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Sunday, Oct. 21, 2001


Meeting baseball's Dr. Ichiro and Mr. Suzuki

Last Sunday, Nihon TV did something interesting. At the last minute, they pulled the scheduled installment of their biography series "Shitteru Tsumori" and replaced it with a hastily produced documentary about "Mr. Baseball," Shigeo Nagashima, who a few weeks ago announced that he was stepping down as manager of the Yomiuri Giants.

I doubt there's anything about Nagashima's life that the Japanese public doesn't already know, considering how much media attention he draws -- and not only that of the sports media. But we're talking about Nihon TV, which is owned by Yomiuri, so access to the great man is a cinch, and the general feeling within the network seems to be that you can never have too much of Nagashima and the Giants.

But the timing was notable for another reason. This year, the only baseball star who outshone Nagashima in terms of public interest was Ichiro Suzuki, whose popularity reportedly bugs the Yomiuri brass to no end -- not so much because he's young and unconventional, but because he plays in the United States. As everyone knows, Ichiro has made American baseball a bigger draw in Japan than the Japanese kind.

It just so happens that at the exact same time Nagashima was being feted for the umpteenth time on Nihon TV, NHK was broadcasting an hourlong documentary about Ichiro's first season as a Seattle Mariner. The documentary had been postponed for a week owing to special coverage of the terrorist attacks in the United States, and I suspect that Nihon TV, capitalizing on Nagashima's retirement announcement, threw the "Shitteru Tsumori" special together in a hurry to try to steal a little thunder from NHK and, by extension, Ichiro. But Nagashima fans will watch anything associated with their hero, while many of Ichiro's fans are people who weren't that interested in baseball before him.

If it means anything, though, the NHK show earned higher ratings, and for one important reason: Ichiro himself sanctioned it. He gave NHK his full attention during interviews that were conducted intermittently throughout the summer, offering frank, detailed opinions about specific incidents and his own place in the scheme of American baseball.

Such access is important because Ichiro has been notoriously cold toward the Japanese media since arriving in Seattle. He routinely refused to give press conferences for the Japanese press (or American press, for that matter). When he does talk to reporters, he utters cryptic, sometimes cranky half-sentences that are usually beside the point. As a result, his image has narrowed to one of a cool, aloof, businesslike pro.

The image was convincingly fleshed out on the NHK special. Ichiro still comes off as cool and businesslike, but he also turns out to be slightly intimidated by his position, totally in awe of Major League Baseball and surprisingly philosophical about his success.

The most appealing side that Ichiro showed to NHK was his open-mouthed wonder at encountering people he had worshipped from afar. He was like a kid when he met Mark McGwire, eventually getting up the nerve to ask the slugger to autograph his bat. McGwire, gracious and personable, did so and then asked Ichiro to sign his own bat. Ichiro's jaw hit the floor. "Really?" he said to his interpreter.

At one point, Ichiro was waiting in Boston's Fenway Park to meet pitcher Pedro Martinez, whom he once met in Japan. Martinez was delayed, and Ichiro, looking like a sixth-grader summoned to the principal's office, fretted about being late for practice: "They fine you $5, you know." But he wouldn't leave, because Martinez, who pitched to him the night before, was one of his heroes.

NHK played up the dichotomy in Ichiro's demeanor: the sentimental fan vs. the dedicated pro. A well-known junk-food addict, he at one point elaborated on Safeco Field's famous hot dogs. "These are really good," he told the camera, biting into one. Then in the next scene, he was sitting to discuss, interview-style, how important kankaku (intuitive sense) is to his work. In Japan, he generated resentment among his superiors because he didn't take their advice -- and he doesn't follow what his Seattle coaches tell him, either. "I listen," he said, "but only because it's their job."

Where the media is concerned, his attitude was not so much vitriolic as bemused. During the middle of the season, when he went hitless for an extended period, he said he couldn't understand why the media kept pestering him about the slump. "My not being able to get a hit didn't really bother me. It had nothing to do with lack of confidence," he said. "I knew why I wasn't getting hits. In the end, I wanted to get one just so that the media would stop asking me about it."

It's also apparent that his well-publicized apathy toward statistical accomplishments is not due to any obligatory sense of humility. He truly doesn't seem to think that what he does is that special. "The thing that makes me happy is that people who really know baseball appreciate me," he said. Statistics are just numbers. It is the admiration of people he himself admires that means something.

But what was most refreshing about Ichiro's comments was their clarity and expressiveness. Media stars, especially athletes, complain about the way their words are mangled by the press, when in fact they are often victims of their own incoherence.

Not Ichiro. "Right now, it doesn't impress me as much as it probably should," he said about his success. "But I have a feeling that someday I'll look back on this as the best year of my life."

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