I agonized all spring about whether to get cable TV. I didn’t want my eight-year-old daughter, Natalie, to get hooked on the Cartoon Network, but I wanted to watch the Mariners, who were off to a brilliant start — not just winning the overwhelming majority of their games, but playing a new (for them), beautiful brand of team baseball: sacrifice bunts rather than three-run homers. I went so far as to call the cable company to get estimates for packages. Twice I scheduled appointments for installation, only to cancel both times.
A week and a half into the season, I was listening to the A’s-Mariners game on the radio. After a few innings, I couldn’t stand it any longer, and though I don’t drink, I ran around the corner to a sports bar. Oakland’s Terrence Long was on first base. The next batter singled to right field, and when Long tried to run from first to third base (a relatively routine maneuver), the Mariners’ right-fielder, Ichiro Suzuki — the first Japanese position-player in the major leagues and who, like Madonna or Cher or Pelé, goes only by his first name — threw the ball on a low line-drive from medium-deep right field all the way to the third baseman who easily tagged Long out.
The bar erupted, the announcer went berserk, I felt that weird tingle down my spine I get about twice a decade, and for the next twenty-four hours all anyone could talk about — on the post-game show, on the pre-game show the next day, on sports-talk radio — was “The Throw.” Several players, coaches, and broadcasters said it was the single greatest throw they’d ever seen.
“The ball came out of a cannon; it was quick and powerful.”
“It was like Ichiro threw a coin to third base.”
“He threw a laser.”
“It was like something out of Star Wars.”
Even Terrence Long said, “It was going to take a perfect throw to get me, and it was a perfect throw.”
Asked to explain, Ichiro said, “The ball was hit right to me. Why did he run when I was going to throw him out?”
Cable was installed by the end of the week. Day after day a similar scenario would play out on the diamond. Ichiro would perform some Herculean feat on the field — an amazing throw or catch or steal or hit — and then afterward, asked about it, he’d say something that was… surprising. He’d dismiss it or deny it or demur or empty out the premise or give credit elsewhere. Now that I had cable, I decided to supplement my subscription to the Seattle Times with a subscription to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I couldn’t wait to get up every morning and, while I ate my breakfast and made Natalie’s lunch (and while she watched the Cartoon Network), read what Ichiro said about what he’d done the night before. He never boasted in the way I was accustomed to athletes doing, or if he did, he seemed to do so in a way that was fresh and funny in its uncluttered assertion of neutral fact.
Was I making too much of this? Was I trying to impart philosophic significance to simple athletic excellence, as I’m prone to do? Maybe the words acquired a lyrical glamour as they got translated from Japanese to English? Perhaps it was the translators themselves who were turning Ichiro’s ordinary statements into haunting aphorisms? Maybe it was a cultural-transmission issue? Maybe what were to my Western ears Zen koans were, to Ichiro, self-evident truths, the only gestures available? I could analyze it to death, but I’d rather not.
As he does after every game, Ichiro rubbed a six-inch wooden stick up and down the sides and bottoms of his feet, massaging the pressure points. Asked the name of the device he was using, he said, “Wood.”
In a game against the Baltimore Orioles, Ichiro made two spectacular diving catches. Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said, “The catch he made on Anderson’s ball down the line and the catch he made on Hairston’s ball — no other right fielder in the American League makes those plays. Maybe he makes one of them but doesn’t make both of them.” Asked, afterward, which of the catches was the most difficult, Ichiro said, “It’s tough to say which one was the toughest, because each fly ball had a different characteristic.”
Ichiro reached high above the wall, caught what otherwise would have been a home run, fell to the ground, did a backwards somersault, adjusted his sunglasses, and then slowly pulled the ball out from under his glove to show that he had caught it. Asked to analyze the play, he said, “It was a fly ball; I caught it.”
During a game between the Mariners and A’s in Oakland, fans in the right-field bleachers taunted him with racial epithets and threw quarters and ice at him. A man who hit Ichiro in the head with a quarter stood and took a bow. Afterward, asked what happened, Ichiro said — according to the translator, Ted Heid — “Something came out of the stands and hit me.” Ichiro immediately said something to Heid, who said, “I must correct my previous interpretation. Ichiro said, ‘Something came out of the sky and hit me.’” Asked how much money he collected, Ichiro said, “I couldn’t tell if it was rain or money coming down.” Asked if something like this had ever happened to him in Japan, he said, “Of course it happened there. Anytime you come in as a visiting team, things fall out of the sky. The gods once threw an aluminum can at me.”
Asked his reaction to Alex Rodriguez getting booed so vociferously upon his return to Seattle, Ichiro said, “It’s very tough for a ballplayer to get proud and keep his dignity. There’s not much difference between love and hate.”
Asked whether he thought he’d have trouble making the adjustment to the major leagues, Ichiro said, “Baseball is just baseball.”
Asked what he’d miss about Japanese baseball, Ichiro said, “There is nothing I will miss about Japanese baseball. Off the field, I will miss my dog.” Asked his dog’s name, Ichiro said, “I would not wish to say without first asking its permission.”
When asked what he would like to do on an off-day, Ichiro answered, “I want to watch American kids playing baseball in a grass field, running around, and getting hoarse in the voice with my wife.”
Ichiro told a reporter, “They say you are successful in baseball if you only fail seventy percent of the time, that going three-for-ten is successful. As long as I play, I will look for a way to improve on that. If a pitcher beats me seven of ten times, I can accept that. But if I get myself out in some of those at-bats, that I can improve on. What if I cut down on one, two outs in those ten at-bats by doing something better? Cut your mistakes, you improve. In this game, there’s something every day you can be disappointed with. The biggest adjustment has been that in Japan, the tempo of a pitcher was like one-two-and-three. Here, it’s more one-two-three, with no ‘and,’ so I had to find the way to take the ‘and’ out of my swing to match that tempo. I did it by changing the stride with my front foot. It was enough. I cannot be satisfied with a number, because it may not reflect how you did. It you set a goal, achieving it may satisfy you and you won’t try to go beyond that goal. Every at-bat, there’s something to learn from, something to improve. It’s in the seeking that you find satisfaction.”
When Ichiro visited a Seattle grammar school and was asked by students for advice, he said, “Find something you like to do as soon as possible.” Before leaving the school, he said, “I don’t know whether I’m going to be a baseball player in ten years, but I hope I can see you in the future.”