Interesting article. I bolded the significant paragraph.
By Jon Saraceno, USA TODAY
The wafer-thin Japanese ballplayer with the bewildering swing and intriguing style possesses uncommon ardor, athletic integrity and intelligence. As a bona fide baseball pioneer, he respects the national pastime as if he were an apple pie-and-mom American. He is Ichiro.
One day soon, the 33-year-old Seattle Mariner, whose palpable joy for the game is diminished by perpetual losing, might leave to play for your favorite team.
If Ichiro Suzuki doesn't re-sign, he will depart the club that made him the first Asian position player in the majors in 2001.
If a free agent for '08, bidding for the six-time All-Star should reach the penthouse level of $15 million-$20 million a year.
Great expectations are nothing new for one of baseball's most popular, and private, showmen.
Yet, it wasn't until he etched his name into history in 2004, with the record for most hits in a season, that the fussbudget perfectionist realized he could not become the idealized vision fans want.
"Ichiromania" left him drained
"Many people have this image of me. For a long time, I cared about that," the center fielder tells USA TODAY through an interpreter, during a rare extended interview. "I often thought about what I could do to please them. I was always chasing after that Ichiro. It became a struggle. I think I was scared of what people were thinking of me.
"After 2004, I realized it was impossible to please them. I discovered I needed to do what I needed to, (and) if people like it, that's good. I became more confident. And that Ichiro became a part of me, instead of me chasing after him.
"When people get placed upon a pedestal — when they start chasing after that person on the pedestal — they become mannequin-like. People striving for approval from others become phony. You should seek approval from yourself."
Baseball's premier slap hitter could be the object of much love by November. Or, by the July 31 trade deadline. Seattle has finished last for three consecutive seasons in the American League West. It won 116 games Ichiro's first season but has not made the playoffs since. In a rare move a few years ago, he criticized teammates (but not by name) in a Japanese publication. He didn't like that they played cards in the clubhouse while the team struggled.
Upon his arrival at spring training this season, Ichiro informed the media that seeking a deal elsewhere as a free agent was a possibility. Seattle fans wept in their coffee.
"There are degrees of unhappiness," Seattle skipper Mike Hargrove says. "There are times in my marriage when I'm not real happy with my wife, but I still love her and, overall, I like it. I know the fans and the city love Ichiro. I think he loves them, too.
"Yeah, I think we have a chance to keep him. Until the day he walks, I'll believe that."
The Mariners say they want to extend his deal and have him retire in a Seattle uniform. Asked if he prefers to stay, Ichiro demurs: "It's a very touchy subject right now, so I'd prefer not to answer."
He has made known his desire to play for a contender and receive proper compensation. Ichiro is in the final season of a four-year, $44 million contract extension.
The Mariners, one game above .500 entering Tuesday night against the AL West-leading Los Angeles Angels, were second in that division. Their star leadoff man was hitting a very un-Ichiro-like .286, far below his towering .329 career average.
"How much a team would offer a player is an expression of how much the team cares — respects — him," he says. "It's very important. How important? Hard to say."
Ichiro, only 5-9, 170, has ascended to astounding heights since he began in pro ball in 1992 for Japan's Orix Blue Wave (seven batting titles in a row, three MVP awards). Three years ago in the majors he rapped out 262 hits, breaking George Sisler's lofty standard of 257 that had lasted, remarkably, since 1920.
What Ichiro is most admired for doesn't show up in box scores: commitment to fundamentals, a high baseball I.Q. and a "love and passion for the game," Mariners bench coach John McLaren says.
"I think he's the only guy playing in the major leagues who can hit .400," McLaren says. "If we played on (artificial turf), I know he could."
He is that sure. So is Ichiro, particularly when it comes to fulfilling a dream. "Once I turn 40," he says, "I can become a pitcher. I'm kind of serious about it. But I'll have to learn to throw a knuckleball. Right now, I could be a 'normal' pitcher," who can top out at 95 mph with a fastball.
Disciplined approach to staying fit
His arm remains valuable, but it is his unorthodox hitting style from the left side — using bats made of Japanese blue tamo wood that he stores in a humidor to limit moisture — that has leveraged his future.
Sometimes, he takes a whack at the ball while moving forward in the batter's box. Other times, he smacks pitches that appear unhittable. He is the only player to begin his major-league career with six consecutive 200-hit seasons. Only Hall of Famers Willie Keeler (eight) and Wade Boggs (seven) posted more.
"I know there are many people who watch me," he says. "If it's possible for me to influence them — 'Wow, that was beautiful!' — or make them think, 'That's different' ... well, to do (that) is not easily accomplished. You must be hard on yourself."
Ichiro has batted .303 or higher (up to .372) every season while scoring 101 runs or more. He can bloop 'em to any field and blast 'em out — his 20 lifetime leadoff home runs are a franchise record.
Defensive gems are routine and his glove regularly is dipped in gold, to go with that sterling-silver arm. On the basepaths, Ichiro had stolen 43 in a row over two seasons entering Tuesday, extending his AL record and seven shy of tying Vince Coleman's big-league mark set in 1988-89.
The cost for his services will be substantial. Considering how long he plans to play — possibly to 45 — it could be a bargain for a club to sign an international superstar who generates multiple revenue streams.
"I feel the way I did when I was 20," he says. "I was told my body would change when I hit 30, but it hasn't. But I am afraid, when I turn 40, of perceptions about me. That's an artificial standard — don't consider me the same as everyone else."
Such optimism flows from the reservoir of a lithe, rock-hard body and a speedy metabolism. Ichiro is disciplined in workouts, if not always at the dinner table. One evening during spring training he enjoyed two ice cream bars and six 4-inch ?lairs — after wolfing down a seven-course dinner prepared by his wife, Yumiko. "We have a saying in Japan: 'Your main dish and dessert go to different stomachs,' " he says.
Ichiro has the same waist size as when he was 20. He is methodical and programmed with his conditioning. In the offseason, he ran a long set of stairs a tongue-wagging 44 times, a 90-minute session. Total steps during 21/2 months: 25,000-plus.
"Before I do it, I train on a 'little' hill," he says. "Very few people can keep up with me because it's so difficult. My friends come with me. Some throw up. As a joke, I got a lawyer to draw up a document that said, 'Whoever tries this with me, if you die participating, I'm not responsible for your death.' Nobody has signed it."
Ichiro laughs, then is serious: "Actually, I don't know if I'm that disciplined. I only do what my body asks me to — not what my head tells me to do. If I start doing things I don't like, baseball won't be fun anymore."
No shortage of colorful opinions
He can be engaging, thoughtful and candid. When was the last time you heard a major-leaguer say: "I really enjoy geniuses. I'm not impressed by raw power. I'm moved more by beauty and grace."
• On performance-enhancing drugs: "When you take steroids, it's not as if wings grow out of your back, and you start flying all over the place and stealing home runs (from hitters). The word 'cheating' doesn't apply for me regarding steroids."
• Being an entertainer: "I want to be the kind of player who people feel it is worth paying the money to come out and watch. ... When I meet players who are playing just to win, that angers me."
• Pete Rose: "No one can deny his 4,000-plus hits. The gambling thing is something different. ... On the front of his Hall of Fame plaque they should put all of his records and amazing feats. When you flip it over, it should say, 'He gambled on baseball.' But I would vote for him."
• Tiger Woods' athleticism: "Tiger is a great golfer, but ... when you say athlete, I think of Carl Lewis. When you talk about (golfers or race-car drivers), I don't want to see them run. It's the same if you were to meet a beautiful girl and go bowling. If she's an ugly bowler, you are going to be disappointed."
Not so Ichiro. He is a wonderful athletic specimen, a fascinating dichotomy of combined cultures and divided allegiances. As a player, he is quiet, introspective, philosophical — so respectful of the game that he refuses to spit gum on the field. Dugouts are "disgusting" compared to spic-and-span Japanese benches. He doesn't like the lack of privacy in clubhouses (media are barred in Japan) because, as he says, smiling, "You can see what color my underwear are."
Ichiro's reserved nature is partially reflective of his nationality, he says.
"It's a weakness to try to show yourself to be more than you actually are. To me, it's cooler to hide yourself, even if you're better than that," Ichiro says. "That's a big difference between Japanese and American cultures. Sometimes, (Americans) try to make themselves out to be bigger than they are."
At 69 inches, he stands taller than most.