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Sports : Friday, March 30, 2001

Baseball 2001
M's relying on Japanese imports
By Bob Sherwin
Seattle Times staff reporter

 

Ichiro Suzuki and his wife, Yumiko Fukushima, had never experienced such a thing together. Here they were in Seattle one winter day, walking through the downtown Nordstrom, shopping, chatting and trying things on with thousands of people around them, and no one bothered to say hello. Their joy was indescribable.

They actually could do the ordinary, the normal, the mundane. It was thrilling. No hiding in dark limos. No rushing out back entrances. No crowds closing in on them. No stares. No cameras. No autographs. It's like they were on another planet, or at least the other side of it.

It was so removed from the lifestyle in their native Japan that they couldn't help but notice. Ichiro, 27, is the country's greatest sports star, a seven-time Japan League batting champion and three-time MVP who is about to become one of the first two position players from Japan to reach the major leagues Monday night when the Mariners open their season against the Oakland Athletics. Outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo, not nearly the star Ichiro is in Japan, will be on the New York Mets' Opening Day roster.

The Mariners posted $13.1 million this winter to secure the rights to the right fielder and leadoff hitter just so they could negotiate a three-year, $14 million deal.

His full name is Ichiro Suzuki, but he's so famous people refer to him by his first name, like Madonna and Magic, Pele and Pluto. Yumiko was a well-known television reporter. They are the country's most recognizable people and the most politely abused.

In the winter of 1999, when the couple was planning its wedding, it was clear they couldn't hold it in Japan. They would be overwhelmed. So they got married in a private ceremony in front of a handful of friends in Los Angeles. Yumiko could not pick out a wedding grown in Japan. She had to go to Europe. They flew to the United States in separate planes under assumed names.

 
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While that might seem excessive, the security arrangements and planning Ichiro has had to go through on a daily basis in Japan are over the top. There is the story of him once being rolled up in a carpet and stuffed into the back of a pickup truck so he could be driven stealthily past a crowd for a date with Yumiko.

"It's fanaticism," said player agent Tony Attanasio, who represents Ichiro. "You can't have a dinner at a restaurant unless it's in a guarded private room. Otherwise, it would be impossible for him to eat. I've had dinner with him as late as 1:30 in the morning.

"He can't walk into a (hotel) lobby. He would be mobbed. It's service entrances 100 percent of the time. His face and image are so identifiable. Take Mark McGwire's presence in this country, then multiply that by 100 or even 200 times, and you might get the idea what it's like for him there. I've been in this business a long time and have been around some of the biggest stars, but I've never seen a player in any sport treated that way."

Jim Colborn, the Mariners' former Pacific Rim coordinator who now is the Dodgers' pitching coach, said last winter that when the Mariners signed Ichiro, the press conference was at the Nintendo headquarters in Kyoko. He told the taxi driver to take him to Nintendo and the response was, "Oh, you're going to the Ichiro press conference."

"I said, `How did you know?' " Colborn said. "He told me, `Everybody knows. People may not know who the premier of the country is, but everyone from 3 to 93 knows Ichiro.' "

Of course, there's another Japanese player on the team, closer Kazu Sasaki, whose status in Japan approaches the same level of intensity and scrutiny. Sasaki is Japan's all-time saves leader with 229 and signed last year with the Mariners. He was voted AL Rookie of the Year after saving a team-record and AL rookie record 37 games and helping the club reach the postseason.

Now one team, the Mariners, has Japan's best pitcher and best hitter. It's like Magic and Michael being teammates, of course, 100 or 200 times multiplied.

What ties the Japanese connection even tighter is the fact that the Mariners' majority owner is Nintendo owner Hiroshi Yamauchi. He was pleased a year ago that Sasaki joined the team but, like most of his countrymen, Ichiro is his favorite player.

"He told me the player he always wanted to see play for the Mariners is Ichiro," said Mariner CEO Howard Lincoln. "We were pleasantly surprised when he was posted. I know from the look on his (Yamauchi's) face when I saw him in Kyoto that he was delighted that we finally accomplished something he wanted. He wants to make sure Ichiro and his wife are comfortable and that this is a pleasant transition."

The Mariners, popular in the mid '90s with such stars as Ken Griffey Jr., young Alex Rodriguez, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson, have expanded their image. It's no longer regional, it's global. This is Japan's team, as an entire nation turns its attention across the Pacific.

Under the media microscope

If you listen to the language carefully you can hear it. Amid a string of unfamiliar words suddenly pops one that everyone can understand, one associated with the game forever.

"Pres-sure."

That's the way the Japanese reporters drop it into their questions, an English word that doesn't have a succinctly comparable counterpart in their language. It weaves its way through virtually every interview session between the hordes of Japanese media and Ichiro, the one-name superstar.

Oppressive pressure. It's not enough of a burden that Ichiro is being counted on revitalize the A-Rod-less Mariner offense. It's not enough that he's a trailblazer. What this slight 5-foot-9, 160-pounder carries on his shoulders every day is the pride and honor of an entire country, an entire region. That's all.

You don't have to even be a baseball fan in Japan to know the ramifications of what Ichiro is attempting to accomplish this season in the United States.

As Yoichi Amari of the Sports Nippon Newspapers put it, "Everyone believes that Ichiro can succeed in the major leagues. But if he doesn't succeed, then Japanese players will not play (here) again. He is the best player in Japan, so if he can't play, no one can."

This experiment on the grand stage is why there were 166 media credentials distributed this spring to Japanese media, twice as many as Northwest-based media. There are 75 accredited Japanese reporters who will follow Ichiro all season, compared to three Seattle-based newspaper reporters. Japanese TV plans to broadcast all 81 Mariner home games and half the road games. Cable is being installed around Safeco so the games can be shown in high-definition TV.

The annual spring charity game March 1 between the Mariners and San Diego Padres was broadcast live back to his nation beginning at 5 a.m. It was a meaningless game that didn't count in the Cactus League standings, which are games that don't matter, anyway. But in Japan, it mattered. Ichiro got a hit in his first at-bat, making for screaming front-page headlines.

"You can pick up a newspaper any day of the week and see a story on Ichiro," said Lincoln, who knows the country well from his years spent with Nintendo. "And most days, his picture is on the cover. I get the news reports on a daily basis. He's all over the Japanese press. This is a huge story that's unfolding."

Lincoln read the headlines. "White Sox Hit Ichiro a Lot." "Ichiro Should Get Angry." "Discount Package Tours to Seattle."

"Here's a picture of him hitting. Here's one catching. Here's another hitting," said Lincoln, flipping through the reports. "Every aspect is being reported to the Japanese people. It all goes right back."

Attanasio said, "Reporters call me from Japan and ask for my bank account number. They want to deposit money for an interview. This interview right now could be worth $10,000. It sounds crazy, but it's true. But I never have and never would charge for something like that."

If the pressure is weighing him down, Ichiro is not showing it.

"I don't play baseball for other people. I play baseball for myself," he said through Ted Heid, who serves as his interpreter. "They (reporters) can have whatever pressure they want to put on, but I don't feel it. I really don't have idea what they are expecting me to do, I just play the best I can."

Japanese reporters generally don't expect Ichiro to win the AL batting title, but most project him to have an average in the .340 range. That would be a magnificent start, but still 17 points below his career average in Japan. Mariner Manager Lou Piniella has said .280 would be acceptable for his first season. Those are the divergent levels of expectations, merely 60 percentage points apart on average.

"Obviously, I am the first position player to come over. That's a given," Ichiro said. "People say I'm an explorer, a pioneer, whatever. That's other people's opinion. That's not why I came over here. I came over here to play baseball."

Baseball American style

Been there, done that.

Sasaki has shared the same experiences as Ichiro in Japan, and he's a step ahead in this kind of media omnipresence in America. When Sasaki came over a year ago, he carried the same hopes and burdens, although there had been a handful of pitchers before and after him - Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, Shigetoshi Hasagawa and former Mariner Mac Suzuki. Sasaki may have exceeded them all.

Heid, the Mariners' Pacific Rim operations director and occasional interpreter for Ichiro, said that fans shouldn't forget "that Sasaki is a mega star, too. There was nothing like Sasaki coming into a ballgame (in Japan). There were stories of opposing managers telling the equipment guys to start packing the bags, the game's over."

But before Sasaki established himself here, he failed. More than once. He struggled in training camp, then recovered and won the closer's job over Jose Mesa in the final week. He struggled again early in the season, the nadir being May 10-11, when he allowed successive game-winning home runs. He lost his closer's job again, won it back within two weeks and was nearly flawless after that.

Concern is percolating over Ichiro is the same fashion. Even though he hit for a decent spring average, Piniella has wanted to see him pull the ball more and show some power. Ichiro did that in a game against Oakland on March 20, when he hit a home run into the right-field bullpen and also had two doubles over the left fielder's head. He also hit a home run to right field March 23 against Chicago.

Overall, however, Ichiro has shown a late-swinging, light-contact style.

Piniella, who has been troubled by Ichiro's rather unusual bail-out swing, was relieved to see him work the right side. A full endorsement will not come until Piniella sees what he can do consistently over the season. It doesn't help Piniella's demeanor on those days when his team doesn't play well, yet all the Japanese reporters' questions focus exclusively on Ichiro. That issue will need to be resolved at some point, perhaps not before a temper snap.

However, as Colborn explains, everyone just needs to settle down. Colborn has seen Ichiro enough to know Ichiro will produce at this level. He believes he will deliver for the Mariners.

"He slaps those hits through the left side just to keep his average up," Colborn said. "Wait until he gets hot. He hasn't been hot yet. I've seen him when he's hot. That's when he hits line drives all over the place."

Lincoln uses Sasaki as an example of what to expect from Ichiro. He remembers all the uncertain talk last spring about Sasaki and whether he could adjust to a new league, different umpires and better hitters, new ballparks, and, of course, the media surveillance.

"You contrast what he did in the spring to the end of the season when he came in against Chicago and New York to save our bacon. That was a tremendous accomplishment and everyone in Japan knows what he did," Lincoln said. "Now there are questions whether Ichiro can pull the ball. Trust me, the same thing is going to happen (to Ichiro) as happened to Sasaki. There is a huge amount of pressure, but Ichiro has handled it with extraordinary grace."

Sasaki, referred to in the Japanese media as Dai-Majin (a legendary folk hero), said having Ichiro on the same team is a dream for him. The two had talked many times about this possibility of playing in the majors together.

"Now it has happened. But I don't want to look at him and say, `He's another Japanese player.' I want to say we're a team," Sasaki said through his interpreter, Allen Turner. "It doesn't matter whether we're from the Dominican or Japan. We want to focus on being part of a team. "Having Ichiro here, there is more publicity in Japan. That's a good thing. And definitely everyone will be expecting us to do well, but there is no pressure. I'm just trying to do my best job. I'm not over here thinking, `I'm a Japanese playing baseball here.' No, I'm thinking, `I'm a baseball player playing in the big leagues.' "

Sasaki handled the pressure and the media scrutiny well last season, perhaps because he has a different personality than Ichiro. Sasaki is more gregarious. He likes moving among the people, which he can do in Seattle. A little Sasaki sake is part of his lifestyle. He can be found frequently in the bars and restaurants in the International District after games. His interests, as well as his mind, are more open. Ichiro, who was said to have practiced baseball after school every day from third grade through high school, is completely focused and dedicated to the game. He doesn't drink and doesn't like going out at night.

That intensity may have hoisted up the first red flag in his experience here. Ichiro has a keen eye for the strike zone - having never struck out more than 57 times in any season and once going 216 at-bats without a strikeout. After his first game, Ichiro criticized the umpire's strike zone. Piniella, knowing what long memories umpires have, had someone speak to him about curbing his comments.

Heid, his interpreter, was even told by the club not to forward reporters' questions about umpires to Ichiro. It's clear someone got to Ichiro. He was recently asked a general question about adjusting to the umpiring here and said, "The umpires so far have been wonderful and I don't see any problems adjusting to the strike zone in America."

He's catching on.

World-wide attention

It might be surprising to learn that despite Seattle's large Asian population and its cultural and economic ties to Japan, it is not among that nation's primary tourist destinations.

"To travel agents and the average Japanese citizen, when they think of the United States they think of New York and Los Angeles," Lincoln said. "They don't lump Seattle in there.

"Now we have an opportunity every single night to show them about Seattle and what makes it a really neat place. These (TV) games are going to an entire country. That's tremendous advertising for the city, free of charge."

As the season opens, the impact of two Japanese superstars on the Seattle team can't be empirically measured. The Mariners have been approached by travel agencies on availability of blocks of tickets for Japanese tourists, but there is no way to quantify the numbers yet.

The Crowne Plaza Hotel was swamped with requests from Japanese travel agents.

"The first two or three weeks after the Mariners signed (Ichiro) our phones rang off the hook. We have tried to accommodate as many as we can," said LuAnn Sudarich, director of sales and marketing for the hotel. The Crown Plaza caters to the baseball crowd, as most of the visiting teams stay there.

The club is considering informational signage around the ballpark in both English and Kanji. There have been discussions over Japanese advertising in the park, particularly in the behind-the-plate board so the TV spots in Asia can be seen.

Ichiro gear has been flying out of the Mariner team stores.

"In beginning when he was signed, it was very difficult to keep Ichiro jerseys in stock," said Rebecca Hale, the Mariners' director of public information. "We had to constantly reorder until we could figure what the demand level would be.

"I think what we are seeing right now is that Ichiro is at the level where our very popular players, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson, were at the peaks of their careers."

Ichiro and Sasaki are involved in the team's promotions and marketing. Sasaki and Ichiro are featured in three of the team's seven commercials. There are four games this season in which there will be souvenir giveaways for them, including the only two bobblehead doll promotions.

The Mariners have the only major league Web site in which there is a link to connect fans to a Japanese-language-only site. Last year, the highest number of hits on that site in any week was 7,500. This year, with Ichiro's addition, it has more than doubled. During a two-week period, March 11-24, the number of three-minute stays on the Web site was 29,231. Among those surfers, 59.4 percent were international visitors.

"They have a most-popular team poll in Japan each year and the Mariners probably were never in the top five," Sasaki said. "Since I came over, we were No. 2. The Yankees were No. 1. Hopefully, this year the Mariners will pass them up and the Mariners will be the most popular team in Japan."

That just might be a mixed blessing for the Japanese players, especially for Ichiro trying to establish himself here. More interest means more fans, more media and more scrutiny.

"I know fans are going to be very patient and understanding of Ichiro," Lincoln added, "especially when they realize the pressure he is under."