They all nod. All of the great ones agree. Jeter and A-Rod. Bonds and Griffey. Sosa, Piazza and Giambi. Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes. You've asked them all, "When you're going good, does the game slow down?" They nod. And, "When you're going bad, does it go too fast?" They nod again. Collectively, they consider this a borderline duh.
"That's the game, dude," says Giambi. "In a nutshell, that's the challenge of the game. You're always trying to slow the game down to a comfortable speed."
And then there's Ichiro.
"No, no," he insists through Mariners assistant scouting director and part-time translator Hide Sueyoshi. "The game is never slow. Everything about the game-pitching, running, fielding-is all very fast." Surely something is lost in the translation. You try again, saying, "So many players talk about this concept. On the Mariners alone, John Olerud and Bret Boone have just said this is the crux of the game. They say when they are playing well, the game seems like it's in slow motion. And when they are struggling, it's like fast-forward."
Now the translation gets animated, Sueyoshi gesturing with his hands, pointing to his eyes, using the English term "slow motion," which apparently works in Japanese. Finally Ichiro Suzuki nods, indicating that he understands. But he begins to shake his head as he talks to the translator. "He says, 'I don't think so,'" Sueyoshi says. "But he also says he understands that all players see the game with different eyes. Does this make sense?"
Not at first, no. Not when you consider that it was probably during a hot streak that Wee Willie Keeler said, "The ball looks as big as a grapefruit to me." That it was probably during a slump that Ducky Medwick said he felt like he was "swinging at aspirins." This was not supposed to be an abstract theory. It was supposed to be elementary, a launching pad to a more technical, sophisticated conversation about the speed of major league baseball. But Ichiro has forced you to think and rethink. And now, while he sits comfortably at his locker, awaiting your next question, you're all out of sync, stumbling and stammering for a follow-up. Sueyoshi smiles nervously. "What about 'The Zone'?" you ask. "Doesn't he believe in 'The Zone'?" Sueyoshi relays the question to the now-smirking Ichiro, who answers with another nod. "Of course," the translator says. "But each player must find his own zone. Mine is not slow-motion."
Only days later, upon much reflection, do you realize that Ichiro's answers make perfect sense. He just rattled you with unconventional ideas the same way he turns major leaguers into a bunch of Nellies with his unique set of speed-based skills. See, Ichiro plays the game at his own speed-fast-and forces everyone else to adjust. In his season and two months in America, he's forced power pitchers to reconsider their out pitch. He's forced slick infielders-guys who put the "routine" in "routine ground ball"-to recalculate how quickly they need to transfer the ball out of their gloves. And he's forced once- instinctive, aggressive base runners to become hesitant and cautious. So fast is Ichiro's game tempo that he's messed up the normal flow for everyone else.
"It's sort of like what Tiger Woods does to other golfers," says Mariners catcher Dan Wilson. "Guys think they have to play differently to beat Tiger, so they change their approach to the game. Mean while, Tiger's just doing his normal thing, and everybody else falls apart. It's the same thing with Ichiro. He never alters a thing about his game, never forces anything, yet he seems to take other guys out of their realm."
You've just watched him play for three days against the Angels and come away with a significant body of evidence to back up this claim. Exhibit A: With two strikes, you watch Ichiro top a ball to third baseman Troy Glaus. It's a play Glaus usually snacks on. But with Ichiro seem ingly a step out of the lefty batter's box on contact, and doing his usual 3.7 seconds from home to first, Glaus comes unglued, fumbling the ball twice before forking it over to pitcher Scott Schoenweis. Base hit. Exhibit B: Angels centerfielder Garret Anderson lines a ball to rightfield, to Ichiro's left, and all the way to the wall. The ball does not kick off the wall, but instead sticks beneath the padding. As Ichiro picks up the ball and returns it to the infield, Anderson is not gliding into second, but walking back to first, removing his batting gloves and not risking embarrassment. Which brings us to Exhibit C, an example of stark contrast: Catcher Bengie Molina, perhaps the slowest man in baseball, lines a clean single to right and, with Ichiro charging the ball, proceeds to run through first base like a man who'd just hit a 15-hopper to deep short.
"There's no doubt he forces you to play the game differently," says Angels shortstop David Eckstein. "I play two steps in when he's up so I can get to the ball quickly. It also means I can't cover as much ground. And in the back of my mind, I know if I have to move at all for the ball, I've got to rush. And the other thing about Ichiro is that he looks like he's on cruise control. I've never seen that guy look uncomfortable on the field." This is where Ichiro would agree, sort of. No, it's not in his personality to admit that his game's got people rattled. (Or at least it's not in his for- publication personality-his teammates will tell you he's plenty sure of himself.) But he will say that if he looks in total control, it is not by accident. "I prepare my body and my mind to play the game at high speed," he says. "To me, the most important thing in the game is perfect preparation."
But this is as deep as Ichiro will go. Ask him what he means by perfect preparation and he responds, "Everything." Ask him for examples and he says, "It could be changing out of a sweaty T-shirt before I hit. It could be making sure there is no mud in my spikes." So, it's a checklist? "Sort of, but you must prioritize, because you can't always do everything." Is it about your state of mind? "State of mind," he says, "is only one thing." Whatever else is on that list, Ichiro's peers want to know. The Mariners still watch like curious children when Ichiro goes through his various stretching routines. Stretching is not just a pre game thing with Ichiro, it's a between-pitch thing. Utilityman Desi Relaford, who came to the Mariners in an off-season trade, says he's studied Ichiro closely since spring training, hoping he might learn something. "But he does things with his body I couldn't think of doing," says Relaford, who tries to demonstrate one Ichi-cise. "He does a squat thing. Keeps his feet flat on the ground, touches his butt on the ground and just chills for a while." Relaford laughs and can't come close to pulling it off. "And he's a strong dude," Relaford continues. "But he's not like most of us who've gotten stronger by lifting weights. We've built up our arms, backs and shoulders. I think he's got incredible strength through his midsection. His core." Relaford has surmised that Ichiro's core strength is what allows him to take what appears to be an effortless swing and still hit balls that shoot through the infield like bullets. "And because his swing is so controlled," Relaford says, "he's able to go to the plate with the same game plan against all types of pitchers. Most guys have a game plan for a hard thrower: Be quick. A game plan for a guy with a great change or breaking ball: Wait on the ball. This guy never has to alter his approach."
Watch Ichiro in batting practice, and he will loosen up by taking half- and three-quarter-speed swings, yet he'll still hit one crisp line drive after another into leftfield. With each round of BP, he adds more and more to his bat-speedometer, hitting balls a little harder and using the whole field more with each round. Yet, whether Ichiro's swinging 50% or 100%, hitting the ball firm, medium-hard or hard, you notice that just about everything he hits during BP looks like a base hit. Of course, there's a whole league of great 5 o'clock hitters out there on La-Z-Boys across America. Guys who could put on similar displays of bat control, so long as a 40-something former backup catcher is on the mound, behind a screen, grooving 65 mph, four-seam fastballs over the center of the plate. But how is it that Ichiro can put on the same show at game time? When pitchers like Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Barry Zito are disguising fastballs, changeups, splitters and hooks with deliveries and arm-speed so consistent they'd be hard to hit even if you knew what was coming?
"It is hard to explain," Ichiro admits. "My body reacts to the pitch rather than my brain. I don't look for anything out of the pitcher's hand. My body feels the pitch that's coming." So it's a feeling? Even though most hitters talk about visual clues, things like the way a pitcher's wrist rotates on a breaking ball, or the way the ball spins out of his fingers? "For me," Ichiro says, "recognizing the pitch starts when the pitcher begins his delivery. Each pitcher has his own timing. And I have my timing too. My initial movement, my step, is critical. I don't pick up the ball when it's released. Then it's too late.
(According to The Physics of Baseball by Robert K. Adair, a fastball that crosses home plate at 90 mph takes 40/100ths of a second to go from the pitcher's hand to the plate.) I start to look for the pitch when he begins his delivery. After that, like I said, it's a feeling."
And what of this notion that Ichiro-unlike most players, who simply say they're trying to hit the ball hard, then leaving it up to fate-tries to get base hits? "There are times," Ichiro says, "when I just try to hit the ball hard. And there are times when I try to spray the ball according to the way the defense is playing. And sometimes, it's a little of both." Needless to say, it's an awful lot to pull off at major league speed. In fact, right now, the only thing you can imagine that might be more difficult would be for Ichiro to explain how he does it without coming off as some kind of trash-talker. It's best left to others. "What I notice more than anything is his balance," says Olerud. "You'd think, with the way it appears he's moving toward first as he swings, pitchers would be able to throw him changeups, split-fingers and sinkers away. But he stays on those pitches and lines them the other way. It has to be frustrating for a pitcher who gets him 0-2 or 1-2 and can't put him away with his best pitch."
Frustrating doesn't begin to describe what pitchers have felt in trying to solve Ichiro. Last season, en route to a batting title and the American League Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, he collected 242 hits, the most in the majors since 1930. Now consider that more than a quarter of those hits-68, to be exact-came on two-strike counts. And when pitchers needed an out most desperately, with runners in scoring position, Ichiro hit .445. With runners in scoring position and two outs, Ichiro hit .460. This is the kind of thing that makes pitchers punch dugout walls. "I've watched it up close," says Mariners pitcher Paul Abbott, "and it's ridiculous what he does with nasty pitches. The thing is, he knows that as fast as he gets down the line, he can be late on the ball, hit a soft ground ball to the left side and beat it out. So that makes you wonder if throwing something down and away is a good idea. But he's also shown he can handle the ball in on his hands. I think I'd try just throwing the ball down the middle to see if it confuses him." Just take a look at Ichiro's STATS, Inc., spray chart on ESPN.com. It looks a lot like one of those kindergarten art projects, where a child blots paint on one side of a piece of paper, then folds it in half to create a mirror image. There are equal samplings of balls hit to left, center and right. The only thing that throws off the mirror is the coloring on the infield, where you'll notice about three-quarters of his 30 or so infield hits are on the left side. "He's made an art form out of the ground ball to deep short," says Relaford. "He knows if he hits it there, no one's ever going to throw him out." In other words, even confusing Ichiro is not likely to keep him off first base. "If he puts the ball in play," says Boone, "he's got a chance for a hit every time. The normal player doesn't have that chance. The normal player goes through stretches where he doesn't swing the bat well, and he won't get many hits, if any. But Ichiro, as long as he hits some ground balls, he's going to get his infield hits, sometimes two or three in a game. Then, when he starts swinging it well, he gets three and four hits a night. It's unfair."
It also seems a tad unfair that a guy can just show up in the major leagues after nine years in the Japanese Pacific League and not have to go through what players call "the adjustment." Even a stud like Derek Jeter says, "The game gets faster at every level, starting when you're in Little League. As you move up, the pitchers throw harder, the runners run faster, the ground balls get to you quicker. At every level there's a period where you doubt you'll ever catch up." And then there's Ichiro.