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Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Found in 'Area 51,' he goes by one name
By JUN HONGO
Pitching greats Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish are leading Japan's star-studded squad as national teams battle it out in the United States in the World Baseball Classic.
But No. 51 Ichiro Suzuki, who has icon status, remains in a class of his own even in that superstar lineup.
Japanese media have followed every step of the Seattle Mariners outfielder, going as far as to report what he has for breakfast before showing up at the ballpark.
Following are questions and answers about Japan's quintessential baseball figure:
What are some of Ichiro's career achievements?
His batting consistency has reached so high a level that it gets more noticeable if he goes hitless, either in a game or string of games, than when he's adding to his totals.
The Aichi Prefecture native has earned Major League Baseball's American League MVP award, rookie of the year award, two batting titles, eight consecutive golden gloves and walked away from every season since his 2001 U.S. debut with more than 200 hits.
Ichiro also holds the major league record for most hits in a season — 262 — racked up in 2004.
His statistics in Japan are as phenomenal, if not better. Prior to signing with Seattle, Ichiro spent nine years with the Kobe-based Orix BlueWave.
The fourth-round selection in the 1991 draft won the batting title seven consecutive years beginning in 1994 and set the record for most hits in a season in Japanese baseball with 210.
Ichiro was a pitcher during his years at Aikodai Meiden High School, where he appeared in the prestigious Koshien national high school baseball tournament.
Even now, men on the base paths are wary of testing Ichiro's right arm, as he has often thrown runners out from deep in the outfield.
Does Ichiro have a mentor?
Former BlueWave skipper Akira Ogi is regarded as the coach who brought out Ichiro's talent.
At 180-cm tall and approximately 77 kg — relatively small even among Japanese pro baseball players — Ichiro exhibited a distinctive batting style earlier on in his career. Known as "the pendulum," the lefty batter lifts his right leg inside the batter's box and swings it as the pitch arrives.
Such motions were not greeted well by his managers when he debuted in Japan, but Ogi embraced the uniqueness and called Ichiro up from the minor league.
Ogi, who also accommodated Hideo Nomo's signature "tornado" pitch, likewise coached future major leaguers So Taguchi and Shigetoshi Hasegawa.
What are Ichiro's other strengths?
Many experts point to Ichiro's uncanny hand-eye coordination. Some point to his running speed, which has helped him get on base after slapping infield hits, made him a consummate base-stealer and allowed him to make deep clutch catches. For others, it is his work ethic that stands out.
"Ichiro is a stoic player who is meticulous about keeping his style and never changing it," said Mitsuo Kodama, a professor at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture.
Not only does Ichiro go through the same stretching moves before facing pitchers, some have pointed out that he sticks to spending precisely 40 seconds between running in from the outfield and emerging from the Mariners dugout for his at-bats.
Kodama, who has authored several business books based on Ichiro's work ethic, suggests the slugger's tenaciousness can apply to anyone looking to succeed in their career.
"Ichiro knows what his job is, and knows what is expected of him. He goes through an exhaustive routine to achieve that," he said. "It's a philosophy that anyone seeking to accomplish something should live by."
How much does Ichiro earn?
Ichiro began his MLB career with a three-year contract worth $14 million in 2001. But he makes more than that in a single year now, after agreeing to a five-year extension in 2007 reportedly worth $90 million.
In 2008, the team paid Ichiro $17.10 million, or $80,291.78, per hit. In addition, the contract reportedly provides a signing bonus, an annual allowance of $32,000 for his housing, first-class round-trip tickets to Japan, and payments for his personal interpreter.
In contrast, Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka made $8.33 million in 2008, Chicago Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome made $7 million and Tampa Bay Rays infielder Akinori Iwamura was paid $2.40 million, according to reports.
The MLB salary list is topped by New York Yankees infielder Alex Rodriguez, who signed a staggering 10-year $275 million deal in 2007.
Is there a downside to the superstar?
Media reports have suggested Ichiro is not on good terms with his teammates, with The Seattle Times reporting in February that some players felt he was not a "team guy." The same paper reported in September that the turmoil in the Mariners clubhouse "nearly hit its boiling point," quoting insiders that many of his teammates aren't keen on their leadoff hitter.
With the Mariners missing the playoffs since losing to the New York Yankees in the 2001 League Championship Series, Seattle media have gone as far as to suggest trading Ichiro and rebuilding the team from scratch.
Why do Ichiro's teammates feel this way?
Unlike former Mariners closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, who would speak frankly with both his teammates and reporters, Ichiro usually remains by his locker after games and stays aloof.
Kodama of the fitness and sports institute acknowledges that Ichiro is not outgoing and will forgo chatting with teammates or reporters if it inconveniences his routine. Such determination could appear unsociable, but on the field the star collaborates with his teammates and that should be enough, Kodama said.
"Ichiro would keep himself above anything that would get in the way of him preparing for a game. He is a professional," he added.
Is Ichiro media-shy?
Not necessarily. He is ubiquitous on Japanese TV even without his bat, appearing in several commercials and endorsing products ranging from Yunker energy drinks to NTT's high-speed Internet connection to a securities house.
Ichiro also dabbled in acting in 2006, appearing as a murderer on an episode of the popular "Furuhata Ninzaburo" TV series.
Careerwise, has Ichiro passed his peak?
At 35, Ichiro's statistics in 2008 weren't nearly as impressive as his earlier years, only batting .310. In addition to recording his second-lowest average in his major league career, his on-base percentage plus slugging average dropped to a career-low .747.
Experts say Ichiro's first-rate bat control will not be affected by his age, but his physical prominence, most notably his speed, may be in decline. For a player who depends on infield hits to raise his batting average, this could cause his numbers to go deeper south in coming seasons.
Is it true Ichiro sleeps with his bat?
The rumor is difficult to verify, but it is true that he takes extra care of his equipment. And considering the origins of his bats, he should.
They are handcrafted by Isokazu Kubota, a technician who works for sports equipment manufacturer Mizuno Corp. The "bat meister" was awarded a medal of honor from the government in 2005 for his diligence, which includes checking the wood's grain pattern and its reverberations before carving out a masterpiece that accommodates each player's batting style.
Kubota has provided bats for New York Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui and other Japanese greats, including former three-time triple-crown slugger Hiromitsu Ochiai when he was with the Lotte Orions.
Could Ichiro be called Japan's greatest baseball player ever?
Many expect Ichiro to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in both Japan and the U.S., but Kodama says crowning him Japan's greatest baseball player will have to wait.
The expert on baseball and sports science acknowledges that Ichiro is in the same league as Japan's prominent duo of Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima. Oh hit 868 homers in his career with the Yomiuri Giants, and the charismatic Nagashima is referred to as "Mr. Baseball" by the media.
"Ichiro has reached the level of Oh and Nagashima, but we can't tell quite yet if Ichiro is the best ever. Those things can only be decided in retrospect when he finishes his career," he said.