Skip to main content
Original Issue

Itching For Ichiro

The next time you think your job sucks, consider the 47 Japanese
journalists who gather each day at the foot of a mute god--the
Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki.

He's the fastest man in baseball with the best outfield arm
playing for the winningest team, and he doesn't speak to them. He
leads the major leagues in batting, is on pace to break a dozen
records and has set Japan ablaze, and he doesn't speak to them.

"What we are doing is not journalism," says Hideki Okuda of
Sports Nippon. "I feel very sad about this."

"There are so many of them," says Ichiro, who's embarrassed by
the horde wanting to talk only to him, "and only one of me."

Occasionally Ichiro speaks to one Japanese writer--the pool
reporter, Keizo Konishi of the Kyodo News--but only if that writer
adheres to strict protocol. The gaggle of Japanese reporters
submits their questions to Konishi and then gather together in
the corner of the clubhouse and watch breathlessly as, 30 feet
away, Konishi timidly loiters near Ichiro, who faces into his

When at last Ichiro signals, Konishi tiptoes up, squats
respectfully and whispers the questions into the great man's ear.
But Ichiro, being a very humble man, answers in only the tiniest
of morsels designed to paint himself in the palest light
possible. Quotes like "This does not matter" and "Only the team
counts" and "It is not my position to answer such a thing."

After three or four minutes Konishi rises, bows slightly and
trudges back to the huddled mass, bearing no fruit. "Ichiro says,
'This is not the time to think of that,'" he reports, and 46
faces fall like souffles at a bass drum recital.

The Japanese reporters left their wives and kids in February to
live in Phoenix and then Seattle hotels, putting in 14-hour days,
attending every Mariners game. They have traded bento boxes for
Happy Meals. They are here to record the thoughts of the man who
was named the most recognizable person in their country, just
ahead of the emperor. And he doesn't speak to them.

They fantasize about a day when they can ask him one question,
face-to-face. Would they ask if he ever has the desire to snap a
nude picture of himself and thus collect the rumored $2 million
offer from a Japanese publishing company for such a shot? Would
they ask how a 160-pound rookie sprite can become, according to
Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez, "the best player in the
big leagues"?

Would they ask about his glamorous marriage to Yumiko, a former
TV sports anchor? Or his insatiable desire for autographs? (He
desperately wants Wayne Gretzky's and Tiger Woods's.) Or his
being the only man in baseball with simply his first name on his
back? Or why he speaks to all the American press but to only one
of them? Or the reports by the Japanese tabloid Friday of his

No, no, no. These questions are indelicate. "We must be very,
very careful not to offend him," says Konishi, "or he may cut us
off completely."

In July he and Seattle closer Kazuhiro Sasaki did just that for a
week, after Japanese paparazzi got in Ichiro's way as he tried to
back out of his garage and one photographer tried to enter
Sasaki's town house complex by bribing the gatekeeper. Now the 47
tread carefully, like a Hitchcock character through a roomful of
birds. Yet their editors howl for stuff to fill their daily
Ichiro spreads, so the writers report the exact time he entered
the dugout. They produce charts on his at bats. When Yumiko went
to one exhibition game, a Japanese writer reported that Ichiro
was "roused" by her and had 21 hits in 31 batting practice
pitches. Film at 11!

What torments the 47 most is that after they leave, Ichiro
suddenly becomes Carrot Top. He does imitations. Yelps Snoop Dogg
lyrics. Walks up to opposing Latin catchers and asks, "Que
pasa?" He's loved by teammates, who call him the Wizard. They
wear T-shirts that read HE'LL FIND A WAY. The other day, in
Baltimore, they stole his clothes, leaving him only a Hooters'
waitress uniform to wear on the plane home. He vamped the whole

But when the Japanese reporters are around, he goes back to doing
his impression of a rock. Zen koan: What is the sound of two
hands typing nothing? Yet they carry on, undaunted, ever hopeful.
"I know that someday I will get an interview," says Okuda.
"Perhaps when he retires."

Ichiro is 27.


Konishi tiptoes up, squats respectfully and whispers the
questions into the great man's ear.