven Japanese pitchers on major league rosters, said last
week through an interpreter, "I go, but another star soon will
replace me. This is good for the younger generation."

Japan has 12 big league teams (each also has a minor league
affiliate) that are split into the Central and Pacific leagues,
offering a brand of baseball rooted in fundamentals, a stable
game that definitely won't have a work stoppage in 2002. (The
last time Japan canceled games wasn't due to a tiff over revenue
sharing or free-agent rights; it was because of World War II.)
There are difficulties unique to Japanese baseball--the
disparity between the Central League and the weaker Pacific, the
1950s Yankees-like sway over the game wielded by the Yomiuri
Giants, middling facilities compared to the new palaces dotting
the U.S. big league landscape, a milquetoast players'
association that didn't win its members the right to
representation by an agent until four weeks ago--but it's hardly
about to wither.

"One thing Japanese baseball has in its favor is that some of its
players aren't hungry," says O'Jimi. "A mediocre player can make
$1 million. To have that much money without having to take the
risks of going to another country is enough for most players. For
great ones like Ichiro, who have done everything here"--Ichiro
batted .387 in 2000, after a late-season muscle pull in his rib
cage ended his assault on .400--"the challenge of the next level
might take them to the States."

Yomiuri may already be taking steps to douse some of those
competitive embers. Multiyear contracts are rare in Japan, but
according to the influential daily Nikkan Sports, the Giants plan
to offer a six-year, $40 million contract to 26-year-old Hideki
Matsui, an outfielder who last season hit .316 with 42 home runs
and 108 RBIs over Japan's 135-game schedule. "Ichiro's signing is
actually good for Japanese baseball," says Nobuhisa Ito, who
directs the Japanese Professional Baseball League's international
affairs. "It forces us to make more realistic decisions. In
business in Japan it's often sentiment first, then business. That
has made us a fat people. We have to lose the weight. Now we are
heading in a different direction."

The decision by Orix, a leasing company that owns the BlueWave,
to sell Ichiro's rights to Seattle is certainly one with which
major league small market clubs can identify. Kobe is a western
port city of 1.5 million, and the BlueWave is a
middle-of-the-road team. (Think Pittsburgh Pirates with shorter
fences.) Ichiro was one season from free agency--a Japanese
player needs nine full years of service--and he told Orix he
would bolt after 2001, either to another team in Japan or, like
Sasaki last winter, to North America. Faced with a situation
similar to the one that induced the Montreal Expos to ship Pedro
Martinez to the Boston Red Sox in 1997 and a teetering Japanese
economy, Orix agreed to "post" Ichiro, opening a four-day window
for sealed bids from major league clubs. The Mariners, whose
principal owner is Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, trumped
a handful of competitors with a $13.125 million bid that, upon
its acceptance on Nov. 9, earned them a 30-day window during
which to negotiate with Ichiro.

Ichiro is the first native Japanese player to leave under the
so-called posting system, an agreement between Major League
Baseball and the Japanese Leagues reached in the aftermath of the
New York Yankees' signing of Hideki Irabu in 1997. The Yankees
obtained the rights to deal with Irabu from the San Diego Padres,
who held exclusive negotiating rights to Irabu through an
agreement with his Japanese club, the Chiba Lotte Marines. To
foreclose on a system that might have provided big league clubs
with a pipeline to Japanese players through cozy team-to-team
relationships, the commissioner's offices in the two countries
devised posting--over the objection of the Japanese players'
association.

"If Japanese baseball people are worried about their game
becoming a farm system to the major leagues, the posting system
will only accelerate the trend," says Peter Miller, who
represents the Major League Baseball Players Association in
Japan, where he has lived for more than two decades. He's the
son of former players' association executive director Marvin
Miller. "This is a bonanza for Japanese clubs. Financially
strapped teams will start doing it more often. Instead of
opposing a posting"--a Japanese team isn't obliged to honor a
player's request to be posted--"they're going to be pushing it."

Ichiro had been asking out since playing against touring major
leaguers in the the autumn of 1996. "I wanted a change of
circumstances in my life," Ichiro said last week. "I saw these
good American players, and I wanted to play against them. Every
time I would ask, Orix would say, 'No chance.'"

His yearning only intensified after a spring-training tutorial
with the Mariners in 1999. He returned from that stint with some
four-letter Anglicisms, a near-perfect "Wassup?" and a scraggly
beard that further distinguished him in Japan's button-down
baseball world. Ichiro is the upright nail that refuses to be
hammered down. He shags fly balls with behind-the-back catches.
Warming up between innings, he often shows off his arm by
throwing across the outfield to the leftfielder. He's just as
distinctive at the plate, cocking his bat toward the pitcher like
Luke Skywalker preparing for a light-saber duel and then sweeping
it into a hitting position when the pitcher starts his windup.
Ichiro plays to the crowd and sometimes with the crowd. While his
manager interminably argued a call last season against the Nippon
Ham Fighters, Ichiro charmed the Nippon fans in the rightfield
seats by playing catch with them.

On bustling Flower Street in Kobe stands a secular shrine to
Ichiro: the BlueWave souvenir store. One third of the
merchandise is dedicated to a player who won't be back next
season. There are Ichiro cups, key chains, baseballs, action
figures, jerseys, T-shirts, posters, cell-phone headsets,
wristbands, stickers, calendars, notebooks, biographies, pins,
memo pads, good-luck symbols, towels, postcards and flags.
(Since Ichiro was posted, the store manager says sales have
increased tenfold.) The Mariners are the only other team whose
wares are on display. There is a small table with Seattle
gimcracks and the message book in which customers have written
nothing but warm, fuzzy thoughts on Ichiro's imminent departure.
A monitor shows a continuous video loop of Ichiro's press
conference, during which Mariners president Chuck Armstrong
expresses confidence in Ichiro. With a three-year investment of
more than $28 million--$13.125 to Orix, at least $15 million to
Ichiro--Armstrong had better be right.

Seattle general manager Pat Gillick, who has seen Ichiro play
only on tape, calls him a "Kenny Lofton-Johnny Damon type," but
Ichiro, who probably will bat first or second for the Mariners,
doesn't have Lofton's whippet body. Ichiro's 5'11", 175-pound
frame looks bigger than advertised. He's thick through the
haunches and has rippling muscles in his thighs.

On the afternoon that he sped past Aki and Chinatsu Tanaka and
the other fans outside the practice facility, he ran, threw,
stretched and lifted weights for four hours. He had business in
Nagoya the next day, but he made it back to the BlueWave site
for his workout, arriving at 10:30 p.m., something he does
occasionally anyway to dodge the media. Ichiro finished his
running close to midnight. "Sometimes I am nervous, sometimes
anxious," Ichiro said of his new big league adventure, "but I
want to challenge a new world."

By having the temerity to leave, Ichiro-san--truly a name
player--is challenging the old one.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO WHO'DA THUNK IT? In early 1999, Ichiro made a spring training guest appearance with the major league team that 21 months later would sign him.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVEROTWO COLOR PHOTOS: TAKEO TANUMA GUY AND DOLLS Ichiro has a Jordanesque following in Japan, inspiring artistic young fans and action figures that mimic his stance.
The reaction in Japan to Ichiro's departure has been a mixture of
barely concealed pride and barely expressed sorrow.
In Japan's button-down baseball world, Ichiro is the upright
nail that refuses to be hammered down.