The left-handed pilgrim

Brandon Mann

Back in the day, there was a left-handed pitcher on the BayStars’ farm team. He didn’t walk guys and didn’t allow home runs, which is saying something in the high-scoring Eastern League. The BayStars, however, decided they had other options. That was the end of the 2012 season. Six and a half years later, Brandon Mann is back in Japan with the Pacific League’s Lotte Marines, having completed a pilgram’s progress of independent minor leagues on two continents, the minors in the United States, and finally — in 2018 — the major leagues.

Because the BayStars were a terrible team in 2011, and Mann had done well on the farm team, it was a mystery why he didn’t get more opportunities to pitch with the first team in Yokohama.

Too young to know

“When I was here last time, I was just young and I inexperienced. I got here at 26 and I’d only played a little bit of Double-A time when I originally came,” Mann said at Zozo Marine Stadium on March 30.

“After 2012, then indie ball and I just couldn’t get picked up. A lot of minor leagues and indie ball and then the Rangers finally gave me a shot in Triple-A and I put up good numbers there, and they called me up. Nobody else was doing well, and they said, ‘We’ll take a shot on this guy.’ I threw well my first few times up there. For me it was about I want to get back to Japan. Honestly, that was my thought process.”

“That (Japan) experience, when I got to the big leagues in the States, the stadiums, the crowds, I thought back to my first start at Tokyo Dome and there were like 35-40,000 people, and I won that game. But I remember how nervous I was. When I got called up to the big leagues, my debut was in Houston. It was mother’s day and it was a full stadium. I came on with the bases loaded and got out of it, but I used my Japanese experience to get me through a lot of that. Now that I’m back here, I’m very comfortable and I feel like I can just go out and pitch. And I know how to pitch now.”

But if he couldn’t persuade people to take a shot on him six years earlier, what happened between Point A and B to make the Rangers and Marines give him a second look?

Grinding it out in the minors

“I played in the BC league for an entire season, and I got crushed. It was shocking and it made me work harder. I finished the year really well and actually got a workout with SoftBank. I went back to the States, I signed with the Pirates. I had a great year. I had a 2.90 ERA and they released me. They told me I was too old and I didn’t throw hard enough.”

“So I finished the year in indie ball and did well. Nobody signed me, so I went home, and that’s when I started going to Driveline, started training there. I did an entire year of indie ball. I broke the strikeout record in indie ball and Oakland finally gave me a shot. I spent two years in Doube-A with Oakland, then they told me, ‘I think we’re going to pass on you.’ So then I worked out for a ton of teams again, and finally Texas gave me that opportunity.”

With increased velocity from his new offseason regime and – for once – good timing, Mann made the Rangers’ Triple-A team out of spring camp, where he’d been warned he likely wouldn’t get any contract whatsoever. Being told he was too old or too this or too that, he said, only motivated him more.

“I think that fueled me, the ‘You’re good but we’ve got younger guys,’ or he’s a fringe guy,” Mann said. “But I got to the big leagues. I’m very grateful and blessed. I was gone from Japan for six years and it took five full years before I got to the big leagues. That’s the even crazier thing.”

“There are going to be guys who make it to the big leagues fast. And then there are going to be guys here, young guys who make it to the ichi-gun (first team) fast. But then there are other guys that are late bloomers. I was definitely a late bloomer, 100 percent. Some guys mature differently.”

His journey made him an eye witness to minor league life, although by his own admission, having financially stable parents allowed him to hang in there and survive what can be a difficult existence.

Minority report

“Some people might say, ‘You only made it to the big leagues for 25 days,’ but those 25 days show a lot more heart than people who it’s just handed to them. It’s a story for the average person. I had to work really hard for it,” Mann said.

“It’s amazing that they don’t take care of their minor league players. It really is (criminal). I’ve seen so many crazy things in the minor leagues. After I played in NPB, people started actually paying me decently. “

There are 20-hour bus rides and then you get three hours of sleep, and then you go to a field and you’re there for eight or nine hours. You’re getting paid, what less than $4 an hour. I don’t know how MLB doesn’t take care of their players better.”

It extends to the balls

Another hurdle for minor league pitchers adjusting to the majors, according to Mann is the balls, which are radically different and act differently — at least in his case.

“The ball is completely different between the minors and the big leagues. To this day, I cannot understand why they do that. I have two different grips for my pitches for big league balls and minor league balls, because they do completely different things,” he said.

“And I’m really into analytics. I train at Driveline in the offseason. When I throw with major league balls and I throw with minor league balls, the spins and the trajectories of the balls are completely different with the two balls. It’s fascinating. When I signed with Chiba, I had them send me a few of the NPB balls, so I could focus on using that with the analytics.”

While it makes sense that Japan uses balls that suit its tastes, why MLB and the U.S. minors use different balls can — like minor league salaries — only be attributed to MLB stinginess.

Where have you gone, Sal Maglie?

Kennys Vargas” class=”wp-image-3391″/>

OK. It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Paul Simon’s iconic line from “Mrs. Robinson,” but how often does one come across a baseball player connected with hair cuts and shaves?

Maglie, of course, was known as “the barber” because he gave threw up and in, giving batters close shaves. In that respect, Maglie’s closest NPB comp was Hall of Famer Masaji “razor” Hiramatsu, known for buzzing batters with his “shoot” — a four-seam fastball that’s thrown slightly off center to give it arm-side run.

But from this year, NPB has a real barber, former Minnesota Twin Kennys Vargas, has joined the Lotte Marines and is open for business. In a story that ran in Sankei Sports, Vargas said he’s been cutting hair since he was 13 and has given haircuts to Puerto Rico compatriot Neftali Soto of the DeNA BayStars. In a video shared by the Marines, we get a look at the big man in action, giving Marines communications director Kajiwara a trim.

Japan jones

Vargas said he’d been trying to get to Japan for three years, and only got his opportunity after spending all of 2018 with the Twins’ Triple-A club. With his wife and two young children, a five-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son, set to join him, Vargas is keen to learn the game here so he can stick.

“Three years ago, they (Japanese teams) started looking for me. I was playing for the Minnesota Twins,” he said. “But the Twins wouldn’t let me go. Last year, I spent the whole year in Triple-A, so I decided to go to Japan because I didn’t want to spend be in Triple-A. I knew I had the talent to make some money in Japan for my family. That’s when the decision was made.”

It will not be easy making the grade in a six-team league for a player who struck out in nearly a third of his Triple-A at-bats. Few players have succeeded here having done that, with Wily Mo Pena being about the best, and even then it was a tough slog.

“You have to forget about the United States,” Vargas said. “You’re in Japan. You have to deal with the situation in Japan. Forget about the States. As soon as my family gets here, I’ll concentrate 100 percent on what I’m doing. I’ll see America in October.”

“They study a lot, the hitters, the pitching, so you need to be mentally strong to try and produce at this level. ‘He can’t hit inside, so let’s throw him inside. Or throw him offspeed. They’re always trying to figure out, and you figure them out.”

In addition to having a few friends playing ball in Japan and an experienced teammate in Brandon Laird, Vargas admitted to having a mentor in former Hawks outfielder and Puerto Rican compatriot Pedro Valdes.

“My friend,” Vargas said of Valdes. “He helped me a lot. He’s like my secret hitting coach. When he saw me, and he saw me doing something wrong, he called me right away. He said, ‘Don’t lower your hands too much.’ He’s always there for me.”

“There are a lot of opportunities for guys here. There used to be just two foreigners on the major league level, but it’s way better. This is a great show in Japan. The stadiums are good. The fans are great. Coming to Japan is going to be a good decision, as soon as you start hitting.”

Ichiro from start to finish, part 4

Ichiro Suzuki announced his retirement at a press conference after midnight in Tokyo on Friday, March 22. I have translated the entire press conference from start to finish to give you a sense of how it went down. I hope you enjoy. I have included the original Japanese text. The questions have been mercilessly shortened, however.

He made two curtain calls, once after he left the game at the start of the bottom of the eighth inning, and again after the Mariners’ extra-inning win over the Athletics. What follows is the Japanese and English text of his retirement press conference early on the morning of March 22 in Tokyo.

Ichiro Suzuki tips his cap to fans at Tokyo Dome as he leaves his last big league game. on March 21 ,2019. Photo by Seito Takamizawa

――(長々と説明後に)1年目のゲームから今日を思い出しましたか?

「長い質問に対して大変失礼なんですが、ないですね」

–(After an extremely long buildup) do you have any memories from the games in your first year to today?

“I’m sorry to be rude in answer to such a long question, but no.”

――プロ野球選手になるという夢を叶えて成功してきて、今何を得たと思うか?

「成功かどうかってよく分からないですよね。じゃあどこからが成功で、そうじゃないのかというのは、全く僕には判断できない。成功という言葉がだから僕は嫌いなんですけど……メジャーリーグに挑戦する、どの世界でもそうですね、新しい世界に挑戦するということは大変な勇気だと思うんですけど、でもここはあえて成功と表現しますけど、成功すると思うからやってみたい、それができないと思うから行かないという判断基準では後悔を生むだろうなと思います。やりたいならやってみればいい。できると思うから挑戦するのではなくて、やりたいと思えば挑戦すればいい。そのときにどんな結果が出ようとも後悔はないと思うんです。じゃあ自分なりの成功を勝ち取ったときに、達成感があるのかといったらそれも僕には疑問なので。基本的にはやりたいと思ったことに向かっていきたいですよね。

 で、何を得たか……まぁ、こんなものかなあという感覚ですかねぇ。それは200本もっと打ちたかったし、できると思ったし、1年目にチームは116勝して、その次の2年間も93勝して、勝つのってそんなに難しいことじゃないなってその3年は思っていたんですけど、大変なことです。勝利するのは。この感覚を得たことは大きいかもしれないですね」

–You succeeded in realizing your dream of becoming a pro baseball player. What have you gained?

“I don’t really know if I succeeded or not. Where do you measure it from? Because if you can’t do that, then I’m unable to judge. I dislike that word, “success.” Trying the major leagues, or any other world, I think requires great courage because you are taking on the challenge of a world that’s new for you. In that sense I would use the word “success,” but that’s because you go because you think you’ll succeed. If you don’t go because you think you can’t be successful, I think that will become a source of regret. Basically, I try things because I want to do them. But what have I gained? I guess that’s how I feel about it. I wanted to get about 200 hits, and I thought I could. My first year our team won 116 games, 93 the next two. So in those three years I didn’t think winning was such a difficult thing. It is in fact extremely hard. That realization might be the big thing I took away.”

――毎年神戸に自主トレに行っている。ユニホームを脱ぐことで神戸に何か恩返ししたい思いは?

「神戸は特別な街です、僕にとって。恩返しかー……、恩返しって何することなんですかね。僕は選手として続けることでしかそれができないと考えていたこともあって、できるだけ長く現役を続けたいと思っていたこともあるんですね。神戸に……恩返し……、じゃあ、あの税金を少しでも払えるように頑張ります」

–You do your offseason training in Kobe. Now that you’ve retired do you have some emotion to want to repay a debt of gratitude to the city?

“Kobe’s streets are special to me. As for repaying, I wonder what that might be. From my standpoint as a player, I thought of nothing but continuing my career and playing as long as I could. Kobe? Repay a debt of gratitude? I suppose I can do my best to pay them some taxes.”

――日米で活躍する選手は甲子園で活躍、プロで活躍、そしてメジャーに挑戦という流れがある。もっとこんな制度ならメジャーに挑戦しやすかったとか、こういうことあればいいなという提言は?

「制度に関しては僕は詳しくないんですけども、でも日本で基礎を作る、自分が将来、MLBでプレーする……。MLBで活躍するために礎を作るという考え方であれば、できるだけ早くというのは分かりますけど、日本の野球で鍛えられることってたくさんあるんですよね。だから制度だけに目を向けるのはフェアではないと思いますけどね」

――日本の野球で鍛えられたことは?

「基本的な基礎の動きって、おそらくメジャーリーグの選手より日本だったら中学生レベルの方がうまい可能性だってありますよ。それはチームとしての連係もあるじゃないですか。そんなの言わなくたってできますからね、日本の野球では。でも、こちらではなかなかそこは……。個人としてのポテンシャル、運動能力は高いですけど、そこにはかなり苦しみましたよ。苦しんで、諦めましたよ」

–(Japanese) players who go to the majors now follow a path from playing  (in the high school tournaments) at Koshien Stadium, and from there to Japanese pro ball and then the majors. Based on your own experiences if there was a different a system, that would make it easier for Japanese to go to the majors, what would that be? This is hypothetical, but could there be some kind of developmental system or is playing in Nippon Professional Baseball still the best way?

“I really don’t know in much detail about systems as such. My baseball foundations were laid in Japan for my future of playing in MLB. But in the case of building the necessary foundation in order to play in MLB, I know that the sooner you go the better, but Japanese baseball still has much to teach, so it’s really not fair to look just at the different systems.”

–What did you Japanese baseball teach you?

“One could argue that from the standpoint of fundamentals, how to play the game, Japanese junior high school-level players may be better than major leaguers because of the focus on teamwork through things like relay plays. We (Japanese) can execute those things without being told. That’s Japanese baseball, but over there, well… the players used to be athletic and have high individual potential, and I think that is still the case, but (my hope that teammates would become better fundamentally) it was so frustrating. Eventually, it became so frustrating I just put it out of my mind.”

――エンゼルスの大谷翔平選手との対戦を楽しみにしていたけど、叶わなかった。イチローさん本人は対戦したかったか?

「先ほどもお伝えしましたが、世界一の選手にならないといけない選手ですよ。そう考えてます。翔平との対戦、残念ですけど、できれば僕がピッチャーで翔平バッターがやりたかったんですよ。そこは誤解なきようにお願いします」

――大谷選手は今後どのような選手になっていくと思いますか?

「なっていくかどうか? そこは占い師に聞いてもらわないとわからないけどねぇ。まぁでも、投げることも、打つこともやるのであれば、僕は1シーズンごとに、1シーズンはピッチャー、次のシーズンは打者として、それでサイ・ヤング(賞)とホームラン王を取ったら……だってそんなこと考えることすらできないですよ。翔平はその想像をさせるじゃないですか、人に。この時点でもう明らかに人とは違う選手であると思うんですけど。その二刀流は面白いなと思うんですよね。(記者に向かって)納得いっていない感じの表情ですけど。ピッチャーとして20勝するシーズンがあって、その翌年には50本打ってMVP獲ったら、これ化け物ですよね。でも、それが想像できなくないですからね。そんな風に思っています」

–We were looking forward to facing the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani, but it didn’t come to pass. Did you want to face him?

“I think I answered that already, but my thinking is he is a guy who has to be No. 1 in the world. It’s unfortunate about a matchup against each other. I wanted to pitch against Shohei if that had been possible. Please don’t misunderstand that. ”

–What kind of player do you think Shohei Ohtani will become?

“What will he be? I think that’s something only a fortune teller can explain. If one was capable of pitching and hitting, what I would like to do is pitch one season and bat the next. In that way one could win the Cy Young Award one year and win the home run title the next. That’s because it’s something I can’t even consider. After all, Shohei is the kind of player who invites that kind of impression. He’s already proved he’s a player who is different from others. I think that playing two ways is pretty cool. You don’t look like that answer is going to satisfy you.”

“OK. Let’s say he wins 20 games in one year as a pitcher, and hits 50 home runs the next and is MVP. That’s a monster, but it’s not something you can exclude as a possibility. That’s kind of how I look at him.”

――現役野球選手じゃない自分は嫌だとインタビューで言っていた。

「僕は嫌だって言わないと思うけどね。僕、野球選手じゃない僕を想像するの嫌だとたぶん言っていないと思いますよ」

――改めて野球選手ではない自分を想像してどうか?

「いやだから、違う野球選手に多分なってますよ。あれ? この話さっきしましたよね。お腹減ってきて集中力が切れてきちゃって、さっき何話したのかもちょっと記憶に……。草野球の話しましたよね? そっちでいずれ……それは楽しくやっていると思うんですけど。そうするときっと草野球を極めたいと思うんでしょうね。真剣に草野球をやるという野球選手になるんじゃないですか、結局。聞いてます?」

「お腹減ってきたもうー。結構やっていないですか、これ。今時間どれくらい? 1時間? 20分? あらー。今日はとことんお付き合いしようかなと思ったんですけどね。お腹減ってきちゃった」

–It is said you agreed with the sentiment that you would hate the idea of yourself as a retired player.

“I don’t think I would say, ‘I hate that.’ I don’t believe I said I dislike the idea of myself as someone who isn’t a player.”

–So can you imagine yourself as something other than a baseball player?

“Since you don’t like that (answer), do you mean seeing myself playing a different kind of baseball? I already talked about that. I’m kind of hungry and my concentration is fading. My recollection of what I said before is…Did I talk about “kusayakyu” (backlot baseball)? In any case, I think that would be fun. I would be the kind of player who masters kusayakyu. In that case, I’d be really serious at it. Are you listening?”
“I am so hungry. Is this not enough? How long have we been going at this? An hour? 1 hour, 20 minutes? Oh my. I was kind of hoping to be out with people until late, and now I’m starving.”

――プロ野球人生振り返って、誇れることは?

「これ、先ほどお話しましたよね。小林君もちょっと集中力切れてるんじゃないの? 完全にその話したよね。ほらそれで1問減ってしまうんだから」

–When you look back on your career, what are you proud of (from Mr. Kobayashi of the Daily Sports)?

“Hold on. I think I answered that already. Mr. Kobayashi is your concentration also wavering? I absolutely definitely answered that, so that’s one less question for me.”

――イチロー選手の小学生時代の卒業文集に「僕の夢は一流の野球選手になることです」と書いていたが、その当時の自分にどんな言葉をかけたいですか?

「お前、契約金1億(円)ももらえないよって。ですね。いやー夢は大きくと言いますけどね、なかなか難しいですよ。ドラ1の1億って掲げていましたけど、全然、遠く及ばなかったですから。いやー、ある意味では挫折ですよね、それは」

「こんな終わり方でいいのかな? なんかきゅっとしたいよね、最後は」

–When you were in elementary school, you wrote in your graduation essay ‘My dream is to be a top-level baseball player.’ What would you like to say to that boy that was you?

“Listen kid. You’re not going to get a 100 million yen ($900,000) signing bonus. Yes, that’s right. No, we say to have big dreams, but they are also hard. I also wrote that I wanted to be a No. 1 draft pick with a bonus of 100 million, but that proved beyond my grasp. So in a sense, is that not frustration, too? Is that a good place to end this? I really want to polish this off properly, so OK one last question.”

――前のマリナーズ時代、何度か「自分は孤独を感じながらプレーしている」と話していた。ヤンキース、マーリンズとプレーする役割が変わってきて、去年ああいう状態があって今年引退。その孤独感はずっと感じてプレーしていたのか。それとも前の孤独感とは違うものがあったのか。

「現在それ(孤独感)全くないです。今日の段階で、それは全くないです。それとは少し違うかもしれないですけど、アメリカに来て、メジャーリーグに来て……外国人になったこと。アメリカでは僕は外国人ですから。このことは……外国人になったことで、人の心を慮ったり、人の痛みを想像したり、今までなかった自分が現れたんですよね。この体験というのは、本を読んだり、情報を取ることはできたとしても、体験しないと自分の中からは生まれないので。孤独を感じて苦しんだことは多々ありました。ありましたけど、その体験は未来の自分にとって大きな支えになるんだろうと、今は思います。だから、辛いこと、しんどいことから逃げたいと思うのは当然のことなんですけど、でもエネルギーのある元気なときにそれに立ち向かっていく、そのことはすごく人として重要なことなのではないかなと感じています」

「締まったね、最後。いやー長い時間ありがとうございました。眠いでしょ、皆さんも。ねぇ。じゃあ、そろそろ帰りますか、ね」

–During your first time with the Mariners, you said a number of times that ‘I feel lonely when I play.’ But with the Yankees and Marlins, your role changed. Then you had that situation last year, and now you’ve retired. Did you continue to play with that feeling of loneliness? Or did the nature of the loneliness you felt change?

“I don’t feel that anymore. At this stage, not at all. This might be a little different (from what you meant), but when I arrived in America, when I came to the majors, I became a foreigner, because I was in America and that made me a foreigner there. Through this thing of becoming a foreigner I began to consider other people, began to imagine things like the pain of others.”

Popping NPB’s 2019 cork

Lots to see on Opening Day in Japan as Nippon Professional Baseball gets underway on Friday, March 29. Fourteen hours after Masahiro Tanaka became the first Japanese pitcher to make four Opening Day starts, Randy Messenger made his fifth straight for the Central League’s Hanshin Tigers.

In Chiba, former Chicago White Sox player Tadahito Iguchi, opened his second season as skipper of the Pacific League’s Lotte Marines by starting 18-year-old Kyota Fujiwara in center field and led him off, marking the first time in NPB that a player started Opening Day straight out of high school since Shohei Ohtani opened the 2013 season in right field and batting eighth for the Nippon Ham Fighters — or in tribute to Susan Slusser, the porcine pugilists.

Like Ohtani, Fujiwara began his career against veteran right-hander Takayuki Kishi, who retired both in their first pro at-bats. Kishi, however, left with leg issues, and the Marines came from behind to win at home.

At Sapporo Dome, Orix Buffaloes rookie Yuma Tongu singled in two runs in his first at-bat against the Fighters, who came back to win on Sho Nakata‘s 10th-inning grand slam.

In the Tigers-Swallows game, despite the presence of Messenger and the rest of Hanshin’s over-the-hill gang, the offensive action was highlighted by rookies. Yakult’s 19-year-old third baseman Munetaka Nakamura, who dominated the Eastern League last year, delivered a sacrifice fly to open the scoring. The Tigers, however, broke through against Yasuhiro Ogawa when rookie Seiya Kinami (3rd pick in 2018) reached on an error and scored on a triple by Koji Chikamoto (1st pick).

In Hiroshima, new Yomiuri Giant Yoshihiro Maru returned to the park where he won two MVP awards for the Carp, and went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts for the second time in his career. Carp starter Daichi Osera made it look easy, locating his fastball and breaking ball and throwing some cutters that would make Mariano Rivera take notice as he struck out 11 in a 5-0 win.

Ichiro from start to finish, part 3

Ichiro Suzuki announced his retirement at a press conference after midnight in Tokyo on Friday, March 22. I have translated the entire press conference from start to finish to give you a sense of how it went down. I hope you enjoy. I have included the original Japanese text. The questions have been mercilessly shortened, however.

He made two curtain calls, once after he left the game at the start of the bottom of the eighth inning, and again after the Mariners’ extra-inning win over the Athletics. What follows is the Japanese and English text of his retirement press conference early on the morning of March 22 in Tokyo.

Ichiro Suzuki tips his cap to fans at Tokyo Dome as he leaves his last big league game. on March 21 ,2019. Photo by Seito Takamizawa

――ユニークなTシャツを着ていたが、何か心情を表していたのか? 全く関係なくただ好きで着ているのか?

「そこは……もう言うと急に野暮ったくなるから、言わない方がいいんだよね。それはだから見る側の解釈だから。そう捉えれば、そう捉えることもできるし、全然関係ない可能性もあるし。それでいいんじゃないですか?」

――好きに楽しんでいただきたいと?

「だってそういうものでしょ。いちいちそれ説明すると本当に野暮ったいもんね」

――言わないほうが粋だと?

「まぁ粋って自分で言えないけどね。言うと無粋であることは間違いないでしょうね」

–In camp you wear some unique T-shirts. Was that to express some feelings, or are you just wearing them for fun without any special meaning?

“Well, if I said, then it would come out sounding pretty crude, so it’s better if I don’t. I think it’s up to the interpretation of the viewer. If you think you get the meaning, then you can take something from it, although you might get nothing at all from it. Maybe it’s best if I leave it that way.”

–So it’s up to us to enjoy it as we like?

“That’s the kind of thing it is. If I sit here and explain them one by one, it’s going to get crude.”

–So not saying it is the tasteful way?

“I’m refined so I wouldn’t say it. If you do say it, you’ll come across as boorish.”

――イチローさんを支えてきた弓子夫人への思いは?

「いやぁ、頑張ってくれましたね。一番頑張ってくれたと思います。僕はアメリカで結局3089本のヒットを打ったわけですけど、妻はですね、およそ……僕はゲームの前にホームの時はおにぎりを食べるんですね。妻が握ってくれたおにぎりを球場に持っていって食べるのですけど、その数がですねぇ、2800個くらいだったんですよ。だから3000いきたかったみたいですね。そこは3000個握らせてあげたかったなと思います。妻もそうですけど、まぁとにかく頑張ってくれました。僕はゆっくりする気はないですけど、妻にはゆっくりしてもらいたいと思ってます。

 それと一弓(いっきゅう)ですね。一弓というのはご存じない方もいるかもしれないですけど、我が家の愛犬ですね。柴犬なんですけど。現在17歳と7か月。今年で18歳になろうかという芝犬なんですけど。さすがにおじいちゃんになってきて、毎日フラフラなんですが、懸命に生きているんですよね。その姿を見ていたら、それはオレ頑張らなきゃなって。これはジョークとかではなくて、本当に思いました。あの懸命に生きる姿。(一弓は)2001年に生まれて、2002年にシアトルの我が家に来たんですけど、まさか最後まで一緒に、僕が現役を終えるときまで一緒に過ごせるとは思っていなかったので、これは大変感慨深いですね。一弓の姿というのは。本当に妻と一弓には感謝の思いしかないですね」

— What are your thoughts for Yumiko, who has had your back all this time?

“She really gave her all. I think she did the most. I had 3,089 hits in the the U.S.. But my wife is, well, before home games I ate rice balls that she made and I took to the stadium. She got to about 2,800, and it seems she wanted to get to 3,000. She really did great. I am not one to take it easy, but I want her to.”

“Then there’s Ikkyu. Some of you may not know, but Ikkyu is our dog, a Shiba. Currently he’s 17 years old and 7 months old, 18 this year. He’s like a grandfather, wobbling around every day, but is still hanging in there. When I see him, I think I can’t let up. That may sound like a joke, but I really feel that way. He’s trying so hard to stay alive. He was born in 2001 and came to our home in Seattle in 2002. I would never have believed that he would be with us until I retired. I have strong emotions for him. Indeed, when I think of my wife and of Ikkyu, my heart is filled with gratitude toward them.

――打席内での感覚の変化は今年はあったのか?

「いる? それここで。いる? 裏で話そう、後で。裏で」

–Has there been any change this year in the sensation when at bat?

“Do you need that here? Let’s talk, later. Somewhere private.”

――これまで数多くの決断と戦ってきたが、今までで一番考えぬいて決断したものは?

「これ順番つけられないですね。それぞれが一番だと思います。ただ、アメリカでプレーするために当時、今とは違う形のポスティングシステムだったんですけど、自分の思いだけでは当然それは叶わないで、当然球団からの了承がないと行けないんですね。その時に、誰をこちら側……こちら側っていう敵味方みたいでおかしいんですけど、球団にいる誰かを口説かないといけないというか、説得しないといけないというか。そのときに一番に浮かんだのが仰木監督ですね。その何年か前からアメリカでプレーしたいという思いを伝えていたこともあったんですけど、仰木監督だったらおいしいご飯でお酒を飲ませたら……飲ませたらってこれはあえて言っていますけど、これはうまくいくんじゃないかと思ったら、まんまとうまくいって。これがなかったら、何も始まらなかったので。口説く相手に仰木監督を選んだのは大きかったなと思いますね。また、『ダメだ。ダメだ』とおっしゃっていたものがお酒でこんなに変わってくれるんだと思って、お酒の力をまざまざと見ましたし。でもやっぱり、しゃれた人だったなと思いますね。だから仰木監督から学んだもの、計り知れないと思います」

–You have tackled many decisions so far, such as going to America in 2000, joining Japan for the 2006 WBC, 2007 signing an extension with the Mariners, and now retiring, but which one was the hardest to think through?

“I cannot rank them. I think different ones could be No. 1 in some way. However, to play in the U.S., although it was a different form of posting system back then, I could not get up and go on my own. I could not go without the team’s consent. At that time, I needed someone on my side… It is strange to say it like there were sides, friends and foes, but if no one within the team argued my case, they wouldn’t have understood and I wouldn’t have been able to go. The one who most comes to mind from that time was our manager, Ogi. I had been telling him I wanted to play in the U.S. for several years. In regards to manager Ogi, I took him out for good food and drink, when he drank I was able to say that, and if I think about it, that was what worked well. If it hadn’t been for that, nothing would have happened. I think the big thing was choosing manager Ogi as the person to persuade. He said over and over again, ‘It’s no good, no good.’ But that changed over alcohol. That clearly demonstrated how powerful a thing alcohol can be. He’s the one who taught me that, and for that reason I think the things manager Ogi taught me cannot be measured.”

――昨日の試合は第1回WBCで日本が優勝した日と同じだったが、それは運命的なものがあったりするのか?

「まぁ聞かされればそう思うこともできるという程度ですかね。僕はそのことは知らなかったですけど」

–The date of yesterday’s game coincided with the date in Japan when you won the first WBC. Was that fate?

“When I hear that, I think it must be to some degree. I didn’t know that.”

――最も我慢したものは何だった?

「難しい質問だなあ……。僕、我慢できない人なんですよ。我慢が苦手で楽なこと、楽なことを重ねているっていう感じなんですね。自分ができること、やりたいことを重ねているので、我慢の感覚はないんですけど、とにかく体を動かしたくてしょうがないので、体をこんなに動かしちゃだめだっていって、体を動かすことを我慢することはたくさんありました。それ以外はなるべくストレスがないような、自分にとってですね、ストレスがないように考えて行動してきたつもりなので。家では妻が料理をいろいろ考えて作ってくれますけど、これロードに出るとなんでもいいわけですよね。無茶苦茶ですよ、ロードの食生活なんて。だから我慢できないから、結局そういうことになってしまうんですけど、そんな感じなんですね。今、聞かれたような趣旨の我慢は思い当たらないですね。おかしなこと言ってます、僕?」

–In your career, what was the thing you were able to endure the most?

“What a tough question. Actually, I’m not very patient. I’m not good at putting up with things, and tend to indulge in things I enjoy. Things I’m able to do, or want to do, I plug away at those things and I don’t feel it’s something I need to endure. But having said that, I really like exercising a lot, but sometimes working out so much is a problem, so I often have to stop. Nothing else stresses me out as much as that, because I’ve come this far thinking about avoiding stress. At home, my wife puts a lot of thought into cooking, and then when I’m on the road, anything is OK. What there is to eat on the road is actually pretty awful.”

――台湾ではイチローさんのファンがいっぱいいまして、何か台湾の人に伝えたいことは何かないか?

「(元中日の)チェンが元気か知りたいですね。(マーリンズで)チームメートでしたから。チェンは元気にやってますかね? それが聞けて何よりです。今のところ(台湾に行く)予定はないけど、でも以前に行ったことがあるんですよ、一度。すごく優しい印象でしたね。心が優しくて、いいなあと思いました」

–You have so many fans in Taiwan. Is there something you would like to tell them?

“I’d like to know how Chen Wei-yin is doing. We were teammates (with the Marlins). Is he doing well? I would love to hear that. At the present, I don’t have a plan to visit Taiwan, but I’ve been there before once. I felt the people were nice, very kind hearted.”

――菊池(雄星)投手が同じマリナーズに入って、去年は大谷(翔平)選手がエンゼルスに入った。後輩たちに託すことは?

「雄星のデビューの日に僕は引退を迎えたのは、何かいいなあと思っていて……もう『ちゃんとやれよ』という思いですね。短い時間でしたけど、すごくいい子で。いろんな選手を見てきたんですけど、左ピッチャーの先発って変わっている子が多いんですよ。本当に。天才肌が多いという言い方もできるんですかね。アメリカでもまぁ多いです。だから、こんなにいい子いるのかなっていう感じですよ、ここまで。今日まで。

 でも、キャンプ地から日本に飛行機で移動してくるわけですけど、チームはドレスコードですね、服装のルールが黒のセットアップ、ジャージのセットアップでOK。長旅なので、できるだけ楽にという配慮ですけど、『雄星、俺たちどうする?』って。『アリゾナ発つときはいいんだけれども、日本着いたときにさすがにジャージはダメだろ』って2人で話していたんですね。

『そうですよね、イチローさん、どうするんですか?』って。僕は『中はTシャツだけどセットアップでジャケット着ているようにしようかな』って。『じゃあ僕もそうします』と雄星が言うんです。で、キャンプ地を発つときのバスの中で、みんな、僕もそうでしたけど、黒のジャージのセットアップでみんなバスに乗り込んできて。雄星と席が近かったので『雄星やっぱ、だめだよな、これっ』て。『やっぱり日本に着いたときに、メジャーリーガーがこれはダメだろ』ってバスの中で言っていたんですよね。『いや、そうですよね』って。そうしたらまさか羽田に着いたときに黒のジャージでしたからね。いや、コイツ大物だな、と思って。ぶったまげました。それは本人にまだ真相は聞いてないんですけど、何があったのかわからないですけど、左ピッチャーはやっぱ変わったヤツ多いなと思ったんですね。でも、スケール感は出てました。頑張ってほしいです。

 翔平はもうちゃんとケガを治してスケールの、物理的にも大きいわけですし。アメリカの選手に全くサイズ的にも劣らない。あのサイズであの機敏な動きができるというのはいないですからね、それだけで。いやもう世界一の選手にならなきゃいけないですよ、うん」

–Yusei Kikuchi has joined the Mariners, and last year Shohei Ohtani joined the Angels. Is there a message you would like to impart to the guys who are following in your footsteps?

““I thought it might be good if I went into my retirement the same day Yusei made his debut. I wanted him to do a real good job. Although we were together only briefly, he’s a real good kid. I’ve seen a lot of players in my time, but I have to say, that there are a lot of weirdos among left-handed starting pitchers. I’m not kidding. I think you could also say that there are a lot of geniuses among them. Anyway, there’re a lot of them in America. That’s why I was thinking what a good kid he is.”

 “That being said, when we traveled to Japan from camp it was by plane and thus there was a dress code. You can wear either a black jacket setup or a black sweater setup. On a long trip, you take comfort into consideration. I said, ‘Yusei, what should we do?’ We agreed that when we left Arizona anything would be OK, but the sweater won’t do when we land in Japan.”

 “He said, ‘Ichiro-san, what’s best?’ I said, ‘I think I’ll go with a jacket and a T-shirt.’ So he said he’d probably do the same. When the team boarded the bus in Arizona, everyone was wearing the same black sweater setup. When Yusei approached my seat on the bus, I said, ‘Just as I expected, Yusei. You can’t wear that. You have to realize that what you’re wearing won’t do as a major leaguer arriving in Japan.’ He said, ‘Oh no. I suppose not.’”

“Anyway, when we arrived at Haneda Airport, (instead of the black jacket setup) he was wearing the (casual) black sweater setup.’ All I could think of was that this guy is the real thing. I haven’t really gotten a good sense of him yet, but it reminded me that so many left-handed pitchers are weird. You get a sense he is a big figure. I hope he gives it all he has.”

“Shohei has already finished his treatment, and physically he’s on such a large scale. In terms of size, he’s not inferior to American players in any way. But because he can move like a player that size shouldn’t be able to, he has to be the best player in the world.”

――イチローさんが愛を貫いてきた野球。その魅力とは?

「団体競技なんですけど、個人競技だというところですかね。野球が面白いところだと思います。チームが勝てばそれでいいかというと、全然そんなことないですよね。個人としても結果を残さないと生きていくことはできないですよね。本来はチームとして勝っていれば、チームとしてのクオリティが高いはずなので、それでいいんじゃないかという考えもできるかもしれないですけど、決してそうではない。その厳しさが面白いところかなと。面白いというか、魅力であることは間違いないですね。あと、同じ瞬間がないということ。必ず、必ずどの瞬間も違うということ。これは飽きがこないですよね」

–You’ve invested your love in baseball. What is its appeal?

“It’s a team competition, but it’s also an individual sport. That’s why baseball is interesting. One could say that if your team wins, then that’s all that matters, but it’s not the case at all. If you don’t produce as an individual, you can’t survive. Also, if one team wins, one might say in general that team is better, and it’s OK to think so, but it’s not really true. I think maybe that difficulty is what makes it interesting. It’s attractive without a doubt. No two moments are the same. Every moment is different.”

――イチロー選手がいない野球をどう楽しんだらいいか?

「2001年に僕がアメリカに来てから、この2019年の現在の野球は全く別の違う野球になりました。まぁ、頭を使わなくてもできてしまう野球になりつつあるような……。選手も現場にいる人たちはみんな感じていることだと思うんですけど、これがどうやって変化していくのか。次の5年、10年。しばらくはこの流れは止まらないと思うんですけど。本来は野球というのは……ダメだ、これ言うとなんか問題になりそうだな。問題になりそうだな。頭を使わなきゃできない競技なんですよ、本来は。でもそうじゃなくなってきているのがどうも気持ち悪くて。ベースボール、野球の発祥はアメリカですから。その野球がそうなってきているということに危機感を持っている人って結構いると思うんですよね。だから、日本の野球がアメリカの野球に追従する必要なんてまったくなくて、やっぱり日本の野球は頭を使う面白い野球であってほしいなと思います。アメリカのこの流れは止まらないので、せめて日本の野球は決して変わってはいけないこと、大切にしなくてはいけないものを大切にしてほしいなと思います」

–How should we enjoy baseball without Ichiro?

“The baseball played in America in 2019 has completely changed since I arrived in 2001,” he said. “It’s now in the process of becoming a game where you can now get by without using your head. A lot of active players see this, too, and wonder how this might change. I don’t see this trend stopping over the next five years, or 10 years or for the foreseeable future. Fundamentals mean nothing. Perhaps saying that might cause trouble. That (saying this) definitely looks like it will be a problem.”

“On a fundamental level, baseball is a game that requires thinking. That it’s losing that makes me sick. America is baseball’s birthplace, and I believe a lot of people have a sense of urgency over what the game is becoming. So I think there is no need for Japan’s game to follow America’s. The Japanese game should be a thinking, interesting brand of ball. As long as this trend in America does not stop, I hope Japanese ball doesn’t change and that we remember to cherish it.”

Ichiro from start to finish, part 2

Ichiro Suzuki announced his retirement at a press conference after midnight in Tokyo on Friday, March 22. I have translated the entire press conference from start to finish to give you a sense of how it went down. I hope you enjoy. I have included the original Japanese text. The questions have been mercilessly shortened, however.

He made two curtain calls, once after he left the game at the start of the bottom of the eighth inning, and again after the Mariners’ extra-inning win over the Athletics. What follows is the Japanese and English text of his retirement press conference early on the morning of March 22 in Tokyo.

Ichiro Suzuki tips his cap to fans at Tokyo Dome as he leaves his last big league game. on March 21 ,2019. Photo by Seito Takamizawa

――涙がなく、むしろ笑顔が多いように見えるのは、この開幕シリーズが楽しかったということか?

「これも純粋に楽しいということではないんですよね。やっぱり、誰かの思いを背負うということはそれなりに重いことなので、そうやって1打席1打席立つことは簡単ではないんですね。だから、すごく疲れました。やはり1本ヒットを打ちたかったし。応えたいって当然ですよね、それは。僕に感情がないって思っている人はいるみたいですけど、あるんですよ。意外とあるんですよ。だから、結果残して最後を迎えたら一番いいなと思っていたんですけど、それは叶わずで。それでもあんな風に(ファンが)球場に残ってくれて。まぁ、そうしないですけど、死んでもいいという気持ちはこういうことなんだろうなと。死なないですけど。そういう表現をするときってこういうときだろうなって思います」

–Because we could only see smiles rather than tears, isn’t it the case that you enjoyed this series?

“Even this was not purely joyful. After all, you’re carrying the weight of other people’s thoughts on your shoulders, so it was not a simple thing just to go up and bat each time. For that reason, it was extremely exhausting. I so wanted to get at least one hit. That’s a natural response.”

“It seems there are people who think I have no feelings, but I do. More than many people might imagine. So as I approached the very last (plate appearance) , I felt getting a hit would be the greatest, but it didn’t happen. Despite that, the fans stuck around for me. Don’t worry I’m not going to do it, but I thought at that instant what it means when someone says, ‘I could now die a happy man.’ I think that expression was made for a situation like that.”

――常々、最低50歳まで現役ということをいってきたが、日本に戻ってもう1度プロ野球でプレーするという選択肢はなかったのか?

「なかったですね」

–You had said you would play at least until you are 50. Was coming back to play pro ball in Japan an option for you?

“No. it wasn’t.”

――どうしてか?

「それはここで言えないなぁ。ただねぇ50まで、いや最低50までって本当に思ってたし。でもそれは叶わずで。有言不実行の男になってしまったわけですけど、でも、その表現をしてこなかったら、ここまでできなかったかなという思いもあります。だから、言葉にすること。難しいかもしれないけど、言葉にして表現することというのは、目標に近づく一つの方法ではないかなと思っています」

–Why not?

“I don’t really want to get into that here. However, the ‘playing until 50,’ or until 50 at the least was really my intent. It didn’t come to pass and as a result I’ve been someone who can’t back up his words with actions, but had I not said it, I don’t think I would have made it this far. It may be difficult, but putting something into words is one way to get yourself closer to achieving your target.”

――これまで膨大な時間を野球に費やしてきたが、これからその時間とどう付き合っていくか?

「ちょっと今はわからないですねぇ。でも多分、明日もトレーニングはしてますよ。それは変わらないですよ、僕じっとしていられないから。それは動き回ってるでしょうね。だから、ゆっくりしたいとか全然ないんですよ。全然ないです。だから動き回ってます」

–You’ve spent most of your life playing ball. What are you going to do now?

“I don’t know right at this moment, but maybe I’ll be working out again tomorrow. That’s something that won’t change because I’m someone who can’t stay still, so I’ll be moving around. So I’m not going to be taking it easy. I’m going to stay in motion.”

――イチロー選手の生きざまで、ファンの方に伝えられたことや、伝わっていたらうれしいなと思うことはあるか?

「生きざまというのは僕にはよくわからないですけど、生き方というふうに考えるならば……先ほどもお話しましたけども、人より頑張ることなんてとてもできないんですよね。あくまでも、はかりは自分の中にある。それで自分なりにはかりを使いながら、自分の限界を見ながら、ちょっと越えていくということを繰り返していく。そうすると、いつの日からかこんな自分になっているんだ、という状態になって。だから少しずつの積み重ねが、それでしか自分を越えていけないと思うんですよね。一気に高みに行こうとすると、今の自分の状態とギャップがありすぎて、それは続けられないと僕は考えているので、地道に進むしかない。進むだけではないですね。後退もしながら、ある時は後退しかしない時期もあると思うので。でも、自分がやると決めたことを信じてやっていく。でもそれは正解とは限らないですよね。間違ったことを続けてしまっていることもあるんですけど、でもそうやって遠回りすることでしか、本当の自分に出会えないというか、そんな気がしているので。自分なりに重ねてきたことを、今日のゲーム後のファンの方の気持ちですよね、それを見たときに、ひょっとしたらそんなところを見ていただいていたのかなと。それは嬉しかったです。そうだとしたらすごく嬉しいし、そうじゃなくても嬉しいです、あれは」

――Would you like to tell fans about your philosophy of life

“I don’t know much about a philosophy of life, but when I think of it as the way I go through life … As I said earlier, I can’t work harder than everyone else. Right until the end, you are only measured against yourself. As you do that, as you see your limits, you try over and over to surpass yourself a tiny bit. That’s how I eventually become who I am. One can only do this in small increments, but that is the way to surpass yourself. If you try and change in leaps and bounds, that gap between where you are (and your target) becomes to large and I think unsustainable, so the only way is the steady way.”

“But progress is not the only result. There are setbacks, too. And it’s not like every path I choose is the right one, but I believe in myself and my decisions. Sometimes I get on the wrong track and keep at it. However, when I do find I’ve taken a detour, I feel like without it, I would not have come face to face with the real me.”

“The emotion of the fans after today’s game resulted from that body of work done in my own way. I thought that possibly, they were seeing that (work). That (thought) made me happy. If it were true, I’d be exceedingly happy, but even if it weren’t I’d still be happy.”

――シンプルな質問ですけど。現役選手を終えたら、監督になったり指導者になったり、あるいは全く違うタレントになったりすることはあるけど……、

「あまりシンプルではないですね」

――イチロー選手は何になるのか?

「何になるんだろうねぇ。そもそも、カタカナのイチローってどうなんですかね? いや、元カタカナの一朗みたいになるんですかね。あれ、どうなんだろう? どうなんだろうね、あれ。元イチローって変だね。イチローだし僕って思うもんねぇ。音はイチローだから。書くときにどうなるんだろうねぇ。どうしよっか。何になるか……。監督は絶対に無理ですよ。これは絶対が付きますよ。人望がない。本当に。人望がないですよ、僕。うん」

–This is a simple question, but now that your playing career is over, are you going to become a manager or a coach or perhaps take a completely different course and be a media celebrity?

“That’s not a very simple question.”

–So what is the player Ichiro going to become?

“I wonder what I’ll become.”

“In the first place what am I going to do with ‘katakana (phonetic script) Ichiro?’ I could become the player who formerly used katakana for the name ‘Ichiro.’ How would that be? I wonder. ‘The player formerly known as Ichiro’ would be weird, wouldn’t it? I think of myself as Ichiro, because that’s how it’s pronounced. How will I write it I wonder? I wonder what I’m going to do. Being a manager is impossible. You can add ‘absolutely’ to that. I’m not popular enough, truly. I lack the popularity for that. Yes. That’s It.”

――そうでもないと思うが。

「いやぁ、無理ですね。それくらいの判断能力は備えているので。ただ、どうでしょうねぇ。プロの選手とかプロの世界というよりも、アマチュアとプロの壁がどうしても日本の場合は特殊な形で存在しているので、今日をもって、どうなんですかね、そういうルールって。どうなんだろうか。今まではややこしいじゃないですか。例えば、極端に言えば、自分に子どもがいたとして、高校生であるとすると、教えられなかったりというルールですよね。確か。違います? そうだよね。だから、そういうのって変な感じじゃないですか。だから、今日をもって元イチローになるので、それが小さな子どもなのか、中学生なのか、高校生なのか、大学生なのか分からないですけど、そこには興味がありますね」

–I don’t think that’s really true.

“No. It’s beyond me. I think I have the decision making ability. But how should I say it? In Japan there is a peculiar situation, in that a wall exists between amateurs and pros. Even now, how is it, that rule? I wonder. Isn’t it still complicated? To take an extreme example, if I have a child in high school, there had been a rule that I couldn’t teach him. Am I wrong? That’s why it feels weird. Today as the former Ichiro, if it were small kids, or junior high school or high school or maybe even college students I would be interested (in managing).”

――以前にも引退の2文字が浮かんで悩んだ時期はあったのか?

「引退というよりは、クビになるんじゃないか、はいつもありましたね。ニューヨークに行ってからはもう毎日そんな感じです。マイアミもそうでしたけど。ニューヨークというのはみなさんご存知かどうか知らないですけど、特殊な場所です、マイアミもまた違った意味で特殊な場所です。だから毎日そんなメンタリティーで過ごしていたんですね。クビになるときはまさにその時(引退)だろうと思っていたので、そんなのしょっちゅうありました」

–Was there a time when the word “retirement” troubled you?

“More than the word ‘retirement,’ it has been getting released. That’s how it’s always been. Since I moved to New York, I’ve felt that every day. It was the same in Miami. I do not know if everyone here knows New York. It’s a special place. Miami is also special although in a different way, so I lived with that every day, that I could be fired and at that time it would mean (retirement), so it was constantly on my mind.”

――その中で今回、引退を決意した理由は?

「マリナーズ以外に行く気持ちはなかったというのは大きいですよね。去年シアトルに戻していただいて、本当にうれしかったし……先ほど、キャンプ前のオファーがある前の話をしましたけど、そのあと5月にゲームに出られなくなる。あの時もその(引退の)タイミングでもおかしくないですよね。でも、この春に向けて、まだ可能性があると伝えられていたので、そこに自分なりに頑張ってこられたということだと思うんですけど……質問なんでしたっけ?」

――今回引退を決めた理由は?

「そうか。もう答えちゃったね」

–Why did you decide to retire now?

“I didn’t want to go anywhere except to the Mariners, so that was big. I was really happy to return to Seattle last year. I already mentioned how it was before that offer came during spring training, but then May came and I was unable to play anymore. It wouldn’t have been unusual if I had retired at that time. But I was told that there was still a possibility for this spring, so I had the chance to work hard and was able to come here. I’m sorry what was the question?”

–What is your reason for retiring now?

“I see. I think I’ve already answered that.”

――8回にベンチに戻る際に菊池選手が号泣していた。

「いや、号泣中の号泣でしょ、あいつ。びっくりしましたよ。それ見て、こっちはちょっと笑けましたけどね」

――抱擁の時にどんな会話を交わしたのか?

「それはプライベートなんで。雄星がそれをお伝えるするのは構わないですけど、それは僕がお伝えるすることではないですね」

――秘密ということで。

「それはそうでしょう。だって2人の会話だから。しかも、僕から声をかけているので、それをここで僕が『こんなこと僕が言いました』って、バカですよね。絶対に信頼されないもんね、そんな人間は。それはダメです」

–When you returned to the dugout during the eighth inning, Kikuchi was sobbing.

“That was sobbing to end all sobbing. That really surprised me. I couldn’t help but laugh a little.”

–What did you say when you gave him a hug?

“That’s private. I don’t mind if Yusei tells you. I’m not going to.”

–Because it’s a secret?

“Of course it is. It’s private conversation between two people. Furthermore, it would be asinine if I were to tell him something (in private) and then come here and say ‘This is what I told him.’ No one would trust somebody like that. You can’t do that.”

――アメリカのファンにメッセージを。

「アメリカのファンの方々は最初はまぁ厳しかったですよ。最初の2001年のキャンプなんかは『日本に帰れ』としょっちゅう言われましたよ。だけど、結果を残した後のその敬意というのは……これを評価するのかどうかわからないですよ。手のひらを返すという言い方もできてしまうので。ただその、言葉ではなくて行動で示したときの敬意の示し方というのはその迫力があるなという印象ですよね。だから、なかなか入れてもらえないんですけど、入れてもらった後、認めてもらった後はすごく近くなるというな印象で、ガッチリ関係ができあがる。まぁ、シアトルのファンとはそれができたような、僕の勝手な印象ですけど。

 ニューヨークというのは厳しいところでしたね。でも、やればそれこそどこよりも、どのエリアの人よりも熱い思いがある。マイアミというはラテンの文化が強い印象で、圧はそれほどないんですけれど、でも結果を残さなかったら絶対に人が来てくれないという、そんな場所でした。それぞれに特色があって、まぁ面白かったし、それぞれの場所で関係が築けたような。特徴がそれぞれありましたけど、アメリカは広いなぁというか。ファンの人たちの特徴を見るだけで、アメリカはすごく広いなという印象ですけど。でもやっぱり、最後にシアトルのユニホームを着て、もうセーフコ・フィールドでは名前がなくってしまいましたけど……姿をお見せできなくて、それは申し訳ない思いがあります」

–Do you have any thoughts about the fans in America or a message for them?

“The American fans were really harsh at first. During my first spring training in 2001 they often said, ‘Go back to Japan’, but there is respect once you produce. I don’t know if I should grade them on this or not. I guess you can say that they can change their opinion of you very quickly.”

“My take is that they respond with a powerful demonstration of respect to your deeds as opposed to what you say. So they don’t let you in easily, but once they do, you get the feeling that they are very close to you, making for a strong relationship. I think maybe I was able to achieve that in Seattle, though that’s just my impression.”

“Some things about New York are hard. But, if you do make a connection, you feel they are more passionate than anywhere else. Miami has a strong vibe of Latin culture and you don’t much pressure, but if you don’t produce, they won’t let you in either. Every place has its own character, it was really interesting, and I was able to build relationships in those different places. Because every place has some special feel to it, you get the feeling how big America is. Just seeing at the characteristics of the fans impresses you with America’s size. At the end I wore a Seattle uniform, but feel I owe an apology to those fans for not wearing it at it’s not Safeco Field anymore…”

Read Part 1 of the press conference HERE.

Ichiro from start to finish, part 1

Ichiro Suzuki announced his retirement at a press conference after midnight in Tokyo on Friday, March 22. I have translated the entire press conference from start to finish to give you a sense of how it went down. I hope you enjoy. I have included the original Japanese text. The questions have been mercilessly shortened, however.

He made two curtain calls, once after he left the game at the start of the bottom of the eighth inning, and again after the Mariners’ extra-inning win over the Athletics.

Ichiro Suzuki tips his cap to the Tokyo Dome crowd in what became his sayonara game. Photo by Seito Takamizawa.

「こんなにいるの? びっくりするわぁ。そうですか。いやぁ、この遅い時間にお集まりいただいて、ありがとうございます。

 今日のゲームを最後に日本で9年、米国で19年目に突入したところだったんですけど、現役生活に終止符を打ち、引退することとなりました。最後にこのユニホームを着て、この日を迎えられたことを大変幸せに感じています。この28年を振り返るにはあまりにも長い時間だったので、ここで1つ1つ振り返るのことは難しいということもあって、ここでは、これまで応援していただいた方々への感謝の思い、そして、球団関係者、チームメートに感謝申し上げて、皆様からの質問があればできる限りお答えしたいと思っています」

“So many people here. That’s a surprise, but I want to thank you for gathering at this late hour.”

“With today’s game, I brought my time as a pro, nine years in Japan, 19 years in America, to and end, as I have retired. I felt extremely blessed to wear this uniform approaching this day. These 28 years cover such a span that it’s hard to recall each and every detail. I am grateful to all those who have cheered me on. Also to the people in the organization, and to my teammates I want to express my gratitude. Now I want to answer each of your questions to the extent I can.”

――現役生活に終止符を打つことを決めたタイミング、その理由は?

「タイミングはですね、キャンプ終盤ですね。日本に戻ってくる何日前ですかねぇ。何日前とはっきりとお伝えできないんですけど、終盤に入ったときです。もともと日本でプレーする、今回東京ドームでプレーするところまでが契約上の予定でもあったこということもあったんですけども、キャンプ終盤でも結果が出せずにそれを覆すことができなかった、ということですね」

–What was the reason behind the timing of your decision?

“As for when I knew, it was at the end of camp, a few days before I was to come back to Japan. I can’t exactly say how many days before that was, but just some point toward the end of camp. My contract stipulated I would be able to play this time at Tokyo Dome, but I couldn’t hide the fact that I wasn’t getting it done.

――決断に後悔や思い残したようなことは?

「今日のあの、球場での出来事、あんなもの見せられたら後悔などあろうはずがありません。もちろん、もっとできたことはあると思いますけど、結果を残すために自分なりに重ねてきたこと……人よりも頑張ったということはとても言えないですけど、そんなことは全くないですけど、自分なりに頑張ってきたということは、はっきり言えるので。これを重ねてきて、重ねることでしか後悔を生まないということはできないのではないかなと思います」

–Is there any lingering regret or remorse?

“After that response at the stadium tonight, what they showed me, no I don’t think there will be any remorse. Of course, I feel I could have done more, but all the things I did in order to get good results…I can’t say I worked more than anyone else, because that’s not the case. But what I can say clearly is that I did things my way as well as I could. If you keep grinding and grinding like that, then I have to think there’s no room for regret.”

――子供たちに是非メッセージを。

「シンプルだなぁ。メッセージかぁ。苦手なのだな、僕が。まぁ、野球だけでなくてもいいんですよね、始めるものは。自分が熱中できるもの、夢中になれるものを見つけられれば、それに向かってエネルギーを注げるので。そういうものを早く見つけてほしいなと思います。それが見つかれば、自分の前に立ちはだかる壁に向かっていける。向かうことができると思うんですね。それが見つけられないと壁が出てくると諦めてしまうということがあると思うので。色んなことにトライして、自分に向くか向かないかというより自分が好きなものを見つけてほしいなと思います」

–Do you have any message for the kids?

“It’s a simple message, although I’m not good at such things. If you find something you’re passionate about – it doesn’t matter whether it’s baseball or not – then you can pour your energy into that. The sooner you find that the better. If you find it, you can tackle the obstacles in your way. You can go beyond them. Because people give up when they get to an obstacle if it’s not (something they have discovered a passion for) . I think you should try different things, and chose something you like rather than chosing something based on whether it’s easy or not.”

――今思い返して最も印象に残っているシーンは?

「今日を除いてですよね? この後、時間が経ったら、今日のことが真っ先に浮かぶことは間違いないと思います。ただそれを除くとすれば、いろいろな記録に立ち向かってきた……ですけど、そういうものはたいしたことではないというか、自分にとって、それを目指してやってきたんですけど、いずれそれは僕ら後輩が先輩たちの記録を抜いていくというのはしなくてはいけないことでもあると思うんですけども、そのことにそれほど大きな意味はないというか。そういうふうに、今日の瞬間を体験すると、すごく小さく見えてしまうんですよね。

「その点で、例えば分かりやすい、10年200本続けてきたこととか、MVPを取ったとか、 オールスターで獲ったとかは本当に小さなことに過ぎないというふうに思います。今日のこの、あの舞台に立てたことというのは、去年の5月以降、ゲームに出られない状況になって、その後もチームと一緒に練習を続けてきたわけですけど、それを最後まで成し遂げられなければ今日のこの日はなかったと思うんですよね。今まで残してきた記録はいずれ誰かが抜いていくと思うんですけど、去年5月からシーズン最後の日まで、あの日々はひょっとしたら誰にもできないことかもしれないというような、ささやかな誇りを生んだ日々だったんですね。そのことが……去年の話だから近いということもあるんですけど、どの記録よりも自分の中では、ほんの少しだけ誇りを持てたことかなと思います」

–What scene stands out as the most impressive scene (in your career)?

“Excepting today? As time goes by, I think it will be clear that today was No. 1. If I exclude today, I’ve surpassed different records, but how special are those? For me, I aspired to achievement various things, but records of players from past generations are made to broken by future generations. So how meaningful are they in that sense? Having physically experienced that moment today makes those other things seem exceedingly small.”

“In that respect, 200 hits for 10 years, winning an MVP, being an All-Star Having physically experienced that moment today, makes those other things seem exceedingly small. To be standing where I was, after last May when I was unable to play. I was still, however, able to practice with the team. Had I not kept at it, today never happens. Someday, someone will eclipse my records. I’m sure of that. But what I was able to do last year from May until the final day of the season was an opportunity that perhaps no one else gets and I felt some measure of pride in that. More than my records, I think how things went last year (after May) is something for me to be a little proud of.”

――ずっと応援してくれたファンの存在は?

「ゲーム後にあんなことが起こるとはとても想像してなかったですけど、実際にそれが起きて、19年目のシーズンをアメリカで迎えていたんですけども、なかなか日本のファンの方の熱量というのは普段感じることが難しいんですね。

でも久しぶりにこうやって東京ドームに来て、ゲームは基本的には静かに進んでいくんですけど、なんとなく印象として日本の方というのは表現することが苦手というか、そんな印象があったんですけど、それが完全に覆りましたね。

内側に持っている熱い思いが確実にそこにあるというのと、それを表現したときの迫力というものはとても今まで想像できなかったことです。

ですから、これは最も特別な瞬間になりますけど。ある時までは自分のためにプレーすることがチームのためにもなるし、見てくれている人も喜んでくれるかなと思っていたんですけど、ニューヨークに行った後くらいからですかね、人に喜んでもらえることが一番の喜びに変わってきたんですね。その点でファンの存在なくしては自分のエネルギーは全く生まれないと言ってもいいと思います」

「え、おかしなこと言ってます、僕。大丈夫です?」(会場笑い)

–How about the fans who have supported you?

 “I never imagined something like that might happen after the game. I was preparing for my 19th season in America, where one doesn’t normally sense the amount of heat Japanese fans generate. Playing for the first time at Tokyo Dome in such long time, the game proceded quietly in general. There’s a general impression that Japanese are not good at expressing themselves, and I had felt that, too, but the fans that whole image on its head.”

“We definitely have passion inside us, but when we express that passion the force of that was something I could never imagine until now. Because of that, that will always be the most special moment.”

“There was a time when I played only for myself and for my team. I kind of suspected that I could give joy to spectators, but that was something that really only took hold after I got to New York. My greatest joy became making other people happy. I think it’s fair to say that from that point, I could not generate my own energy without the fans.”

“OK that was kind of a weird thing for me to say.”

――イチロー選手が貫いたもの、貫けたものは?

「……。野球のことを愛したことだと思います。これが変わることはなかったですね。おかしなこと言ってます、僕。大丈夫?」

–Is there something you are really determined or were determined about?

“I’ve loved baseball, and that’s something that has never changed.”


――グリフィーが、肩のものを下ろしたときに違う野球が見えて、また楽しくなってくると話していた。そういう瞬間は?

「プロ野球生活の中ですか? ないですね。これはないです。ただ、子どもの頃からプロ野球選手になることが夢で、それが叶って、最初の2年、18、19の頃は1軍に行ったり来たり……。行ったり来たりっておかしい? 行ったり行かなかったり? え? 行ったり来たりっていつもいるみたいな感じだね。あれ、どうやって言ったらいいんだ? 1軍に行ったり、2軍に行ったり? そうか、それが正しいか。そういう状態でやっている野球は結構楽しかったんですよ。で、94年、3年目ですね。仰木監督と出会って、レギュラーで初めて使っていただいたわけですけども、この年まででしたね、楽しかったのは。あとは、その頃から急に番付を上げられてちゃって、一気に。それはしんどかったです。

のというのは、とても苦しいですよね。だから、そこから純粋に楽しいなんていうのは、もちろんやりがいがあって、達成感を味わうこと、満足感を味わうことはたくさんありましたた。ただ、楽しいかっていうと、それはまた違うんですよね。

–Ken Griffey Jr has said that when he was able to just unburden himself, he was able to see baseball differently, that it became fun again. Did you experience that kind of moment?

“As a pro? No. That has not been the case. When I was a boy, my dream was to become a pro. Then when I realized that, the first two years, when I was going to and coming back from the first team. Is ‘going and coming back’a strange way of saying it? How about ‘going and not going?’ It felt like I was always going and coming back. Hold on a second. How do you say that? ‘Going to the first team, and then going to the second team?’That sounds right. Is that right? In that context baseball was pretty fun. Then in 1994, my third season, having met manager (Akira) Ogi, I was used as a regular for the first time. Until that year, baseball was fun. After that, I shot up the ‘banzuke’ (sumo rankings). That was brutal. It’s very tough. ”

“You begin to be evaluated based on things that have nothing to do with how well you play. That is really hard. After that was it purely fun? Of course, it was worthwhile. I could derive a sense of accomplishment and a lot of satisfaction. But fun? No it was different. However, after having spent all this time (playing baseball), in the future I still have a notion about simply having fun playing ball. It’s somewhat ironic, but once I’d realized my dream of playing pro ball, I’d sometimes dream of baseball that wasn’t like in the pros.

――開幕シリーズを「大きなギフト」と言っていたが、私たちが大きなギフトをもらったような気でいる……。

「そんなアナウンサーっぽいことは言わないでくださいよ」

――これからどんなギフトを私たちにくれるのか?

「ないですよ、そんなの、無茶言わないでくださいよ。でもこれ本当に大きなギフトで。去年、3月頭にマリナーズからオファーをいただいてからの、今日までの流れがあるんですけども、あそこで終わってても全然おかしくないですから。去年の春で終わっていても。まったくおかしくない状況でしたから。今この状況は信じられないですよ。あのとき考えていたのは、自分がオフの間、アメリカでプレーするために準備をする場所が、まぁ神戸では球場なんですけども、そこで寒い時期に練習するのでへこむんですよね。心が折れるんですよ。でも、そんなときも仲間に支えられてやってきたんですけど、最後は今まで自分なりに訓練を重ねてきた神戸の球場で、ひっそりと終わるのかなとあの当時は想像していたので。夢みたいですよ、こんなの。これも大きなギフトですよ、僕にとっては。質問に答えていなですけど、僕からのギフトなんかないです」

–From now one what kind of gift are you going to give us?

“Please don’t ask those announcer-type questions.”

–You said this opening series was a great gift, but this feels like we’ve received a great gift.

“Nothing.”

“Please don’t say absurd things. But, still this (experience) was an amazing gift. In March of last year, I received an offer from the Mariners, and that has led me here today. Had my career ended there (in March), it wouldn’t have been unusual in any way. The same goes for the end of last spring. It would have been normal (to end it then). For things to turn out like this is unbelievable. I was thinking about it during the offseason (prior t o 2018), when I was preparing at the ballpark in Kobe to play in America. Practicing there in the cold was disheartening. My heart was broken.

“At that time, I was also supported by my friends, but at the end of the day I was thinking that my career would end quietly at the ballpark in Kobe, where I worked out by myself. Something like this is dreamlike. This is also a big gift for me. I’m not quite answering the question, but I have no gift for you.”

Thinking man’s game

When Ichiro Suzuki debuted in the majors in 2001, he was a joy to watch, a speedy highly-skilled, athletic antithesis to the performance-enhancing drug revolution, a player who bucked the trend and succeeded despite an aversion to honing his home-run hitting skill.

At his retirement press conference in the early morning hours of March 22 in Tokyo, Suzuki lamented American Baseball’s newest thing, an obsession with launch angle that has fueled home run and strikeout rates.

“The baseball played in America in 2019 has completely changed since I arrived in 2001,” he said. “It’s moving toward a game where you can now get by without using your head. I wonder how this might change. I don’t see this trend stopping over the next five years, or 10 years or for the forseeable future. Fundamentals mean nothing. Perhaps saying that might cause trouble. (Saying) that looks like it definitely will be a problem.”

“On a fundamental level, baseball is a game that requires thinking. That it’s losing that makes me sick. America is baseball’s birthplace, and I believer that a lot of people have a sense of urgency over what the game is becoming. So I think there is no need for Japan’s game to follow America’s. The Japanese game should be a thinking, interesting brand of ball. As long as this trend in America does not stop, I hope Japanese ball doesn’t change and that we remember to cherish it.”

This is hardly an unusual opinion from someone steeped in the Japanese game and the thread of Japan’s cultural narcicism that claims Japanese have unique attributes. Ask any Japanese baseball person about what defines major league baseball, they will say, “speed and power,” and if they don’t I’ll give you a dollar.

Japanese baseball, they’ll tell you, is “komakai” – detailed. Saying major leaguers have “power and speed” is at best a left-handed compliment, like saying black players are “natural athletes.” The implication is that American players don’t have to hone their craft the way less genetically blessed Japanese players do. In other words, our players work to get good, theirs are just bigger.

It perfectly suits an ideology that dictates every amateur game be treated as a war in itself. No amount of practice is too much, no concern for your best pitcher’s arm too great to prevent him from pitching when not doing so would increase the chances of losing.

While Ichiro is considered a paragon of Japan’s small game of “kowazara” or subtle techniques, and is a master of fundamentals, those things – as much as yakyu apologists would have you believe – are not the same as “thinking baseball.”

Indeed, Japanese amateur baseball activists will tell you that “thinking” is an endangerd concept in the Japanese game, because children are being taught not to think but to execute orders in order to minimize the risk of errors that could cost games.

Ryunosuke Seto, the chief executive of the Sakai Big Boys sports club in Osaka, said Japanese baseball programs kids to play according to fixed routines, instead of teaching them to adapt.

“Kids need learn to build their own software, but if you just give them the answers, they don’t learn to solve problems. When they get older, they can’t figure things out,” Seno said.

While Suzuki is an advocate of cultivating various different skills that Japanese doctrine says can be used to exploit opponents’ weaknesses, and being precise in execution, he was never one to play by the unwritten rules. While his slash-hitting and speed game is not far from Japan’s ideal, he succeeded with an unorthodox batting style that flouted convention.

As a left-handed hitter with speed, he would have been expected to not try and drive the ball, but to hit grounders to the left side of the infield and hope to beat them out, because that is what fast left-handed hitters are trained to do in Japan.

Smart, quick-thinking players like Ichiro are a huge advantage on the field. Equating Japanese baseball with quick thinking because of Ichiro, however, would be a mistake.

Spring break

I want to apologize for the lack of posts these past few weeks. I was just hyper busy since coming back from the States, finishing one assignment for Kyodo and two stories on Ichiro Suzuki. Then I caught one of my colds from the netherworld. The doctor didn’t believe my influenza test was negative until I’d had three of them, but after two days he ruled out the flu and pneumonia to account for my 39.2 C temperature and other symptoms.

After 72 hours and medication I was feeling fit enough to do a podcast, our PL prediction show, on Sunday night, my not so happy birthday — to be aired March 25.

I almost made it to the ballpark on Monday but my fever came back a little in the morning, as it did again this morning, and I’m back to the office after seven days off — the first four of which I could barely concentrate for 5 minutes at a stretch or eat or taste anything.

But enough about me. Since I returned to Japan on March 6, I’ve interviewed the head of Yoshitomo Tsutsugo’s youth baseball club in Sakai, Osaka, Ryunosuke Seno, the head of the Japan Rubber Baseball Association, Toyomi Munakata, as well as Lotte Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi. So, there is lots in the works that I need to get cracking on.

The months matter

A recent discussion in the “Hey Bill” feature in billjamesonline discussed why some players do better than others and brought up the topic of relative age effects. I did a study about 10 years ago about the effects of NPB players’ birth months that was published in the Daily Yomiuri, which means it’s disappeared from the web. The upshot of that study was that players born from April 2 to June 30 are over-represented in the NPB amateur draft and, on average, have less valuable careers than player born from July 1 to April 1–the cutoff date for school admissions.

Children born on April 1 will enter school in Japan a year before a child born the following day.

Overview

I replicated the study using every domestic player signed by an NPB team from the end of the 1965 season through the start of the 1997 season. Omitting four players I don’t have birth dates for, that remaining group of 2,160 players contains two active players, Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuya Fukuura. And whatever they produce in 2019 is not going to affect anything one way or another. The starting point of the study was set by the introduction of NPB’s first draft in 1965.

Breaking down each quarter of a year by birth month — with April 1 counting as March — and draft round. The most populous cell is the 127 signed first-round picks signed who were born from April to June. The second most is the 121 players born in those months taken in the second round. As expected, the 341 “haya umare” or early-born players whose birthdays go from Jan. 1 to April 1, make that quarter the least populous.

The table below gives the career win shares produced by players born in each quarter and the total number in each group, without reference to draft round.

The last thing that needs to be mentioned is the problem of value in the major leagues. Major League win shares are given 20 percent more weight in the calculations. It’s just a guess. They could be 50 percent more valuable for all I know.

Distribution of domestic players by birth-month quarters

Apr-JunJul-SepOct-DecJan-Mar
Avg WS210.0230.5306.8223.0
Number754651414341
Percent of total34.930.119.215.8

The favoritism in the draft show players born in the April-June quarter is exacerbated by an even higher share of those players taken in the first two rounds, and by the performance of those players.


Value rank of birth-month quarter by round

RoundQuarter starting Avg WS Best career
1stJuly68.8Kazuhiro Kiyohara, 1B
1stJanuary60.2Masaki Saito, P
1stOctober59.7Koji Yamamoto, CF
2ndOctober55.6Taira Fujita, SS
3rdOctober54.7Hiromitsu Ochiai, 1B
2nd January48.1Hiromitsu Kadota, DH
1stApril44.6Hideki Matsui, CF
2ndJuly44.5Keishi Suzuki, P
4thOctober39.0Ichiro Suzuki, RF
3rdJanuary38.8Yoshihiko Takahashi, SS

Discussion

Another thing that needs to be mentioned is that the birth-month quarter starting in January is largely populated by pitchers and catchers. In my previous study, I found that more than a quarter of the players drafted as catchers were born between Jan. 1 and April 1.

When I first did this study, a number of people gave me what I’d snarkily call “baseball announcer explanations” for why players born from October to April 1 outperform the players who are chosen more often by pro teams. The most popular one of these was, “Oh, they’re used to overachieving, so they try harder.”

All these guys try hard. I think there are three things going on.

  1. Accessibility
  2. Age bias
  3. Burnout

Accessibility

Players who are born after April 1 are larger and physically more developed than players months younger than they are. This gives them more time to play, more time to stand out and be noticed by coaches, who select them to play so that they can be seen by scouts.

Age bias

Because players born from October to April 1 are less physically developed than the players they are competing against, they are less likely to dominate competitions when scouts are watching.


Burnout

This is something that hadn’t occurred to me until recently. According to people who know a lot about how youth baseball functions in Japan, many of the players who eventually turn pro in Japan are not the best in their age groups when they are young. Amateur sports in Japan are intense, year-round, meat-grinding wars of attrition.

The best players typically become pitchers, and because competition (with the exception of university baseball) is in single-elimination tournaments, those aces throw game after game until their bodies break down. They are then surpassed by those who were a step behind them a year or two earlier.

Many of Japan’s best pitchers were not aces in elementary school or junior high. Masahiro Tanaka was a catcher until high school. Koji Uehara ran track in junior high and was an outfielder until his senior year in high school, when his school’s ace, Yoshinori Tateyama began to break down from injury.

It is not that much of a stretch, then, to see many of those players born from April to June as being at the end of their physical tethers by the time the pros call on them.

I know I’ve talked about this before

If we make a top-25 of players in NPB’s draft era, the best single draft round was the first round of the 1968 draft, Hall of Famers Hisashi Yamada, Koji Yamamoto, a player who has curiously been overlooked for the Hall, Michio Arito, and another who will eventually make it, Koichi Tabuchi.

The second best group are three from the Fab 4, the fourth round of the 1991 draft, Ichiro Suzuki, Tomoaki Kanemoto and Norihiro Nakamura.

writing & research on Japanese baseball

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