A new Ichiro emerges at WBC
Outfielder smiles, embraces role as team leader as Japan repeats as champ
LOS ANGELES -- In the din of a postgame celebration, with confetti falling slowly from the sky like snowflakes, Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki concluded a tournament that not so much added to his legacy, but instead humanized him.
Here was Ichiro posing with his teammates, only moments after they had captured the World Baseball Classic championship, with a big smile on his face. If you had not looked for him, perhaps you might not have noticed him at all. For once, he had not transcended the team, but was instead just a vital cog, one of many.
Surely his 10th inning, two-run single pushed Japan to a 5-3 win against Korea, but that was Ichiro's only memorable moment from the tournament. For most of Japan's WBC run, Ichiro had flailed at bad pitches, made outs in key spots and played mostly forgettable baseball. This was not Ichiro, surely not the one everyone had known.
"Personally, there was more pain and hurt and things that I usually do not feel that I experienced this time," Ichiro said after Japan finished off its WBC repeat.
Yet in these failings emerged a new Ichiro, and though we may not see this incarnation again, this three-week span was one to relish. Here was Ichiro, despite his struggles, speaking with the Japanese media every day, something he usually never does.
Here was Ichiro, with a sense of humor. Who knew that it even existed? While at Petco Park in San Diego, Ichiro lamented that he did not bring his dog Ikkyu.
"This is Petco Park and I want to bring Ikkyu here and his support group," he cracked. "I'm not being silly. I'm half-serious."
Here was Ichiro on Saturday in Los Angeles, hosting a team barbecue at a Japanese restaurant for all the position players on the team. Ichiro as a team leader? Who would have ever thought it?
One Japanese reporter remarked, "He's never done that with the Mariners!"
Never before in his career has Ichiro been the subject of so much ire.
New Mets reliever J.J. Putz, who previously pitched with Seattle, said in an interview with a Seattle newspaper this spring that the team suffered last season because of a divided clubhouse, with the implication that Ichiro was the one to blame.
Ichiro's early struggles in the WBC had some wondering wildly whether Ichiro was in decline despite the fact that he had yet another 200-hit and All-Star season last year.
And Ken Griffey Jr.'s return to Seattle may yet force Ichiro to cede a certain amount of clubhouse clout.
But Ichiro's status and popularity with the Japanese team grew with each successive on-the-field failure, because no one in the dugout cheered more for his teammates than Ichiro.
"Sometimes I thought Ichiro may not be a human being, but when I saw Ichiro being so happy, I realized that he is a human being after all," Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said after one game during the tournament.
Yet it will be the 10th-inning single that everyone will remember.
That he even had an opportunity to hit was puzzling. With men on second and third, Korean manager In-Sik Kim chose not to intentionally walk Ichiro, who singled off reliever Chang Yong Lim on the eighth pitch of the at-bat after having fouled off four of the final five pitches in that turn. After the game, Kim indicated that he had wanted Lim to walk Ichiro but that catcher Min Ho Kang, who replaced starter Kyung Oan Park in the ninth inning, did not understand the instructions from the dugout.
"Of course I have a regret as to what happened, and why we didn't intentionally walk him," Kim said. "Of course there was a mix-up with the signs between the catcher and the bench. Of course we had a change at catcher and it was an inexperienced catcher. Maybe the inexperienced catcher did not communicate and understand very well."
Ichiro said he was not surprised that Lim did not intentionally walk him, though as he stood at home plate, he had many different thoughts.
"I really wished that I could have been in a state of Zen," he said. "I kept thinking of all these things that I shouldn't think about. But I was able to hit."
With a four-hit night on Monday, Ichiro salvaged his tournament batting average, finishing with a respectable .273. So even in failure, Ichiro has acceptable statistics. In that, he can't be considered human.
As the night concluded, Ichiro was joking in the interview room when asked if he wanted to participate in the 2013 WBC.
"That's four years from now," Ichiro said. "I don't even know if I'm going to be alive four years from now. What kind of question is that?"
The better question is, what kind of Ichiro was this?
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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