Sports : Monday, April 02, 2001
Spotlight shines on Ichiro
By Danny O'Neil
Seattle Times staff reporter
The ceremony lasted more than 90 minutes. Ichiro spoke for
No one complained because his presence at Safeco Field was what more
than 2,000 people wanted to see as they welcomed Japan's most famous
baseball player to Seattle.
"Papers have said that he is like Michael Jordan," said
Takuya Irisawa, a 21-year-old college student from Japan. "He is
bigger than Michael Jordan because everybody knows Ichiro. Nobody
knows who is the prime minister of Japan or who is the president in the
United States, but everyone knows Ichiro."
Irisawa wore a navy-blue cloth as a cape, with Ichiro's name and No.
51 written in white. Irisawa waited outside in a drizzling rain 45
minutes before the ceremony, part of a line that stretched from the
home-plate entrance gate to the right-field porch and doubling back
before the gates opened at 6.
The Mariner roster lists Ichiro as a 27-year-old rookie, but
he can't escape a role as national icon after seven straight Pacific
League batting titles. Tonight, he becomes the first major-league
position player from Japan when Seattle plays Oakland at 7:05 at Safeco
Field. On the eve of that debut, many attended Ichiro's welcoming
ceremony to offer encouragement.
"To live in the United States is very difficult, especially for
Japanese people," said Ken Karahashi of Mill Creek, who moved from
Japan two years ago. "Even though he has technique to hit a ball,
it's a different country, different food and a different language."
The ceremony was sponsored by seven organizations for Japanese and
Japanese-Americans. Relief pitcher Kazu Sasaki received the same kind of
ceremony last season, though last night's was more elaborate. It
included a Shinto ceremony, which is a Japanese religious rite praying
for good luck in the season to come.
Seattle Mayor Paul Schell went so far as to issue an official
proclamation that named yesterday Ichiro Suzuki Day.
Ichiro was a little embarrassed by the attention, said his
translator. He didn't answer questions from the media, instead laughing
as fans answered trivia questions about him, indicating the correct
answers by their applause. Many in the crowd knew that he received
massages, not ice cream, as a reward for grade-school practices.
No detail of Ichiro's experience is too small to escape scrutiny from
the Japanese media contingent, which numbered more than 80 for the
weekend exhibition games. After Saturday's game, a pack of cameras
waited at Ichiro's locker while he showered. A team official had to tell
some to shut off their cameras because they were filming Ichiro's empty
locker, a violation of Major League Baseball rules. Mariner outfielder
Al Martin had a locker next to Ichiro moved yesterday to escape
the overflow of scrutiny.
Ichiro is used to that kind of coverage, just not as close. In
Japan, reporters are not granted the same kind of access, and while
Ichiro's celebrity here is no match for his status in Japan, it is
After yesterday's game, a Japanese reporter asked Mariner Manager Lou
Piniella why Ichiro didn't start. Then came a question about
Ichiro's base-running technique, why he tries to run straight through
the bag instead of veering right.
The questions will continue all season as Ichiro continues his
adjustment to the major leagues and American life. So far, baseball has
been the easiest part. He doubled in his first at-bat at Safeco Field
during an exhibition game on Saturday and showed his speed with an
infield single in yesterday's exhibition finale.
Ichiro batted .321 in spring training, with nine extra-base
hits and was 2 for 4 over the weekend.
The real test begins tonight, in a game that Mariner CEO Howard
Lincoln characterized as the culmination of a two-year dream by
principal owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi.
"Mr. Yamauchi's dream will come true when Ichiro leads
off in the bottom of the first inning," Lincoln said.