Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Hitting bottom

March 2, 2009

Ichiro Suzuki, arguably Japan’s greatest baseball export to Major League Baseball in terms of achievements, is facing what may be the worst spring of his combined Japanese and Major League Baseball career, with his image as the most prolific hitter of this era and a team-oriented star facing beanballs from both sides of the Pacific.

After a woeful season in which his Seattle Mariners lost over 100 games while dumping a full plate of managers, executives and players, Ichiro – who had a sub-par but not mediocre year – has heard a chorus of off-season chirping that the eight-year veteran was selfish, statistics-obsessed and playing by a different set of rules than teammates.

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When you make $17.1 million on a team predicted by some to at least win its division that instead finishes dead last, there may be some explaining to do. But Ichiro decided to postpone the rebuilding process, again playing with Japan in the upcoming World Baseball Classic and holding off on the Mariners spring training until completing the WBC run.

Robert Whiting, author of “The Meaning of Ichiro“, told me that the rightfielder is being held accountable unfairly for the failings of the $100 million team.

“Who else on Seattle could carry his water? As for not being a team leader, well, I think it’s a cultural thing. The culture doesn’t work that way.”

After helping lead Japan to the 2006 WBC title, Ichiro’s participation this time was expected, but three years ago many assumed that he, and not the New York Yankees’ Hideki Matsui, would pass on the opportunity, not imagining that his hero, former Japan manager Sadaharu Oh, would ask him to play for the national side.

A lure of the 2009 squad may indeed have been forgetting the horrors of last year’s Mariners, but so far the single-season hits record holder can’t buy amnesia (even his usual slap hits and big-bounce infield singles), going 0 for his last 11, with a measly .130 average in six warm-up games.

This would be ignored if Japan was playing well, but it’s not, raising the collective angst of a baseball-obsessed nation that saw its Olympic gold — and all medal hopes – flail last summer in Beijing.

Some local media are already offering near obituaries, and while this may be just a slow start for Japan and Ichiro similar to 2006, when he sparked teammates to greater heights, one of the most talented pure hitters ever is hearing at 35 some of the loudest public chin music of his amazing career.

Whiting says Ichiro will be in headlights, if this campaign does not produce another crown.

“If Team Japan fails to win, Ichiro would certainly be at least one of the scapegoats, if he doesn’t start hitting any better.”

Photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Blake

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