He came here from Japan with a bounty on his body. No one knew if it was real or not, for the bounty was announced, not by being plastered on the wall like in the old Wild West but in the whispers that followed Ichiro Suzuki around in those days. The whispers said a Japanese publication was willing to pay up to $2 million for a photograph of the nation's most famous baseball player stark naked.
Such a photograph was never produced and the money was never paid. Nonetheless, this added a certain intrigue to a player already cloaked in mystery. And while his teammates on the Seattle Mariners shed their clothes without a thought, Ichiro still disappears every day to some hidden place in the clubhouse to pull off his trousers lest someone is lingering with a camera.
There is an elusiveness to the player who just might be the best hitter in the game. More than four years into the great experiment to see if a Japanese position player could survive the rigors of an American big league season, Ichiro has bedeviled pitching staffs, shattering every attempt to find a weakness in his swing by employing his most potent weapon — the 90-foot ground ball that he repeatedly beats out. Last year he obliterated the single-season hits record that stood for 84 years and seemed insurmountable.
In a sport immersed in a steroid scandal that casts a suspicious finger at anyone hitting better than .285, Ichiro should be the game's most salable player, someone who has demolished the best pitching in the world but is so slender and short — 5 feet 9, 170 pounds — that there is no way he could ever be accused of bulking up his body. Yet the starting right fielder for the Seattle Mariners, who will play tonight at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, is not intimately known to the baseball public.
The man who has the highest career batting average of any active player in the major leagues does not have a national commercial. He does not fill magazine covers. He didn't even win the MVP award last year despite his record 262 hits and .372 average. For someone who has owned the game the way he has, his nationwide profile is shockingly low and he seems quite content with this.
"The only way to get him to be understood by the fans is to have the media be able to portray him as he is, and he doesn't allow that," Ichiro's agent, Tony Attanasio, says with some chagrin. "That's his fault. That's what he chooses to do."
Attanasio figures the 31-year-old Ichiro turns down close to $30 million to $35 million in endorsements each year. A couple of winters ago the agent cut a deal with a company in the Pacific Northwest to have Ichiro promote an item that the company exports around the world. Ichiro tried the product and liked it, but in the end he said no because in Japan it is sold in stores people there knew Ichiro would never frequent.
"That's just him," Attanasio says.
Admirers and protectors
Among the mix of people who say they are close to Ichiro — and it's an eclectic group of ballplayers, businessmen and team executives — there are two common threads. They admire him greatly and they are zealous in protecting the cocoon of privacy that surrounds him.
Howard Schultz has built a java empire that spans the globe. Through sheer chutzpah he has shoved a Starbucks onto every main street, shopping center and airport in the United States and has conquered most of Europe and half of Asia as well. But when it comes to Ichiro, a personal friend who has dined at his house, who has played with his children, he grows cautious.
"I can't say anything about this because Ichiro wouldn't want me to, but he does extraordinary things, extraordinarily private things philanthropically," Schultz says.
"I can't say," Schultz replies.
How about an idea.
"I can't, he wouldn't want it," Schultz says.
After discussing Ichiro a few weeks ago in the visitor's office at RFK Stadium, his former manager in Seattle, Bob Melvin, grows quiet.
"I don't think I said anything that he wouldn't like, but if you think I did could you please make sure to leave it out," he says.
It is an interesting dynamic. Here is a player so cool that he wears onto the field a pair space-age, silver-trimmed sunglasses that are designed to hold downloaded songs and play them through tiny earpieces, but he shuns attention. Here is the only player in major American sports to be identified on first reference in most publications, scoreboards and stadium public address systems simply by his first name, yet he does not have a national persona to match.
At a time when baseball is taking regular beatings on Capitol Hill, when most of its stars sit in a purgatory of public judgment over steroids, the game could use someone like him to save it. And yet this might be the one thing he is not equipped to do.
"Ichiro is a very nice man and a joy to be around," says Howard Lincoln, the Mariners' chief executive. "He's a genuinely warm individual. The mystique is in how he carries himself. He's protective of his image but part of that is that he knows what the image is. There are a lot of people who are image-conscious; I wouldn't put him in that category.
"One of the things that bothers him is when he is distracted. I think it has more to do on his part by making sure that to perform at that level he has no distractions. He literally trains 365 days a year."
When he watches Ichiro, Lincoln is reminded of Howard Roark, the architect in Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead." Roark was so consumed with erecting new, fantastic buildings that he could not look outside his world. This is much the same with the Mariners right fielder. Success seems to be an obsession.
"He's not trying to save baseball," Lincoln says. "He's trying to be the very best baseball player he can be. He's most focused on that. He's not desirous of anything but being the best baseball player that he can."
Interviews with Ichiro are formal affairs. This runs counter to the prevailing form of information-gathering between journalists and athletes, often a playful clubhouse banter decorated with boyish yuks and plentiful guffaws. Ichiro, despite what seems to be a working grasp of English, insists his interviews be done through his interpreter, Allen Turner. He does this, Attanasio says, because he is a perfectionist and to give interviews in a language he understands but is not yet fluent in would be awkward. He might make mistakes and this would be a terrible way to represent himself.
Therefore, requests to speak with Ichiro are made to Turner, who relays them to Ichiro. An appointment is set up and the conversation will be conducted — usually for no more than about 15 minutes — in front of Ichiro's locker. Often Ichiro will sit in his chair, facing the locker, occasionally glancing at the questioner's eyes, but otherwise appearing to be formulating answers in his mind. When Turner finally relates the question in Japanese, Ichiro listens, squinting and pursing his lips as if giving the inquiry his deepest thought.
But when his responses are translated back moments later they are disappointingly devoid of any great insight.
"I don't think I realize the level I guess I'm playing at, the impact that I have," he says. "I just love to play the game of baseball and I'm trying to make myself better as a player and watch myself grow as a ballplayer."
He is asked if there is some other kind of level he is seeking, something beyond 262 hits and a .372 batting average. He pauses at this, making a noise that sounds like "hmmmmmm." Then he shakes his head.
"I think there is another level," Ichiro says. "Where there's a possibility, I just can't see it right now. I think that's the fun of baseball. You just don't know if there's a next level, you can't see it. You just have to go and work at it."
Does that mean there is a pressure to be perfect? Again Ichiro pauses.
"You know, I don't think I know what a perfect player is," he says. "You don't know really what to do to get there. But you want to be that perfect player. I sometimes think you know you can't be perfect as a baseball player. But I think there is always pressure on players to have confidence in themselves, who go out and try to play well. Of course, there is not going to be pressure on those who don't have confidence. But there is always pressure."
Late in his second season with the Mariners, in 2002, Ichiro hit a wall. It was not a complete collapse. Most players would be delighted to have such a dropoff. But after a rookie season in which he hit .350, stole 56 bases and won both the rookie of the year and the MVP awards, the tumble was significant. His average fell to .321 and he seemed to be something closer to ordinary. The next summer the same thing happened again. He stumbled in the final weeks.
As he tripped, so did the Mariners. Those two years, Seattle lost momentum in August and finished out of the playoffs. And when the second drop occurred, at the end of the 2003 season, Ichiro confided in a Japanese reporter, saying he felt fatigued, nauseous and sick. For the first time there was a crack in the most impenetrable player.
"I think he was mentally exhausted," Melvin says. "He was mentally exhausted because he's so accountable for his actions, so accountable to his team and the team as a whole. . . .
"He's serious because if you ask him does he have fun out there he doesn't understand that question. Because for him fun is being at Disneyland and riding on a roller coaster. He enjoys what he's doing. But to him there's a distinct line between fun and competing and doing his thing on the field."
To get a grasp of just who baseball's new hit king is, you must know where he came from. You must understand he was the son of what in a sense amounts to a tennis father. Nobuyuki Suzuki was an obsessive taskmaster, running Ichiro through drills for hours a day until the boy entered high school. Then during Ichiro's games, he would sit in the stands, often alone, and critique his son's performance.
Once Ichiro became a star in Japan, he was bigger than life. His wife, Yumiko, was a television reporter and instantly they were known as a Japanese super couple. Everywhere he went he was mobbed. This is when Schultz first became acquainted with him, long before the Mariners were in the picture. It was the late 1990s and Starbucks was venturing into Japan. People began telling the coffee magnate of a great baseball player. Schultz was curious and investigated for himself.
"The exposure of him reminded me of Muhammad Ali and [Michael] Jordan in Japan," Schultz says. "It's unlike the way a professional athlete is viewed in America. Not just for him athletically but in the way he carries himself. People see that he has a very different type of professional attitude."
The tutor who saw greatness
Sitting in the restaurant of the Takezono Hotel in Osaka, Japan, on a late October day in 2003, Kenichiro Kawamura cuts a Ruthian figure. In Japan he is something of a folk hero, known throughout much of the country as the man who gave Ichiro his swing.
Rather, he is the one who saved it.
Kawamura was the minor league batting coach for the Orix Blue Wave in 1992 when Ichiro arrived fresh out of high school. The Blue Wave had used a middle-round draft pick on the young player mostly because he threw hard and had shown promise as a pitcher. But when he showed up, Ichiro said he didn't want to pitch anymore, he was an outfielder. Orix Manager Shozo Doi shrugged in agreement and sent Ichiro off to Kawamura.
But from the moment the 18-year-old Ichiro stepped into the batting cage, Kawamura was amazed.
"I found his center of gravity was very strong," Kawamura says to his visitor and an interpreter. "He makes a perfect triangle with his body, which makes a perfect center of gravity. His head always sits on the top of the triangle. He looks like he goes forward, but he doesn't. It looked awkward, but when he hits the ball it becomes the perfect form."
Doi was not as impressed. Where Kawamura saw an ideal center of gravity, the Blue Wave manager saw a teenager stumbling awkwardly out of the box. He told Kawamura to give the player a more conventional swing. Kawamura ignored him, batting the young Ichiro leadoff in the minor league games and devising a training program that he promised would turn Ichiro into a star in the Japanese major leagues within two years.
Ichiro was brilliant in the minors and soon he found himself on the Orix club, where he was quickly overwhelmed. Doi sent him back down with the order to Kawamura. Change the swing. And again Kawamura refused. An argument raged between the two men that went on for most of that first season.
All these years later, in the hotel, Kawamura's face fills with anger and he jabs his fingers into the table.
"I would quit, I would quit, I would quit," he says, before he would change Ichiro's swing. There was simply too much beauty in the gangly approach.
Doi backed off, ultimately leaving in large part because of the dispute. And sure enough, two seasons later Ichiro was the MVP of Japan's Pacific League, hitting .385 with a Japanese record of 210 hits and a streak of 69 straight games in which he reached base safely.
"He was very concentrated and very earnest," Kawamura says. "All his brain was baseball, even when he was young. At some times I felt sorry for him because it was baseball, baseball, baseball. The young generation tries to have fun. He didn't have fun. He just worked to be good. That's all he had in his mind."
There is an engaging side to Ichiro. His teammates see it even if there exists a cultural divide between them. Several have said he has a terrific sense of humor and is quick to laugh. His first American manager, Lou Piniella, used to talk to him in Spanish.
"He's a smart kid, an intelligent kid," says Piniella, now the manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
When Lincoln, the Mariners' CEO, first met Ichiro in a hotel suite in Kobe, Japan, after the Mariners purchased his rights from the Blue Wave in the fall of 2000, he was instantly struck by the player's poise. He was familiar with Japan as the chairman of Nintendo's U.S. operation, but he had never seen the country's best player in person.
"I had never met anyone so confident in my life," he says. "Not arrogant, but extremely confident. And he had a presence about him, a mystique, a distinct personality. He was rightfully aware of his position in Japanese baseball but he exuded a desire and a confidence to play baseball in the United States and to be successful doing it."
Schultz has seen this, too. But he also senses that Ichiro's public reticence is a product of something bigger, a piece of the place where he is from.
"I think culturally the Japanese are a very humble people and very respectful of things in their lives," Schultz says. "They respect their elders. It's not the way we act as Americans. It's not a culture bred on me. He epitomizes it in so many ways. It's not the way powerful athletes in professional sports are conditioned to be.
"The thing you have to know about him is that you are writing about someone who is really true. There is nothing phony about him."
Attanasio breaks Ichiro down to what he calls "three personas that are really just one." The first is the baseball persona; the player fans see on the field is meticulous and composed. The second is a social persona, rarely seen by the public, in which he will dress in exquisite Italian suits, attend fundraisers, converse in English and dance with his wife. The third is the most private Ichiro, the one who runs errands or sits around the house. This is when he wears hip-hop clothes with caps turned sideways on his head. It is the side of Ichiro that is most comfortable for him, Attanasio says. It is also the one almost no one ever sees.
"But this is not too dissimilar to anyone else," Attanasio says. "We all have a role in our job and socially and in our personal lives."
Reaching for the crown jewel
The question seems appropriate because Ichiro nearly set the American League ablaze in a torrid three-month stretch last summer:
Can he hit .400?
Tom McCraw, the Nationals' hitting coach, unleashes a stream of tobacco spit on the floor of a RFK Stadium dugout as he ponders the inquiry.
"He's the only one who has a chance to," McCraw says. "Anybody who is playing today who can hit .400 has to be a freak. You have all the [pitching] specialists now. You don't see the tired starter in the seventh inning now. Now batters are in the sixth or seventh inning facing fresh arms. I think he would have a chance but the way the game is specialized now. You have the closer and the setup man. That makes it hard."
There is a thought around baseball that Ichiro is not the right type of hitter to hit .400. This is despite the observation made by McCraw that Ichiro reminds him of Rod Carew, a fellow left-handed hitter, who came close to the magic number when he hit .388 in 1977. Ichiro does not like to walk, which means he comes to the plate nearly 700 times per season. And saying he had 700 at bats in a year, even with the hits record, Ichiro would still need 18 more hits than he got last year to hit .400.
"It has been many years since anyone hit .400," Ichiro told the Seattle Times after starting this season at a torrid pace. "I don't know if I'll ever do it. I just want to be a player people say has a chance. But it is probably best no one does it, then no one expects it can be done."
Really, it is all that remains for him to do.
There are little signs that Ichiro is opening up a little more. Earlier this year, after receiving an award from Commissioner Bud Selig for the hits record, he delivered a thank you speech in English. The crowd at Safeco Field gasped and then roared, chanting "Ich-I-ro! Ich-I-ro! Ich-I-ro!" He waved.
And for the most private player, it was about as public a moment as he will ever have.