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Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001


Ichiro, Ichiro, Ichinooo!

"All the world's a stage," a well-known English playwright declared in "As You Like It," adding: "And all the men and women merely players . . . "

Crisp, time-honored words that yet fall short of an even keener truth -- which is that some of us are much better players than others.

And at the end of this hot first summer of the new millennium, it seems the finest player of all is Ichiro Suzuki.

Not only does Ichiro hit, not only does he field, and not only does he run -- he wins. At the highest level of his sport, he has spearheaded his team on a victory pace almost unmatched in baseball history.

He is not, as that guy in England also wrote, just strutting and fretting his one poor hour on the stage. Instead, Ichiro is struttin'! There's a difference.

The man has run rings around the U.S. national pastime. He had the American League Rookie of the Year award wrapped up by May and might walk off with the Most Valuable Player prize, too. On top of this, the grandest goal of all -- a World Series Championship -- now lies but a few victories from his reach.

And Ichiro has achieved this all with class. He has not worn the sober pout of major league trailblazer Hideo Nomo, nor the puppy-dog grin of Tsuyoshi Shinjo, a man born perhaps to sell toothpaste rather than play baseball. Nor has he shown the sweat-dripping tension of fellow Seattle Mariner, Kazuhiro Sasaki.

Rather, Ichiro has been cool -- while also burning to succeed. This combination of poise and passion has left a strong impression.

Among baseball lovers, Ichiro has already achieved a status that precious few American ballplayers ever attain: nationwide first-name recognition. The Babe, Joltin' Joe and Hammerin' Hank -- in the end, Ichiro might rank with the very best.

So the question comes . . . Why don't I feel good about this?

From Aparichio to Valenzuela to Sosa, major league baseball has been a borderless game for decades. Like most fans, I hold no misgivings about a player's nationality. I also feel happy for Ichiro, for no matter how Yomiuri Giants fans might blather otherwise, he is Japan's finest player and deserves plentiful hurrahs.

Yet, there remains an unsettling something about the Ichiro phenomenon, and I think it has less to do with him than the way Japan has welcomed his American conquest. When it comes to Ichiro, his compatriots can be divided into three general groups.

1. The very many who are thrilled by his accomplishments.

2. Those few who feel he has betrayed his country by peddling his services overseas.

3. And then a faint sprinkling of sports-numb souls who, even now, aren't sure who Ichiro is. To such people, "a basket catch" has something to do with seafood, and "going to the opposite field" means visiting acreage across the street.

This group can be disregarded, as can be the No. 2 group. Still, it is worth remembering that when Nomo first jumped to the States, he was widely criticized as a traitor to Japan. Those insular sentiments were forgotten with the advent of "Nomo Mania," but even now there remain a dwindling number of xenophobes who blame the weakness of Japanese baseball on overseas "defectors."

But the problem group is group No. 1. For the Ichiro hype keeps surging further and further beyond reason. Here, it is difficult to judge whether the media is giving the public what it wants, or whether the public has been bewitched by the media. The Japanese press has often been guilty of feeding frenzies in the past, while on the audio side, Japanese sportscasters frequently become so hysterical that it sometimes seems the authorities should be testing them, not athletes, for drugs.

Such tendencies suggest that the drool of excessive hype is on the chins of the Fourth Estate.

Coverage related to public interest is one thing. Yet, when the achievements of a baseball player begin to take such prominence, something feels out of whack.

For ultimately, it is not Ichiro's brilliance that is being thrust into the limelight; it is Japan's parochial nature. Interest is not shining on overseas events, but rather on Japanese participation in them; a fishbowl approach that leaves context and depth out of focus. To me, the joy of Ichiro's stardom has been undercut by the tilted zeal of the coverage.

Until recent years, Japanese athletes routinely stumbled in international competitions. Hence the giddy emotions at the success of Ichiro, Hidetoshi Nakata, Naoko Takahashi and others are easy to understand. Yet, I hope Japan will learn to bear its heroes' and heroines' victories with the same balanced grace as those people do themselves. The heroes and heroines show dignity. The media blitz shows something less. In all the hoopla, we lose sight of the fact that sport is a leisure event. As recent horrific happenings have shown, the higher qualities of the human spirit have nothing to do with athleticism. Instead, those qualities are linked to compassion and concern for others -- regardless of their national background. Finally -- that guy in England said it best: "Life is but a walking shadow." Our achievements flicker out like candles, and names that are white-hot today may be whited-out tomorrow.

The sound and fury of the summer of Ichiro will pass. Thanks to the intensive coverage, I -- for one -- am ready to let it go.

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