Everywhere and nowhere: Understanding Ichiro
Ichiro was nowhere to be found when organizers and sponsors wanted him for off-field events during the Mariners' season-opening trip to Japan. But that has more to do with his focus on his performance than a lack of cooperation.
Special to The Seattle Times
TOKYO — From a giant left-field billboard where he was hoisting a frothy mug of beer to ubiquitous television and print ads where he appeared in duplicate extolling the virtues of an energy drink, Ichiro was seemingly everywhere during the Mariners' recent trip to Japan. But by the magic and, some would say, bewilderment that is Ichiro, he was at the same time nowhere.
Organizers and sponsors of Major League Baseball's season-opening series, and even Mariners officials, could be seen throughout the week exasperatingly trying to cope with Ichiro's refusal to do television interviews, appear at news conferences and postgame ceremonies or cooperate with most other promotional activities.
Other than his attendance at a lavish, invitation-only welcome party the night before the opener against Oakland, Ichiro's absence from the promotional activities was conspicuous. Even at the welcome gala, he watched from the main floor as new teammate Munenori Kawasaki joined other players and officials from the teams and dignitaries on stage to ceremoniously smash open a giant barrel of sake.
While Ichiro's reticence with the promotional aspects of the event likely annoyed many with a business interest in its success, a careful examination of the clues he left along the trail of their disappointment provide a fascinating understanding of this complex athlete.
The event's souvenir program provides the first insight. The Japanese-language magazine's cover price of about $20 might seem a bit steep, but as a tool for understanding Ichiro, it's a bargain. Buried at the end of a rather ho-hum article about the event's central figure are quotes from Ichiro about what he believes are obligations to his fans and himself.
The event's stated mission was to support the recovery efforts for victims of last year's earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan. It's a cause that is significant to Ichiro; he donated the equivalent of $1.2 million to the victims in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe last March. But when the publishers of the program asked Ichiro if the cause would motivate him to elevate his play during the series, it did not elicit the flowery response they likely anticipated.
"A professional athlete can't make something like that the goal of his performance," Ichiro explained. "It's almost become cliché to say you're going to try and play in a way that inspires people, or you're going to give people courage through your performance, or you're going to touch people's hearts with your play. I think it's impossible to play with such things as your goal because we are not the arbiters of whether the people watching ultimately reap those feelings from our performance. We just aren't. Those feelings can be the result of our play, but they can't be the motivation for it. We can't will fans to feel those things from our play. Performers who make such things their goal aren't in control of whether they accomplish it. I realize that and, therefore, I refrain from such thinking."
Oops, so much for toeing the party line. However, this was not Ichiro's one-time disposition toward the games in Japan; it's his credo for the way he always plays. He prepares for each performance in a way that allows him to give the maximum of what he has for that game. He doesn't cheapen his performance by telling his audience in advance how he hopes they'll react; he simply goes out and performs to the best that his diligent preparation will allow. If fans find inspiration or joy in the result, his reward is their expression of happiness, but he certainly doesn't request it.
Ichiro's reticence toward the TV interviews and news conferences was not out of spite or disinterest. Rather, for a player who values maximum preparation for every game, he was not willing to risk allowing the hype for the games to imply that these games held more motivation than any other season-opening series he has played in.
Despite his carefulness to not get entangled in the hype, Ichiro clearly enjoyed his homecoming. The weeklong event began with the Mariners and Athletics each tuning up with exhibition games against Japanese teams before opening the MLB season with two games against each other. Ichiro got the week's first hit in his first at-bat against the Hanshin Tigers. Asked about it afterward, he set the tone for the rest of his week.
"These are not exhibition games to me," he said of the Mariners' contests against Hanshin and the Yomiuri Giants. "It's not often that you get the privilege of playing baseball in this kind of atmosphere. There are many different forms of nervousness, but that moment was a big one. Special times like this have a way of ending before you know it, so my approach is going to be to cherish each moment this opportunity provides us with."
That was his disposition for the entire week. He did things like delight the fans with behind-the-back catches while shagging batting-practice balls in the outfield, and tip his cap when he took the field to loud ovations.
"In my lifetime, these are probably the only two games like this I'll ever experience and they'll be over before I even realize it," he said. "So I want to make sure I mark the moment appropriately. I fully suspect the fans who have come out here feel the same way, so as much as possible, I want to share this special enjoyment with them."
Such expressions, though, simply added to the befuddlement among many of the organizers when they couldn't coax Ichiro to take the hero's stage on the field after his 4-for-5 night helped the Mariners to a 3-1 win in extra innings over the A's in the first game.
Dustin Ackley came onto the field to acknowledge his home run and game-winning RBI, but the fans clearly wanted Ichiro to follow. Many thousands began chanting his name, but they got manager Eric Wedge instead.
While the moment might have been awkward and vexing for sponsors and organizers, it made perfect sense to a Japanese photographer who has been trying to capture the elusive star throughout his MLB career.
"There's an element of bushido to his behavior," the photographer explained. "As a baseball player, the only real expectation of him is to perform on the field and he did that exquisitely that night. There's nothing more he could add to his performance by coming out, and, in fact, he may have even detracted from it.
"He doesn't need to revel in his heroics, he just needs to perform to the best of his ability and that's what he did. Even though there were thousands of people hanging around to see if he might come back out, I'll bet at least a third of them appreciated the fact that he didn't. That's his style, and in Japan, lots of people admire it."
Brad Lefton is a bilingual journalist based in St. Louis. He covers Ichiro and the Mariners for Japanese media and conducted interviews and research in Japanese for this article.