Ichiro touches on a wide range of subjects

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TOKYO — On the field, it’s Ichiro’s ability to express himself with his body that wows fans, with an unprecedented 10 consecutive seasons of 200 hits, not to mention spectacular defense recognized by 10 straight Gold Gloves, 17 in a row if his Japan years are included.

But on the studio set with a very different challenger in 62-year-old wordsmith Shigesato Itoi, a celebrity in Japan as the longtime creator of popular commercial jingles and advertising blurbs, Ichiro dazzled television viewers as well as the host with a similar aplomb for expressing himself verbally.

“Ichiro is a skilled conversationalist,” Itoi concluded. “Just like a baseball player is supposed to be able to hit whatever ball is pitched to him, conversation requires a similar ability. We went back and forth using our minds and our hearts to hit each other’s toughest pitches. It was a fabulously exhilarating experience, but it also left me thoroughly exhausted because there was never a lull. The ball was lively and in constant flight.”

The show, “Ichiro, My Chosen Road,” broadcast on the NHK network, was billed as a commemoration of Ichiro’s 10 years in American baseball, but the unscripted, two-hour New Year’s Day program often strayed far from the diamond, like when Ichiro offered his advice on love. He insisted the right time to propose is midday because that’s when the mind is most rational, not in the romantic darkness of night when it’s compromised by other persuasions.

“Ichiro was getting at the importance of rationality over emotions with that remark about proposing in the afternoon,” Itoi said, laughing, in admiration of Ichiro’s ability to explain it so colorfully. “You’re entering into a longterm contract with someone and the propensity for success is greater when it’s thought through rationally rather than emotionally. You can see this thinking in his baseball when he’s standing out at second base after a big hit and refusing to reveal his satisfaction. We know he must be ecstatic, but he doesn’t want to reveal that to his opponents because it’s more hurtful to make them wonder, ‘What’s he thinking out there?’ “

Actually, Ichiro’s not as stoical as he’d like to be. Elsewhere in the program, he revealed to Itoi how he admires cats for their coolness and stoicism, but thinks of himself more like a sorry dog that is always panting for people’s affection.

Certainly, he earned an entire nation’s affection by leading Japan to the World Baseball Classic championship in 2006 and again in 2009. Japan has yet to stop celebrating those titles, which are overlooked in America. Not surprising, then, they receive significant treatment in the program.

In a recorded interview, his manager from the 2006 tournament, Sadaharu Oh, put into perspective Ichiro’s appeal to the nation.

“He’s the only Japanese player to go to America and be completely accepted by Americans,” Oh said. “He’s accomplished what so many Japanese players have only dreamed of doing for decades but never been able to do themselves.”

The comment is powerful, coming from Japan’s career home run king, often compared to Hank Aaron during his career but who never wore a baseball uniform outside of Japan until he managed that 2006 WBC team.

Itoi, a baseball fan himself, eagerly directed the conversation to another of Ichiro’s WBC moments, his 10th-inning at-bat in the 2009 championship game against South Korea.

Ichiro had struggled mightily to that point, hitting just .167 with three RBI in the eight games before the final. He came up with two out and runners on first and third in the 3-3 game.

Here’s an abbreviated excerpt of Itoi exploring Ichiro’s mind-set as he walked to the batter’s box.

Ichiro: “I was having such a poor tournament that honestly, as I approached the plate, I said to myself, ‘Please, just walk me.’ “

Itoi: “Oh my. Had you ever experienced such a thought before?”

Ichiro: “Never. In my entire career, I had never stooped to such thinking, but here I was begging them in my mind, ‘Just put me on.’ It was simply to spare my pride. The guy hitting behind me, (Hiroyuki) Nakajima, had had such a great tournament that even if he failed to deliver with the bases loaded, he would be forgiven. In my case, though, if I made an out, everything I had accomplished to that point, 262 hits (the MLB season record, in 2004), 3,000 hits (America and Japan combined, reached in 2008) would be rendered irrelevant. My entire career would be defined by that one at-bat. I’ve always prided myself in not reveling in past accomplishments and focusing on future achievement, instead. That’s been my career motto, yet here I was fretting about how this at-bat might eradicate my past accomplishments. It was such a contradiction to my very being.”

Itoi: “So you were encountering an unfamiliar you for the first time?”

Ichiro: “Yes. Such thoughts simply didn’t make sense to me and I couldn’t recognize where they were coming from. But then, suddenly, just as quickly, everything changed. The instant the catcher crouched down to begin my at-bat, all those frivolous thoughts just evaporated. I had no choice but to face reality and with that, my mind then shouted, ‘Hey, bring it on. Don’t even think about walking me, pal.’ Now, I was determined to get it done.”

Itoi: “So the defining moment was when the catcher squatted? First, you couldn’t recognize yourself, but as soon as he squatted, the old you reappeared?”

Ichiro: “An even stronger me appeared. One more determined and confident than the one I had known before.”

With the title on the line, the emboldened Ichiro delivered one of the most celebrated hits in Japanese baseball history. After fouling off four pitches in a row, he drove the eighth pitch over the pitcher’s right shoulder into center field for a two-run single, the difference in Japan’s 5-3 victory. The moment unmistakably defines Ichiro in Japan today.

For Itoi, too, the moment defines Ichiro, but in a very different way. He was impressed by how Ichiro so openly confessed the fear and even pettiness he experienced as he approached that at-bat. Such honesty, Itoi said, gives the average fan empathy for Ichiro.

“Despite the levels of success he’s attained,” Itoi explained, “he has retained the sensibilities of ordinary people far more, actually, than I would have imagined. Through this experience with him, I came to appreciate how he’s actually made an effort not to embrace the ordinariness that we all have. When you achieve success like he has, that’s something you only retain if you make a conscious effort to retain it. For people who become superstars or idols, there must be a great sense of enjoyment in becoming larger than life, but what I learned from Ichiro is that when he’s not performing in a baseball uniform, he’s made it a priority to retain very down-to-earth sensibilities.”

That part of Ichiro’s personality helped create the program’s most touching moment. Toward the end, acquaintances were renewed with Pete Drochleman, perhaps better known to Mariners fans as George Sisler’s grandson. Along with his mother, Frances, and three other family members, he attended the game Oct. 1, 2004, at Safeco Field when Ichiro broke Sisler’s long-standing season record of 257 hits.

In a recorded segment from his home in St. Louis, Drochleman acknowledged how the original misgivings he had that summer about Ichiro’s pursuit of Sisler’s 84-year-old record slowly turned to acceptance. By the time he arrived at Safeco Field, he had discovered Ichiro’s dedication and humility, qualities he felt his grandfather would have appreciated.

Once fearful his grandfather would be forgotten in the aftermath of Ichiro’s record, Drochleman now appreciates Ichiro for keeping his memory kindled. He knew that Ichiro took time to visit Sisler’s gravesite during the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis, but for the first time he was shown a photo of the moment. He got choked up seeing Ichiro in a posture very different than he had imagined.

“The fact that he’s kneeling down, saying a prayer maybe, that’s moving,” Drochleman said, fighting back tears. “Anytime my grandfather is remembered in any way, I’m overjoyed, and the fact that Ichiro would remember my grandfather says a lot for Ichiro.”

As the segment returned to the studio with a close-up camera shot of Ichiro, he, too, is nearly tearful. But instead of Itoi drawing out the silence and forcing Ichiro’s tears, he quickly lobs a question. Asked why he didn’t go for the drama, Itoi explained.

“That was enough. More than enough. When the only thing Ichiro can say coming out of that piece is, ‘I’m not good at this,’ what more could you possibly need? Most superstars are not going to admit to that so easily. They’re going to try and feign bravado, but not him. He’s in touch with his feelings and honest in expressing them to us. We empathize with him because at this moment, as I was saying earlier, he’s not superstar Ichiro, he’s simply ordinary guy Ichiro. He’s big, but not too big to retain his ordinariness.”

Finally, Itoi, who has crafted countless jingles and ad copy over a prominent career, was asked to create a jingle for the man he has long admired and whom he had just interviewed extensively.

“The name ‘Ichiro’ encompasses everything about the man,” he offered as he began formulating his copy. “The ‘ichi’ in Ichiro means one. It also means first, as in first place or as in the best or even as in the leadoff hitter. It also means singular, unique.

“The person we know simply as Ichiro has encompassed all those things from the moment that name was given to him. Then one day as an unknown professional, his manager, (Akira) Ohgi, had the inspiration to take this person heretofore called ‘Suzuki’ and change the way we address him to ‘Ichiro.’ And with that, he was offered the grand stage for his performance.

“If I had to create a jingle for Ichiro, I could do no better than simply ‘Ichiro.’ He is his own jingle.”

Brad Lefton is a St. Louis-based, bilingual journalist who covers baseball in Japan and America. He interviewed Itoi in Japanese for this article and worked on the television program.