Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The language of hits

Ichiro acknowledges cheers at Yankee Stadium after hitting his 4,000th hit as a professional on Aug. 21, 2013.
On the occasion of his 4,000th hit as a professional, a look back at Ichiro's first month as a major leaguer. This article originally appeared in the National Post of Toronto

By Tom Hawthorn
May 8, 2001


The good people of Seattle have suffered earthquakes. They have endured 40 days and 40 nights of rain. They have long wandered in search of the promised land that is the World Series. They have built a new temple only to learn they have been worshipping false gods. Why have you forsaken us, A-Rod?

Verily, a saviour is delivered unto them. He is a man as modest in stature as he is in demeanour. His glove is golden and his arm is true. He hits and he runs and he performs miracles on the baseball diamond.

He is known by a single name, as was once the great Babe.

He is Ichiro.

The Seattle Mariners rookie right-fielder from Japan has hit safely in 29 of Seattle's 31 games. He brings a 13-game hitting streak into tonight's game in Boston. His average is above .500 when runners are in scoring position. He has more hits than anyone in baseball.

"It's like he's playing T-ball out there," centre-fielder Mike Cameron said. "He hits wherever he wants to whenever he wants to."

The Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff got a taste of Seattle's leadoff batter this weekend, as Ichiro went 5-for-13, including a double and a triple with four runs scored. Seattle is in Toronto for a three-game stand at SkyDome beginning Friday.

Ichiro, who bats left, has an odd, slashing swing. He reaches for the ball even as the rest of his body seems in a hurry to get down the first-base line. He bails out, a cardinal sin. Every hitting coach in the majors is shaking his head in disbelief. You're not supposed to be able to drive the ball that way, yet Ichiro strokes the ball precisely into the outfield gaps.

The usual rules no longer apply. Last week, Ichiro stole third base against the catcher's throw -- standing up! Even a Little Leaguer knows you're supposed to slide.

"We mentioned it to him," manager Lou Piniella said with a father's indulgent what-can-you-do-about-it shrug.

Ichiro's most remarkable play this young season is called The Throw and the entire American League is talking about it. "I saw that throw of his on the highlight shows," Boston Red Sox manager Jimy Williams said, punctuating his sentence with a high whistle. "That was really something." Oakland's Terrence Long had dared to try for an extra base and Ichiro threw a low strike to third from right field. Long was out before he began his slide; he looked like Charlie Brown on the base path.

Ichiro later told his translator that he did not understand why Long had run "when I was going to throw him out."

Not surprisingly, Seattle is in the grip of Ichiro fever. His feats lead every newscast, his picture graces every sports page. Mariners fans feel burned for worshipping shortstop Alex Rodriguez only to learn of his mercenary's fidelity. Before him, they were spurned by Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. in trades dictated by the wild economics of baseball free agentry. Ichiro is balm for the broken-hearted.

The Mariners paid US$13.1-million to the Orix Blue Wave of Kobe, Japan, simply for the right to negotiate with him. Ichiro himself signed a three-year, US$14-million contract, which will likely be a bargain for Seattle. He is the first positional player from Japan to play in the major leagues.

Ichiro's fame in Japan is hard to fathom. He is a household name, a Michael Jordan, a Tiger Woods, a Brad Pitt and a Mel Gibson rolled into one, a star athlete with movie star looks and a reputation as a friendly sort.

A normal life had become impossible in his homeland. He was mobbed by fans when spotted in public. Life was a series of late-night rendezvous through service entrances at the finest restaurants. The gossip columns were filled with his latest romances with movie starlets, even after he began steadily dating a TV announcer seven years his senior. The couple, who met when Yumiko Fukushima interviewed him for a radio program, had to secretly wed in Los Angeles two years ago.

Ichiro Suzuki was born in Kasugai, Aichi prefecture, on Oct. 22, 1973. Legend has it he first started playing baseball at age three. He was obsessed with the game. Even though the strict Japanese education system only allowed for baseball on weekends, young Ichiro made his father practise with him every night.

He first played in the Japanese major leagues at age 19. A manager impressed by his unique style of play indulged his wish to be known simply as Ichiro. Suzuki is a common surname. Ichiro is an old-fashioned Japanese name given to a first-born son.

He hit like Cobb, winning the Pacific League batting title for seven consecutive seasons. His farewell campaign ended at a lifetime best .387, pushing his career mark to .353. He also was awarded seven consecutive gold gloves. In 1999, he didn't commit a single error in the 103 games he played.

So unpleasant had life become in Japan that he spent his off-seasons in Los Angeles. On an early trip to Seattle, he and his wife were amazed to be able to shop at Nordstrom's department store without being bothered. The same likely wouldn't happen today.

Fans at Safeco Field wave signs reading "Ichiro Ichiban!" (No. 1) and the scoreboard flashes "Ichi-riffic!" and "Ichi-palooza!" when he gets a hit.

Those seeking relics of their saintly hero can buy Ichiro pins ($7), pennants ($6), magnets ($9), keychains ($6), travel mugs ($9), mouse pads ($10), T-shirts ($16) and replica No. 51 uniforms ($120).

"His batting is so very nice," gushed 29-year-old Hitomi Harada of Hiroshima, who travelled from her home in Vancouver to cheer Ichiro from Section 108 of the bleachers. "Also, he is so handsome and so smart."

David Ishii, 66, whose antiquarian bookstore is a long fly ball from the stadium, has seen few players as disruptive to an opponent as Ichiro.

"The game revolves around him when he gets on base."

For someone who was once demonized by his own countrymen, the worship of Ichiro and fellow Japanese countryman Kazuhiro Sasaki, the Mariners' star relief pitcher, is a marvel.

"It's a bit of a turning point."

Even the Washington State Senate has got in on the adulation, unanimously passing a motion that "Kazu and Ichiro Suzuki are undeniably the most fun Japanese imports since Nintendo."

Sasaki, 33, was American League rookie of the year last season with 37 saves. He already has 14 this season, making him the AL's premier ririfu pitcha.

While Ichiro seems all business, Sasaki seems all play. At 6- foot-4, 220 pounds, he is a giant by Japanese standards. He credits his mass to his father's job at a milk factory.

The NHL's Stanley Cup was brought to Safeco Field recently to promote hockey telecasts on ABC. Sasaki walked over, wrapped his arms around the storied trophy, gave a wide smile, and said: "For me? Thank you."

Sasaki is a prankster. The club's mascot is the Mariner Moose, a fuzzy critter with antlers. In the fifth inning of home games, the Moose rides a go-cart along the warning track, playfully squirting fans in the centre-field bleachers. Sasaki recently organized his bullpen mates in an ambush, dumping buckets of water on the unsuspecting Moose.

After games, Sasaki entertains the large contingent of reporters from Japan. He even allows his son, Shogo, to climb into his lap and bounce a tennis ball in the locker room.

Across the room, Ichiro sits facing his locker-room stall, rubbing a sponge along the thumb of his black leather glove, working the spot where his name is stitched in white.

He avoids eye contact with English-speaking reporters, answering two or three questions posed to Mariners scout Hide Sueyoshi. It is as if the interpreter is a priest transmitting the words of a god.

Ichiro stands 5-foot-9. He is listed at 160 pounds, but he looks like he'd have to spend a week at a sushi bar to reach that weight. What power he has comes from thick sumo legs that support a wiry frame.

One at-bat last week against Frank Castillo of the Red Sox captured how disruptive he can be.

Ichiro mistimed one of his swings, sending a dribbler on the grass toward short. By the time the shortstop got to the ball, Ichiro was at first. Infield single.

Castillo stepped off the rubber. He threw to first. He threw to first again. He stepped off the rubber again.

He looked in for the sign from his catcher, licked his lips, cast one final sidelong glance at Ichiro and, finally, threw a pitch to Mike Cameron, who promptly deposited the ball into the left-field bleachers.

"I'm sure he drives the other team crazy is what he does," Cameron said after the game. "We all sit back and laugh in the dugout.

"He's like that little go-cart that the Moose be riding around on. You don't know what to expect from this guy, man. Chops one to the third basemen, shoots one into the gap. Who knows? The guy's unbelievable."

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