Commentary

The chutzpah of Ichiro

He's facing his first sub-par season, but it isn't time for a change in his hitting style

Originally Published: July 28, 2011
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Ichiro SuzukiOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesIt's always seemed as if Ichiro Suzuki could hit any way and any thing he wanted to. So why not now?

NEW YORK -- This is one of those man-bites-dog stories. This cannot stand. One of the chiseled-in-stone truths in sports, right up there with There is no 'i' in team, is There is no 0-for-4 in Ichiro. Right?

And yet, while baseball observers in New York and beyond have worked themselves into a billowing, foamy lather about Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter's tortuous haul to hit his current .268 this year, Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki -- one of the great hitting stylists of all time -- is hitting only .272, 56 points below his career average, but is barely registering in the national conversation.

Like Jeter, Ichiro is 37 years old. Both men are surefire Hall of Famers. But Jeter's struggles seem to lack even the slightest whiff of mystery -- the Yankees shortstop is just written off as "old," case closed, nothing more to see here, people -- while a more interesting phenomenon has sprung up around Ichiro.

In the 11 years since he arrived from Japan, Ichiro has been credited with such magical, mystical hitting abilities that lately, a cranky faction of critics who have been paying attention to him is insisting Ichiro could make this nosedive of his stop, you know, if only he would make some "adjustments."

Ichiro's struggles are not all age-related, they argue. It's just a matter of his misplaced emphasis.

Have you seen how he routinely smashes six, seven, eight balls out of the park in a row during batting practice? they ask. Why does Ichiro selfishly insist on being a slap hitter who venerates the base hit? About a month ago, one writer wished David Ortiz would name Ichiro to the American League pick-'em team for the revamped All-Star break home run hitting contest this year, just to expose the untapped power that Ichiro refuses to use in games.

[+] EnlargeIchiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter
Morry Gash/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter's "down" year is being ascribed to age. He's 37, just like Ichiro. But people are looking for other reasons for Ichiro's "off" season.

Ichiro's approach is made even more indefensible, his critics complain, because outfielders are playing him shallower than ever and his foot speed ain't what it used to be, either. So those infield hits that have always padded his average -- those exquisitely placed drag bunts he used to lay down and choppers to the shortstop hole that he used to beat out so regularly -- have decreased. And if he isn't going to change now that the Mariners have free-fallen out of the winnable AL West race over the past three weeks, or now that his string of 10 .300 seasons and 200 hits is likely to be snapped (just as his streak of 10 All-Star Game appearances was earlier this month), then when in damnation will the guy change?

Have we mentioned he can hit eight, nine, 10 balls out of the park during batting practice? Anytime he wants!

But the idea that Ichiro is withholding something is hogwash. If he has half the vanity assigned to him -- and he does  about having a high batting average, he has to loathe walking to the plate each game and seeing a mark 50 points below his career average blazing back at him in two-story-high numbers on the center field scoreboard.

And as flattering as those mythical superpowers that are ascribed to him are, they also have a sort of revival-tent cant: See the 5-foot-11, 170-pound leadoff hitter who can make balls clear fences at his whim!

Ichiro was right to scoff and tell reporters a few years ago, "If I'm allowed to hit .220, I could probably hit 40 [home runs], but nobody wants that."

He is a leadoff hitter and a base stealer, one of the best table-setters of all time. The Mariners mercifully snapped their 17-game losing streak Wednesday in a 9-2 win over the Yankees while Ichiro went 4-for-5, notching three singles and a double, two stolen bases and two runs scored. As first-year Seattle manager Eric Wedge said when it was over, "We're a different club when he plays like he did today."

This, though Ichiro didn't have a single RBI.

Ichiro's refusal to countenance his critics' exhortations to change doesn't make him an enigma or even Zen, the overused Asian-inflected term of choice that is too often attached to him (inscrutable being another).

[+] EnlargeIchiro Suzuki
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesDon't let the smile deceive you. Ichiro is bothered by the drop in his batting average this season.

Teammates say Ichiro is actually not serene about his struggles. He may purposely speak in philosophical riddles and deflect questions back at reporters like a carom off the outfield wall -- "It is not for me to evaluate my season until it is over; that is for you to evaluate," he said Wednesday through his interpreter while methodically buttoning his shirt, then fastidiously rolling up the legs on his brown tie-dyed pants until they hung at mid-shin, and then fidgeting with the black straw porkpie hat he had on the shelf of his locker at Yankee Stadium.

Ichiro himself routinely and publicly calls his failure to hit "annoying" and "a tough time."

His refusal to change his approach is not a sign of obliviousness or even inner peace.

All it does is confirm the chutzpah of Ichiro even more.

See, critics are wrong when they say that Ichiro was "made" by some magical talent for using his bat like a wand, so all he needs now is a mere change in emphasis. Ichiro (and baseball people around him) describe a different equation for his success that goes more like this: Talent + Imagination x Obstinance made him one of the greatest hitters of all time. And if you take away any of those three traits, you ruin him.

Ichiro's genius is this: He never bought into the macho, conventional thinking that hitting is about hitting the ball hard every time up.

He is his own invention.

What he's always been about -- maybe more than any big league hitter before him --- is hitting the ball where they ain't.

Period.

And he doesn't care how muscular it looks. To him, a bloop single or those humpbacked flares he feathers to shallow left field are as beautiful as smoking a hard liner that one-hops to the right fielder. He doesn't care if baseball sabermatricians now contend that other stats matter more than batting average.

As Mariners third baseman Chone Figgins, who lockers next to Ichiro at home and usually sits near him on the Mariners' team plane, says: "I knew before I came here that he worked hard. But what I've found is that his mental state is just different. I talk to him all the time -- I make him talk to me. And he doesn't say a lot. But he talks, all right. Besides being very funny, what you find is he's unique. That's the only way I can describe it.

[+] EnlargeIchiro Suzuki & Chone Figgins
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziChone Figgins, right, has spent a lot of time this season picking Ichiro's brain about hitting.

"He's not thinking, 'Hit the ball as hard as I can' like most guys do. He's not necessarily even thinking, 'Hit the ball hard.' He's just thinking, 'Hit.' And, more than that, 'Get a base hit.' And he always thinks that, every single time up. Doesn't matter if it's a close game, a blowout game, men on base, late in games, his first time up. He knows what his numbers are right now. And he still doesn't change. When he steps in the box, he doesn't switch any [anxiousness] on in there. He's able to separate things and he's just thinking, 'I'm still going to get my hits ... I'm swinging to get hits. I'm still going to finish strong this season. Because I am not gonna slow down.'"

It's easy for anyone to stay the course like that when things are going well. But as Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik said Wednesday, "This is the first real, real challenge of Ichi's career." And by "challenge," what Zduriencik really meant was calamity. This is Ichiro's first ever season-long slump.

But what usually gets someone as great as Ichiro (or Jeter, for that matter) through tough times isn't talent alone. It's pure swagger, which is a sort of muscle memory, too, same as their swings. When you're a great athlete -- and quite often, even when you've been great but you're getting older -- swagger is often the last thing to sour. Guys like Ichiro and Jeter just keep a sort of bedrock faith and conviction that flies in the face of all the contradictory evidence and noise.

Quite often, they'd rather retire than change that sense of who they are.

Ichiro has famously said, "When I need advice on hitting, I ask myself."

Wedge, his no-nonsense manager, agrees with that, explaining, "He's such a hard guy to critique because he's such an unorthodox player. So it's hard to evaluate him or tell him what to do. ... He's making a bit less contact this year. And his infield hits are down a little, so his average may show some of that. But he's one of those guys that you have to trust to find the answers because no one knows him as well as he knows himself. It's true: He's got to find the answer."

So far, Ichiro's thinking seems to be akin to this: No one would ask Jimi Hendrix to play clarinet late in life just because he showed such aptitude on guitar, right? You wouldn't ask Sinatra to switch to opera late in his career just because the Met can never have enough great warblers.

Ichiro is unlikely to swing from the heels anytime soon.

[+] EnlargeIchiro Suzuki
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesMariners fans have seen too much of this -- another pop out -- this summer.

And if such stubbornness drives his critics crazy? So be it. Good luck waiting him out.

One tweak Wedge does anticipate is giving him a day's rest more frequently. When he sat Ichiro for a day on June 10, breaking his then-major league-best streak of 255 consecutive starts, Ichiro responded to what he called the "challenge" -- others referred to it as a "benching" -- with an 11-game hitting streak. (Jeter had a similar surge at the plate after he came off the disabled list looking refreshed.)

Can we expect to see Wedge rest Ichiro more the rest of the season? "We might," Wedge said. "But it's not that easy to give that guy a day off."

Because of his iconic stature?

"Right," Wedge nodded.

Someone else who works for the Mariners said Wednesday, "Right now, all Ichiro lives for is to get to 3,000 hits before he retires," to go with the 1,278 he compiled, beginning at the age of 18, in the Japanese big leagues. (As of Thursday, Ichiro is 639 hits away from the MLB 3K club.)

The Mariners are smack in the middle of a youth movement and yet, although Ichiro's contract expires in 2012, no one sees the team's Japanese ownership group not re-signing him. Ichiro has said he wants to play into his 40s.

Of course, this only makes Ichiro watchers sigh again and wonder how over-the-hill might he look by 2013 or beyond if his average or defensive prowess is on a slow fade now. Before Ichiro became the first Japanese position player to successfully make the transition to the U.S. major leagues, he'd already put a lot of miles on his legs and taken a lot of swings.

So what does Ichiro think about that?

"Thank you very much," he said Wednesday with a slight smile and a nod, sauntering out the clubhouse door.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.