Must-see TV: Ichiro's hit parade makes for popular viewing in Japan
Ichiro says he'll always feel pressure to perform, but is glad to have consecutive 200-hit seasons record in the books.
Special to The Seattle Times
Mariners' first Cactus League game, vs. Giants @ Peoria, Ariz.
"I was already asleep," Ichiro said, laughing. Then, he turned typically philosophical. "That's the kind of attention I strive for. As a player, you have to be of the mindset that your purpose is trying to give people a compelling reason to maintain their interest in your performance every season. We're behooved as professional baseball players to do that. The fact that I was able to fulfill that quest to the extent that one network thought it made for compelling programming makes me very happy."
The way he compels people to watch is by perfecting his technique, hitting pitches in an irregular zone that sometimes can be nearly as low as the dirt underneath his feet, and for possessing a magic bag of swings depending on what kind of pitch is thrown. Those abilities make many of his 2,030 hits original Ichiro works of art.
Two hits from last season are particularly worthy of further contemplation. One just might embody his full being more than most and the other might be a harbinger of change in his mindset as he prepares to join the Mariners in Peoria, Ariz., this week for his 10th season with the Mariners.
The first is career hit number 2,005, which was also his 200th hit of the 2009 season.
It came on a dreary September Sunday evening at Texas following a weekend of rain delays and postponements. Needing just one hit to break a century-old record of eight consecutive 200-hit seasons, Ichiro easily could have opted out of the nightcap of a rescheduled doubleheader. In so doing, he would have elevated the hoopla surrounding his historic hit by delaying it until the upcoming homestand at Safeco Field and its adoring crowds.
In fact, manager Don Wakamatsu respectfully asked Ichiro if he wanted to sit out the second game, a reasonable proposition considering he had just returned from a calf injury and the Texas field was a soggy mess. However, feeling that he would be manipulating the integrity of the game by taking a healthy scratch for the sake of embellishing a record, Ichiro declined.
Then, he proceeded to stamp even more of his unique style on his historic hit when he swung at the third pitch of his second at-bat. It looked classically Ichiro; a roller through the wet infield grass that Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus picked up but never bothered throwing to first.
Indeed, the hit was quintessential Ichiro, but not because it was of the infield variety that he is often associated with, but because in the context of the competition, it inflicted the kind of agonizing damage to the opposition that he thrives on.
Ichiro's 200th hit scored a two-out insurance run from third against a team still fighting for the playoffs. With ace Felix Hernandez on the mound for the Mariners, the difference between an early 1-0 and 2-0 lead was quite substantial. Ichiro was down 0-2 in the count. The third pitch was outside, meant to induce him into an ill-timed swing at a bad offering. Instead, he produced a crucial RBI that carried the Mariners to a 5-0 win.
"They were so intent on preventing the run from scoring," Ichiro fondly recalls, "the pitcher, who normally has a big leg kick, all of a sudden used a slide step on the third pitch to try and throw off my timing. In that context, the fact that I could torment them by somehow hitting it on the ground to score the runner was immensely satisfying. Hits that distress the opposition are the ones I enjoy most."
The hit had another significance. It lifted an enormous amount of pressure off Ichiro. The fact that fans here are willing to devote six hours on New Year's Day watching 2,030 consecutive Ichiro hits makes it clear how the expectations of an entire nation can create pressure on him. That, added to the pressure he feels internally from these pursuits, made that slow roller through the Texas infield even more gratifying.
"The only players who feel no pressure," Ichiro explains, "are those who have either given up, have nothing expected of them or are so divinely blessed they needn't fret. Since I don't fall into any of those categories, I'll continue to play under pressure. However, with that said, it'll be vastly different. For the first time in recent memory, I'm coming to camp without the burden of having to compete against someone's records from a bygone era.
"I enjoyed the challenge, but constantly being compared to and expected to compete against the unknown like that, against things that you can't even clearly visualize, is very stressful. I'm relieved to be free of that."
Five nights after being freed, Ichiro might have offered a glimpse of what playing a full season without the shackles of Wee Willie Keeler's ancient record of eight consecutive seasons with 200 hits or more might entail.
That was his stunning sayonara home run off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera over Safeco Field's right-field wall for a 3-2 win. Reflecting back on that memorable moment, Ichiro acknowledges there was significance to the at-bat coming after first having bid sayonara to Keeler.
"Mariano Rivera is an exceptional pitcher," Ichiro said. "Just getting a hit off him requires such exasperating effort that the fantasy of a home run doesn't even enter your conscience, especially if you're a left-handed hitter like me. I don't want to minimize the seriousness with which I approached that at-bat; remember, there were two outs, so one mistake on my part and we were finished.
"But I also have to confess I experienced a new sensation during that at-bat. My mind wandered to how cool a home run would be there. I have to think the only reason I had the disposition to even toy with such a thought was because I had already overcome the barrier of the 200-hits record. Had that game come before the record, I can't fathom that I would have had the luxury to even entertain such a thought, especially against a pitcher like him."
Mariners fans who have seen Ichiro launch majestic home runs into the outfield seats during batting practice should be cautioned not to entertain fantasies that Ichiro's latest revelation means he's coming to camp a home-run hitter. While one memorable home run off Rivera might hint at a freer mind, Ichiro will still report to Peoria with a familiar goal.
"There's no change," he says matter-of-factly. "Two-hundred hits is still my goal. It's the ultimate testament to what I do. If you're a home-run batter, 40 homers is the benchmark; if you're an ace pitcher, 18 or 20 wins is the standard you shoot for, right? By extension, then, 200 hits is the yardstick for batters who have the ability to accumulate lots of hits. It's as simple as that."
What is different, then, is the disposition with which he'll pursue those 200 hits. Because the likelihood is slim that any more ancient records pertaining to 200 hits will be unearthed, Ichiro is working out in Japan with a newfound looseness. While he never does anything simply for fun, his colorful workout tights and laughter on the field make it clear he is having fun preparing for the season.
The cheerful mood can't be sullied even by a reminder that there still are records ahead, albeit contemporary ones. Next up is Pete Rose's record 10 200-hit seasons, the most in any major league career. If a freer mind alone is not enough to snatch that record with two more 200-hit seasons, Ichiro says he has yet another weapon to brandish.
"I can't envision not being able to surpass that," he says confidently. "Last year, the season in which I had to confront the consecutive 200-hit seasons record, began with my funk at the WBC (World Baseball Classic), which was the most trying experience of my baseball career, then included eight missed games to start the regular season (due to ulcers), and then included another eight missed games later in the season (due to a calf injury). That was probably the most difficult season of my career.
"The fact that I figured out how to navigate myself mentally through all that adversity and still achieved the record gives me great strength. What I gained from that experience is immeasurable. It's like a weapon that I now have to wield against future challenges."
With a freer mind and a sharper weapon, Ichiro seems destined to compel people to keep watching his hit parades.
Brad Lefton is a bilingual St. Louis-based journalist who covers baseball in Japan and America. He often follows the Mariners for Japanese media, and he interviewed Ichiro in Japanese for this story.
Ichiro's hit parade
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