Ichiro back on the field in Japan
Set to play in first pair of regular-season games for Mariners in his native country
Apparently, those dozens of Japanese reporters who have followed and reported Ichiro's every move since the outfielder came to the United States 11 years ago -- at one point counting his batting practice swings -- had at least one hungry viewer back home eager for every morsel.
"I don't think I missed a day," infielder Munenori Kawasaki said through an interpreter. "I watched on TV, on the news, on the Internet, every day, his performance, his results. I was constantly following him."
This spring, Kawasaki literally followed Ichiro, signing with the Mariners. The eight-time All-Star in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league joins the ever-growing number of Japanese players who made the move to the major leagues in the U.S.
"I think he opened up our dreams," Kawasaki said. "There are a lot of players in Japan who dreamed of playing baseball in the NPB. Now there are a lot of people looking at that dream and saying my dream is playing in the big leagues in the U.S. He changed the scenery for us.
"Ichiro is an encouragement to us."
Eleven years, one MVP award, two batting titles, 10 Gold Gloves, 10 All-Star appearances and 2,428 hits after he arrived in the majors, Ichiro will return to Japan when the Mariners and Athletics officially open the 2012 season at the Tokyo Dome. The opener will start at 6:10 a.m. ET Wednesday, and the second game will be at 5:10 a.m. Thursday.
Ichiro played in a 2002 All-Star exhibition tour of Japan, but this series will mark his first real games in the country since he left for the majors in 2001. Seattle and Oakland were two of the worst teams in baseball last year and few expect them to contend this year, but such is Ichiro's draw (and Major League Baseball's) that the two games are sold out despite ticket prices as high as $250 per seat. Lightbulbs flashed when Ichiro batted during Monday's exhibition game against the Yomiuri Giants, and large crowds left the Tokyo Dome immediately after his final at-bat.
"I think the whole country will be happy and very excited to see Ichiro play in Japan in a Mariners jersey," Kawasaki said before the Mariners left for Japan. "We can all see that he's healthy. We can all see him perform. Whether he does well or doesn't perform well, just to see him in person, that will bring up the country. Just like back in the day, we never got to see Sadaharu Oh play -- now we'll get to see Ichiro play. That's something a lot of people look forward to."
It will be interesting to see whether one of those people is former longtime Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, who bought the Mariners two decades ago. The 84-year-old owner has never seen his team play in person and largely leaves its operation to the front office. One of the few moves he did insist on, however, was signing Ichiro when Japan's Orix Blue Wave posted him after the 2000 season.
When Ichiro joined the Mariners, no one knew whether his success would translate to the majors. Hideo Nomo had shown that Japanese pitchers could be successful in the U.S., but a position player was another matter. After watching Ichiro slap the ball to the opposite field much of that spring, then-manager Lou Piniella famously asked the outfielder if he could pull the ball. Well, yes, he could, and once the season started, there was little doubt about Ichiro's ability to excel in the majors.
But at age 38, Ichiro enters this season with almost as many questions as he did in 2001. He is coming off by far the worst season of his career in 2011 after hitting .272 and finishing with fewer than 200 hits (184) for the first time in the major leagues. Although still fit, he's lost a step or two and is no longer able to beat out those confounding infield chops for base hits quite so often. His defense has slipped, as well. He also is in the last season of a five-year, $90 million contract, playing for a team that needs to rebuild and find some power.
I think the whole country will be happy and very excited to see Ichiro play in Japan in a Mariners jersey.” -- Mariners infielder Munenori Kawasaki
Seattle manager Eric Wedge has taken an interesting approach to this by shifting Ichiro to the important third slot in the batting order and elevating Chone Figgins to the leadoff spot. Moving a slumping player with little power to the third hole and replacing him with a player who has struggled even more (Figgins hit .188 with a .484 OPS last year) may seem counterintuitive, but Wedge says it might help both players.
"I think Ichiro is a hitter, and he'll benefit from being in the third hole, and I think it will be beneficial to us as well," he said. "It's also about getting Figgins back to the leadoff spot and getting him back on base and scoring runs for us."
Ichiro is a future Hall of Famer so devoted to his craft that he keeps his bats in a humidor. Can he make the necessary adjustments this season? Although primarily a singles hitter, Ichiro has hit as many as 15 home runs in a season (2005). Seattle hitting coach Chris Chambliss said Ichiro spread his stance a little this spring and has been better at keeping both hands on the bat during his swing, which helps him drive the ball more. Ichiro hit five home runs last year but hit two during the Cactus League this spring.
"He's really throwing two hands into the ball," Chambliss said. "He's driving the ball to all fields and making good, hard contact."
Ichiro declined requests for interviews, content to let his play on the field speak for him. But while Japanese fans may be content just to see him take his famous bat-pointing stance in their country this week, Mariners fans will expect much more when the team returns to America. They want to hear that bat speak loudly with hit after hit again, an encouragement not only to players in Japan but to the Seattle offense as well.