A Seeker on the Diamond

Letting things happen naturally
Ichiro the actor

Ichiro is one of the finest atheletes in Japanease Baseball (Photos by TADASHI AIZAWA)

Ichiro was born in 1973 in Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture. After graduating from Meiden High School (affiliated with the Aichi Institute of Technology), he joined the Orix BlueWave as a fourth-round draft pick. In 1994, his third season, Ichiro set a new record in Japanese baseball with 210 base hits, and he has been the leading hitter for four straight years (he hit .345 in 1997). An all-around player who excels at hitting, running, and fielding, Ichiro is one of Japanese baseball's biggest stars.

Letting things happen naturally

In the spring of 1994, Ichiro Suzuki changed his professional name to Ichiro. Ichiro's coach at the time, who came up with the idea, offered the following reason for the change: "Suzuki is the second-most-common surname in Japan after Sato. If we use that name he's not going to stand out in the crowd. In professional baseball, there are eleven Suzukis, but there's only one Ichiro". And so it was that Ichiro Suzuki began playing baseball under his first name.

That season, at the tender age of 21, Ichiro accomplished what no other player in the 50 years of Japanese professional baseball had ever done: pound out 200 hits. He finished the season with 210 and coasted to his first batting title--a title that he captured for the fourth year running in 1997. He has earned the right to be called a superstar.

As a child, Ichiro was a fan of the Chunichi Dragons. This was only natural, since the Dragons are based in Nagoya, near his home town. However, Ichiro was drafted by the Orix BlueWave of Kobe. Although he had hoped to join the Dragons, Ichiro accepted the draft gracefully. The same went for his name change. Ichiro believes in accepting his fate, as long as it is supported by the good intentions of the people around him.

However, there are some things even the placid Ichiro will not go along with. During his second season, when he was shuffled back and forth between the parent team and the minor leagues, the manager of the top team told him to change the unique, pendulum-like batting style he had developed with his minor-league coach. Ichiro refused, preferring to be demoted to the farm team than comply with this directive.

It seems that even when he was still known by his last name, Ichiro has always been able to see his own path clearly. He has always been a truth seeker, and when he believes a certain path is the right one, he follows it to the very end.

Ichiro the actor

Ichiro is not unanimously popular with the media. Reporters often complain that Ichiro does not really speak his mind, and that his guarded responses do not make for good copy. His answer to the first question of this interview was a prime example.

"What are your goals for this year?" I asked him.

He promptly responded, "I don't have any concrete numerical targets for batting average and the like. I also don't have a desire to outdo any particular player. I'm just working toward my own inner goals. As for what those goals are, I can't tell you."

All of the other questions I threw at him--"What are your off-season training secrets?" "Would you want to play in the U.S. Major Leagues?" "What is your ideal brand of baseball?" "How do you pick yourself up out of a slump?"--elicited similarly cautious responses. Ichiro deftly dodged all of my attempts to probe his inner core.

Then it occurred to me that Ichiro simply wants to avoid making careless remarks. Having become such an influential figure, he wants to be sure not to say anything that would cause a nuisance to others.

So I departed from the standard interview format, and instead looked for ways to draw the inner Ichiro out. I asked him, "When you're standing in the batter's box, you hardly look at the pitcher. Most good hitters try to stare the pitcher down. Why don't you?"

Ichiro warmed slightly to this question. He answered, "I'm not concerned about psyching myself up against a pitcher or the kind of pitch he's going to throw. What's important to me is maintaining my own rhythm and getting myself into the best possible state of mind. Even when I'm on deck, I never watch the ball. Well, that's not true. Sometimes I do watch the ball and decide in advance what kind of pitch I'm going to hit ..."

Now that he was warming up, I tried to throw Ichiro a pitch that would draw him out even more: "What does Aichi, the place where you grew up, mean to you?"

"Well, if a local high school team, even a rugby team, wins a national title, I feel happy. But to tell you the truth, I don't like pork cutlets with miso sauce, which Aichi is famous for. And even though people in Aichi usually use red miso for their soup, my favorite is daikon (Japanese radish) soup made with regular light brown miso".

The suddenly chatty Ichiro went on: " The only time I get back to Toyoyama, where my parents live, is during the off-season. But relaxing with my folks back home is a really important part of my life. If I couldn't get home at least once a year, I think the rhythm of my life would be disrupted".

For the first time, a smile appeared on Ichiro's face that made him look like the 24-year-old that he is. With that smile, the wall between Ichiro the actor and plain old Ichiro Suzuki faded. And I realized that all of Ichiro's answers to my questions were just what you would expect from a seeker who values rhythm and a sense of balance.