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Ichiro has great feet.
In baseball scoutspeak, "great feet" means that a player moves smoothly and has exceptional balance and body control.
It can be applied to hitting. When a guy can cover the plate from inside corner to outside corner without tilling the soil in the batter's box, that's great feet. It can be applied to baserunning. A player who can seemingly go from zero to full-speed without spinning out, cut the bags with surgical precision and slide without putting his knees and hips in peril? Great feet.
And it can be applied to fielding. Say a guy never seems to use his spikes for traction, moves to the ball at perfect angles and gets himself in position to throw without any wasted motion. You're talking great feet.
Ichiro Suzuki -- the Mariners' history-making "rookie" rightfielder, the first Japanese position player ever to play in the major leagues, the sweet-swinging lefty hitter who won seven consecutive batting titles in Japan's Pacific League, the 27-year-old who's known in his homeland (and now Seattle) simply as Ichiro (pronounced "EE-chee-row") -- can do all of those things.
But that's not what we're talking about.
Ichiro has great feet ... literally. They're smooth and sleek, not the gnarled, calloused dogs of your typical ballplayer. How, you might well be thinking, does anyone come to notice such a thing? Because each day in the clubhouse, Ichiro brings his feet to your attention. In between BP and first pitch, he sits in front of his locker with a six-inch, carrot-shaped stick. As he watches a video of the pitcher he's facing that night, he methodically pokes and prods his feet, one at a time, from heel to toes. It's not a dainty process. He pushes so hard it looks like he could break the skin.
"He is relaxing," explains Hide Sueyoshi, the Mariners' assistant director of professional and international scouting and Ichiro's part-time translator. "In the body there are so many pressure points. He uses the pointed end of the stick to release that pressure. It is his routine."
This odd bit of prep work might be the only thing that makes Ichiro stand out from his teammates in the Seattle clubhouse. Though he speaks only a little English, he blends into the mix effortlessly. Say hello and Ichiro says, "Whassup?" with no noticeable accent. When a clubhouse kid drops off a box at his locker, he says, without even a hint of a smirk, "Thanks, dawg."
In fact, if you were unaware of his story -- that in Japan he's both Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson, that Seattle paid $13M to the Orix Blue Wave just for the right to negotiate a three-year, $14M deal with him -- you'd probably assume he was Japanese-American. If he were wearing sunglasses, which he usually is, and were unshaven, which he always is, you might even think he's Latino, especially if he were hanging by the locker of his buddy, reliever Jose Paniagua, trying out a few Spanish phrases.
Ichiro is clearly one of the guys.
Unlike his countryman and teammate, closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, who prefers to have a translator on call in the locker stall next to him, Ichiro tries, for the most part, to go it alone. "When we have team meetings, I need a translator," he says (through Sueyoshi). "But I try to get by on my own in the clubhouse. When the guys are joking around, even though I don't understand all the words, I can feel what's going on."
It's not until Ichiro steps onto the field that he begins to stand out. For one thing, the field is the only place where Ichiro will address the army of Japanese reporters -- the Mariners' PR staff has issued more than 150 credentials to members of the Japanese media since spring training -- who chronicle his every move. For another, once Ichiro steps onto the field, Mariners fans, many wearing his No. 51 on T-shirts and jerseys, begin to shriek for his autograph, or even just a wave. But most of all, the field is where Ichiro can show off his skills -- his Rod Carew-like bat control, Kenny Lofton-like speed and Roberto Clemente-like arm, all displayed with a hard-to-describe Far Eastern flair.
"I've never seen a hitter with his style," says M's third baseman David Bell, a third-generation big leaguer who's been hanging around ballparks since he was in diapers. "I mean, most of us try to put the ball in play hard. But he almost looks like he's inventing different ways to get base hits."
Examples? Well, there's the run-and-chop, something you may have seen in your local softball league, where he actually begins to move to first as he steers a groundball toward the shortstop hole. Then there's the two-fisted tennis backhand, when he wants to force the head of the bat out front and hook a ball to right. There are times when he's just a plain, natural hitter, stroking line drives wherever the ball is pitched. And, yes, there are even times he tries to zone a pitch and go deep.
"You'd never see an American kid try the things he does," says second baseman Bret Boone, another third-generation big leaguer. "Some coach would put a stop to it in Little League. Most of us try to groove one swing. I think he's got about five different grooves, and he breaks out a different one depending on what the situation in the game is."
These rave reviews are a bit of a reversal since the early days of spring training, when it looked like Ichiro might be a pricey version of, say Quinton McCracken -- a slap hitter with speed. Even Lou Piniella was heard wondering, "Is this all he's got?" as Ichiro seemed content in his first exhibition games to do nothing more than ground the ball to the left side and run.
Piniella feared that if Ichiro couldn't pull the ball, or at least drive it with some authority to the opposite field, opposing defenses would play him over and in and make his life miserable. So he asked Ichiro if he would mind trying to pull the ball in a game, just to see if he could spread the defense a little. Ichiro obliged with three hits to rightfield. Looking back, Ichiro says, "I understand what the manager wanted to see, so I tried to show him, but then I got back to work, preparing for the season. This is the way I begin every spring, by hitting balls from center to left, to get my timing at the plate."
A few Mariners took a step back when Ichiro, man of limited English that he is, announced to the clubhouse late in the spring, "Wait until the season, then you will see." He was hitting about .350 at the time, but not really stinging the ball with authority. "Obviously," says veteran Jay Buhner, "he was holding something back, because he's been better in the real games."
Ichiro has the swagger you'd expect from a .353 hitter, which happens to be his career mark in Japan. He carries his 5'9", 170-pound, gymnast-flexible body around like a man seven inches and 40 pounds larger. He likes to put on home run shows in batting practice. "He's just like Wade Boggs," says Buhner. "The little s-- can hit one bomb after another in BP, but in a game he'll only let it fly in certain situations."
Ichiro enjoys nothing more than showing off an arm that may rank second to Vladimir Guerrero in terms of power -- Ichiro was clocked at 93 mph as a high school pitcher -- and is second to none in accuracy. Unfortunately, A's centerfielder Terrence Long may have ruined any chance you'll have of seeing the Ichiro cannon again this season when he was thrown out trying to go first-to-third on a single during the first series of the year. Thrown out in a highlight-video-archive fashion. Thrown out by a don't-even-think-about-running-against-this-guy laser beam that prompted on-the-spot evocations of Clemente.
"It was amazing," says Bell, who was on the receiving end of the throw. "I kept waiting for it to sink and one-hop me. But it stayed knee-high on the fly. I stood there in awe."
With each showcase highlight, you can't help but feel the Japanese pride that comes pouring from all corners of Safeco Field. In the press box, Japanese reporters holding their credentials in place with "Ichiro 51" necklaces ask American reporters if they think Ichiro will be an All-Star, batting champ and Gold Glove winner -- this year. And in the stands, amid Japanese flags and signs written in Kanji, the cheer that used to ring throughout Green Stadium in Kobe, "Ee-Chee-Row! Ee-Chee-Row! Ee-Chee-Row!" now greets Ichiro with each at-bat. He's not going to replace the power void left behind by the departures of Junior and A-Rod, but Ichiro is well on his way to filling the hero void.
You also can't help but notice the immense ad for nonstop flights from Seattle to Tokyo across the facade of the centerfield bleachers. "The Japanese tourism groups used to sell 'Seattle, home of the Space Needle and Mount Rainier,'" says Kevin Martinez, the Mariners' director of business development. "Now they're selling 'Seattle, home of Ichiro and Mariners baseball.'" Buses with Japanese tourists now stop routinely at the Mariners Team Store, where Ichiro's No. 51 uni top is a hot seller.
For Japanese fans who can't squeeze Seattle into this year's vacation schedule, all 81 Mariners home games, and about half their road games, are being broadcast live (via high-definition TV, no less) in Japan. A 7:05 p.m. start in Seattle commences at 11:05 a.m. in Japan (where it's the following day) and is re-aired that night in digest form. All major Japanese newspapers have reporters on the Ichiro beat. During spring training, some papers ran spray charts of Ichiro's batting practice, showing where he hit each ball. One time a Japanese reporter approached Mariners coach John McLaren and asked why Ichiro took only 196 swings one day when he had taken 214 the day before: "Is there a problem?"
While the M's have tried to keep a sense of humor about the media circus -- especially when word got out that a Japanese publication was offering a $2M bounty for a nude shot of Ichiro -- the man himself is not amused. Keep in mind, this is a guy who had to fly to Los Angeles to get married last year to escape the paparazzi.
"Baseball has been the greatest thing in my life," Ichiro says, "but the cameras and the media surrounding baseball have not been fun. I didn't expect them to watch every move I make, from the time I get to the parking lot to the time I leave the parking lot. It's unnecessary. How many times do they have to see me stretch? How many times do they have to see me walk? It is a big concern. If it affected the team in a negative way, I don't know what I would do."
Ichiro goes out of his way to avoid the spotlight. (He refused, politely, a request to sit for photographs for this story.) "I have not done anything yet," he explains. A Mariners official says, "Being on the cover of a magazine would be a big deal for just about all our players, but for Ichiro, he could probably wallpaper his house with all the magazine covers he's been on. The guy is more than a star athlete in Japan. He's a rock star."
"Mr. Sadaharu Oh was a great hero to the Japanese people," explains Sueyoshi. "But Ichiro is the favorite of the young Japanese fans, those who don't care so much for the old school." In fact, the beginning of Ichiro's run of seven batting titles in Japan can be traced to a year, 1994, when Japanese baseball people feared their game was losing young fans to a professional soccer startup, the J-League, that encouraged players to grow and color their hair and express their individuality.
Luckily for baseball, a sport traditionally played in Japan with militaristic seriousness and a "don't stand out from the group" mentality, Ichiro was ready to take his sport in a new direction. A little facial hair and some Oakleys for starters. Mix in a few behind-the-back catches during warmups, and the kids went crazy. The genuine talent, the magic-wand bat, the 3.7 speed from home to first and the rifle arm didn't hurt. Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who managed in Japan in 1995, returned home calling Ichiro "one of the top five players in the world."
Ichiro says he began thinking about coming to the United States in 1996, after his team won the Japan Series. In March 1999, as part of a working agreement between the Nintendo-owned Mariners and the Blue Wave, Ichiro joined the M's for a spring training stint. He became friends with Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez and began to dream of playing in Seattle. He made it clear to his Japanese club on his return that he was going to chase his major league dream when his nine-year contractual commitment was up at the end of the 2001 season -- a ploy that would have made Junior and A-Rod proud. So the Blue Wave began to take offers on negotiating rights. When Seattle won out, Ichiro is said to have cried tears of joy.
"I didn't lose my desire to play in Japan," he says. "But I felt it wasn't interesting anymore. I could not make my fans happy if I continued to play there. I felt there was a need for something else. Hopefully, I can do well and play in Seattle for many years."
As far as first impressions go, Ichiro couldn't have done much more to win over Seattle fans. The Mariners have raced to the front of the AL West, playing a delectable brand of team baseball, and Ichiro has helped win games with his legs, arm, glove and bat. He's already set a club record for rookies with a 15-game hitting streak, which included seven multihit games. In his first 93 at-bats, he struck out just four times. If he's got one glaring flaw as a leadoff hitter, it's that he rarely walks, not because he lacks selectivity, but because when he swings the bat, he almost always puts the ball in play.
Oh, and one other thing. That acupressure stick he uses on his feet? No one else on the team can figure it out.
"Most of us have tried it, but we're not sure what we're doing," says centerfielder Mike Cameron. "Ichi must have the magic touch."
That would explain a lot.
This article appears in the May 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.