Japanese hero showing more emotion

Originally Published: March 19, 2006
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- The lone major-leaguer in the starting lineup for the World Baseball Classic championship game has a message for his peers: Could you please hire a maid to tidy up before he returns from the WBC?

Ichiro sends a message to Major League Baseball and the world.

"If there's anything I can bring back to the major leagues from the Japanese style," Ichiro Suzuki said before a workout Sunday, "I would say they need to clean up the dugout a little bit more because I've experienced so many filthy dugouts in the states. I would like to suggest that, seriously."

Got that, you Mariners? Good, because sweeping up the sunflower seeds and hosing down the tobacco juice is the least you can do -- because after all the hype for the first worldwide tournament of baseball's best players, Ichiro and reliever Akinori Otsuka will be the only major-leaguers in the finale between Japan and Cuba. Amazingly, when they crown a champion, there will be no Roger Clemens present. No Alex Rodriguez. No Albert Pujols. No Johan Santana.

On the other hand, there will be no Scott Boras, either. So it's not all bad. Especially if you root for Cuba or Japan.

Much was written here about the problems the U.S. had getting its best players to compete in the WBC, but Japan struggled in that regard as well. There were 15 Japanese players on major-league rosters last season, but only Ichiro and Otsuka agreed to play for their country in the WBC this spring. Hideki Matsui declined, saying he needed to concentrate on getting himself ready for the Yankees' season. Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima declined as well, saying he needed to work with his new team and learn English.

Ichiro, however, agreed to play for his country, even though it meant this slave to routine would have to alter his regimen and begin spring training in Japan while his Mariners teammates trained in Arizona.

Ichiro Suzuki
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesAccording to manager Sadaharu Oh, Ichiro has surpassed Hideki Matsui as the most popular player in Japan.
"There was a wrong impression of Ichiro that he was selfish," Japan manager and world home run king Sadahara Oh said. "As people can see, he really committed himself to this team and he put so much time into this. Now he's one of the leaders of the team as well. A lot of people would like him performing very well, and I'm sure his popularity went up once again in Japan."

We've grown accustomed to Ichiro's professionalism and dedication to the game, as well as his quirks and superstitions (he keeps his bats in a humidor, for crying out loud), but we've seen another side to Ichiro in the tournament. He is normally so stoic that he makes his ex-teammate, John Olerud, seem like Jim Carrey. But he's hugged teammates, slapped hands, cheered, shouted, cursed after losses and generally shown more emotion in the past two weeks than he has in five seasons in Seattle. It's been refreshing.

"This is my first time to play for Team Japan,'' he explained, "and I have the Japanese flag on my shoulder, so that might be the primary reason I've become so emotional in these games at the WBC.''

Most amazing of all, Ichiro has even talked a little smack, telling reporters before the tournament, "I want to play games that make the other teams think they won't be able to beat us for the next 30 years.'' The Koreans, whose rivalry with Japan is a bit like the Yankees and Red Sox, did not take kindly to this. They beaned him in one game, Korean fans heckled him loudly in Saturday night's semifinal game and after Ichiro popped out in the semifinal, Korea third baseman Bum Ho Lee rolled the ball at the Japanese star's feet as he returned to the dugout.

If there's anything I can bring back from America to Japan, I would say that I think the players have more passion in America than the Japanese players do. I don't see anybody who is cool about it, and I had to work hard to catch up to those guys who are really passionate about the game of baseball.
Ichiro

Ichiro had to swallow his words when Japan lost to Korea two times in the early rounds and was clearly excited to finally beat his country's rival Saturday. "This is the best feeling in the world,'' he said.

There is a little irony in Ichiro's presence here. Five springs ago, there was considerable doubt whether he was good enough to play in the big leagues. Now, he's the only major league representative in the WBC starting lineup. He's taught us a lot about Japanese baseball in the past five years and also learned a lot himself.

"If there's anything I can bring back from America to Japan, I would say that I think the players have more passion in America than the Japanese players do,'' he said. "I don't see anybody who is cool about it, and I had to work hard to catch up to those guys who are really passionate about the game of baseball.''

Even if they are a bunch of slobs.

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," was published by Plume. It can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com