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Ichiro Suzuki: the secretive superstar who defied baseball’s steroid era

first_imgBaseball … we have a small favour to ask. More people, like you, are reading and supporting the Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we made the choice to keep our reporting open for all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay.The Guardian will engage with the most critical issues of our time – from the escalating climate catastrophe to widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. At a time when factual information is a necessity, we believe that each of us, around the world, deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity at its heart.Our editorial independence means we set our own agenda and voice our own opinions. Guardian journalism is free from commercial and political bias and not influenced by billionaire owners or shareholders. This means we can give a voice to those less heard, explore where others turn away, and rigorously challenge those in power.We hope you will consider supporting us today. We need your support to keep delivering quality journalism that’s open and independent. Every reader contribution, however big or small, is so valuable. Support The Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you. Share via Email Since you’re here… Facebook Reuse this content The baseball world into which Ichiro Suzuki walked in 2001 was one of swagger, bravado and brawn. Only two years before, Nike marketed baseball with an unfortunate slogan: “Chicks dig the long ball.” Everything was about home runs. The game’s steroid era was at its peak, still a year away from a scandal that would expose sluggers’ muscles as chemically gained.Ichiro, who essentially retired from playing at the age of 44 on Thursday, cast a diminutive figure in that time of giants. He was slender, almost frail, insisting he should be called by his first name only, something rarely done in American sports. The best baseball fans knew about his nine-year career in Japan, one in which he had 1,278 hits and had established himself as his country’s most electric player. But watching him early that first season with the Seattle Mariners, lunging at pitches with a spinning, awkward swing that looked like a mini-tornado, you had to wonder if he would ever hit a good, hard fastball. He leaves the field with a trail of jaw-dropping highlights, the ones everyone mentions. The laser throw to third base that caught Oakland’s Terrence Long. The inside-the-park home run at the 2007 All Star Game. But the moments I remember most are not from the games. They came hours before in empty stadiums, when I observed him practice his bunts over and over until he had found the perfect feeling of ball deadening against bat. I loved his batting practice because it was when this slight player would unleash the slugger he kept tucked inside and launch booming home runs off the restaurant on Safeco Field’s second deck. It was an Ichiro few got to see. It was the one I could watch all night. In the end, though, his career stands as a monument against the era in which he arrived. He was the superstar who did not have to turn his body into a bloated, cartoonish replica of a muscle man. He didn’t have to hit home runs. He didn’t need to be big. At a time when baseball had lost the simplicity of what made the game great, he was a reminder that a ground ball to shortstop could be more exciting than a home run. Twitter Share on Pinterest MLB Topics London Stadium set to host Red Sox-Yankees games next year Pinterest Read more Seattle Mariners US sports Share on Facebook Share on Messenger Share on LinkedIn Share on WhatsApp features That was until he hit those fastballs. And the sliders and curves and splitters too. It turned out the brilliance of his game came in the fact he didn’t take mighty swings like all the muscle-bound home-run hitters of his time. Instead he slapped grounders and bloops that he turned into hits with his electric speed. The most exciting play in baseball that season wasn’t a blast to the bleachers, it was Ichiro hitting a ground ball to shortstop and beating the throw to first base. The outfielder who appeared too small to survive a league bloated on steroids was baseball’s best player in 2001. He hit .350, had 242 hits, stole 52 bases and threw out runners from right field with throws so long and true they were almost impossible to believe, even as he made them. In each of the three years before Ichiro arrived, the Mariners had lost a superstar (Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr and finally Alex Rodriguez respectively). He made Seattle forget them all, leading the team to a major league record 116 victories. Who could have imagined a player who was already 27 with a game built on speed would still be playing nearly two decades and 3,089 hits later? But that was Ichiro. He forever defied expectations and continued to play into his mid-40s, a mystery to the end with a need for privacy that bordered on obsessive. Ichiro distrusted the mob of Japanese journalists who followed him from game-to-game, rarely seemed to relax in the clubhouse and – until relenting later in his career – hid behind a veneer of secrecy. Because Ichiro was big news in those early years, I spent a good amount of time writing about him, picking away at the wall he erected. There was the afternoon I sat in the empty, hilltop ballpark above Kobe that had been his home stadium for nine years in Japan, imagining what it must have been like to watch him in those days at the start. There was the night spent in an Osaka hotel bar with the gregarious hitting coach who had preserved a young Ichiro’s swing when everyone else thought it too awkward and demanded it be changed. Each conversation, each visit came with a warning from those close to Ichiro: these intrusions would displease him. Ultimately, the warnings were flares thrown up to chase away the curious. Ichiro never pushed back against the stories about his life. Instead, he ignored them, batting them away, the way he seemed to swat at an imaginary fly before assuming his batting stance. Support The Guardian Share on Twitterlast_img read more