Unlike Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Ichiro Suzuki is still retired, but on Sunday, he laced up his spikes at Hotto Motto Field Kobe to take the field with the grass-roots amateur team he founded, Kobe Chiben.
At the same park where he became “ICHIRO” in his third season with the Pacific League’s Orix BlueWave, Suzuki’s team of former players from high school powerhouse Chiben Wakayama High School took on a team of teachers from the school and beat them 14-0.
Suzuki, managed, pitched and batted ninth. At the plate he had three hits, including a triple and home run. With a no-windup motion, the former high school pitcher struck out 16 without issuing a walk, while allowing six hits in a 131-pitch outing.
The Japanese expression for this level of baseball, is “kusa yakyu” — literally “baseball in the weeds.” It’s a staple of the peoples’ game in Japan, where company employees and students spend weekends and evenings year round playing baseball nation wide.
In his Japanese language retirement press conference in the early hours of March 22 in Tokyo, hinted that if he did return to the game it would be through involvement with the amateur side of the game.
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.
–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.”
–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
“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.”
–(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.”
–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
“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.”
–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
“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.”
–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.”
–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.”
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.
Ichiro Suzuki is many things to many people. He’s funny, gregarious, warm-hearted, cool and focused. So much seems to depend on what he wants and where he wants to go.
I caught up with his agent, John Boggs at the winter meetings in Las Vegas, and he relayed some of his insight into the Japanese icon.
One of my Ichiro stories was during the 2009 World Baseball Classic. In the first two WBCs, Ichiro failed to do anything in the opening round in Japan. I was first up with a question at the press conference when Japan arrived in San Diego for the quarterfinal round.
Q: “Do you understand what might be the problem so far? For example is it your timing?
Ichiro: “I have no way of knowing that. Next question.”
Two or three questions later, a guy who writes frequently about Suzuki, asked the same question in Japanese and Suzuki launched into a three minute dissertation on the steps he’d taken to iron out his approach to the plate.
I told that story to Boggs, and said, “You know what it’s like if he doesn’t anticipate what someone is saying or it’s not on his radar?”
Boggs nodded and said, “He doesn’t hear you, and he doesn’t acknowledge you.”