Three weeks ago, the Seattle Mariners signed Ichiro Suzuki to a five-year, $90 milion contract extension. It didn’t take long for the 33-year-old outfielder to give the Mariners reason to believe that they might have made a bad decision. When Ichiro held a press conference earlier this month to discuss the deal, he divulged that a key advisory role in deciding to remain in Seattle was played by his dog Ikky. “He said, ‘Woof, woof, woof,’ which meant, ‘Stay, stay, stay,’ ” Suzuki told reporters in Japanese. “Of course, I listened.”
It was a curious revelation, and not just for the obvious reasons. When he first arrived in the United States in 2001, Ichiro would not even share his pet’s name with a curious reporter. “I do not have the dog’s permission,” he explained. Ichiro was an odd fit in the American sports media culture: He would always be available for reporters, engage them politely, and yet never really answer their questions. Refusing the easy banalities embraced by other major leaguers, Ichiro approached the media with a Rumsfeldian mix of impatience and amateur epistemology. After starting this season with a run of multihit games, Suzuki was asked whether he found his performance surprising: “It’s not surprising. At the same time, it’s not that usual. It’s somewhere between usual and surprising,” he said.
Writer David Shields anthologized such koanlike sayings in his 2001 book Baseball Is Just Baseball: The Understated Ichiro. This season, however, instead of offering quotes notable for their remote serenity, Ichiro’s statements have turned gonzo. Before facing off against Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka in April, Ichiro said, “I hope he arouses the fire that’s dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul. I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger.” Asked recently about a road trip to Cleveland, he admitted: “To tell the truth, I’m not excited to go to Cleveland, but we have to. If I ever saw myself saying I’m excited going to Cleveland, I’d punch myself in the face, because I’m lying.” And about Tiger Woods, he said, “Tiger is a great golfer, but … when you say athlete, I think of Carl Lewis. When you talk about [golfers or race-car drivers], I don’t want to see them run. It’s the same if you were to meet a beautiful girl and go bowling. If she’s an ugly bowler, you are going to be disappointed.” Is Ichiro going crazy?
Probably no more so than he’s ever been. Ichiro’s decision not only to name his dog, but divulge their shared deliberations—an evolution, roughly, from Peter Singer to David Berkowitz—may have less to do with his changing views on the agency of domesticated animals than on how he responds to the uncommon burdens placed upon American athletes. In Japan, where Ichiro excelled for the Orix Blue Wave of Kobe, clubhouses are closed to the media. In the United States, dressing players—perhaps more than any other public figures in American society—are obliged to be sources of perpetual self-reflection. (No congressman is asked on a daily basis, “What were you thinking as you lost that procedural vote on your appropriations rider? How did it feel?”)
Some around Ichiro suggest his more florid statements of late indicate that he has finally come to feel more at ease with the American media. “When I heard these quotes, I laughed so hard because I know these are the real Ichiro talking to someone he is comfortable with,” Ted Heid, a Mariners scout who serves as director of the team’s Pacific Rim operations and translated for Ichiro in the player’s first season, writes by e-mail from Shanghai. David Shields agrees. “He has allowed what was slightly subterranean to emerge, but the wit and the subversion have absolutely always been there,” he says.
Japanese fans have long been familiar with the oddities of the real Ichiro. As the Seattle Times noted this spring, one of Ichiro’s favorite off-season activities is recording a Japanese television game show called Ichiro Versus. In the show’s free-association contest, for instance, Ichiro and his celebrity guest are given a word and asked to say the first thing that pops in to their heads. (Announcer: “First encounter.” Ichiro: “Forgive me, I was just a curious 18-year old.”) Ichiro told the paper after a taping this winter: “I really enjoy it. It’s tough, but exhilarating because you have to use your head. You’re on the spot to crank out a meaningful thought in a split second. My brain’s probably worked harder in these two years of taping than in my entire life combined.”
Ichiro may just finally be letting down his guard for the American media, indulging their appetite for personality over a detailed accounting of on-field performance. It’s also possible, however, that he has had an ulterior motive for exhibiting the weirdness of the last few months. Ichiro’s string of strange pronouncements has been the subject of much coverage—the Cleveland comment was picked up in sports sections nationwide. Generating such a sideshow may have been Ichiro’s goal, suspects one reporter: By distracting the press corps with colorful language, he could divert their attention from the real lucre. “I think it was a way to deflect his thoughts about the contract. If he could make things more interesting, it might be a way of getting people from asking about the contract,” says John Hickey, the Mariners beat writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “It worked as much as he needed it to work.”
Indeed. In addition to the $5 million signing bonus and an annual salary of $17 million through 2012, Ichiro also got the Mariners to buy him a car (either a Jeep or a Mercedes) and first-class plane tickets from Japan for his family, plus pick up the tab for a personal trainer and, of course, his translator. Asked shortly after he signed his contract how much he appreciated the Mariners throwing in these extras, Ichiro was uncharacteristically direct: “I spoke about the contract on the day I signed,” he said through that translator. “I would not like to talk about that any more.”