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Where have you gone,
Ichiro Suzuki?

Page 2

KOBE, Japan -- When a major-league player leaves his team as a free agent, fans instantly brand him a traitor while lazy sportswriters turn him into a punchline for all occasions (insert your own reference to Alex Rodriguez here).

Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro Suzuki made his fans in Japan proud in his debut with the Mariners.
The Orix Blue Wave fans are much more understanding, much more forgiving of their former player, Ichiro Suzuki, whom they wish the best in America. I know, because I interviewed every remaining one of them at Tuesday night's Blue Wave home game in Kobe.

OK, OK, that's an exaggeration. I didn't talk to each one. Although I could have. There are steak houses in England with more customers than the Ichiro-less Blue Wave had Tuesday night (Tuesday morning in North America). During the second inning, I counted approximately 800 fans in the entire stadium, or about the same number you would find in Barry Bonds' traveling posse.

True, it was a nasty weeknight for baseball, with a light drizzle before the game and a cold breeze throughout it. And late-arriving fans brought the total up somewhat in the later innings. But we're still talking about a crowd that would embarrass the Montreal Expos, and this for a team that averaged 18,000 fans last summer with Ichiro.

One of those fans, Masato Fujii, was in his usual spot in the right field bleachers. In past seasons, he would sit there for 20 to 30 games, cheering on Ichiro as he played right field directly in front of him, scrambling for the baseballs the outfielder would toss into the stands between innings. Unfortunately, while Fujii was in his old spot Tuesday night, Ichiro was an ocean and 4,500 miles away from his. "I miss him so much," Fujii said through a translator.

Fujii and the others who ventured into Kobe's lovely Green Stadium Tuesday night represented the loyal, hard-core Blue Wave fans, yet not even all of them wanted to be there. Kimiko Kirai, for instance, was there only because her husband, Hiso, dragged her to the stadium. If Ichiro wasn't there, she didn't see much reason she had to be.

The couple watched the live broadcast of Ichiro's first game with the Mariners, but they were among the minority of those I spoke with who were lucky enough to do so. The game began at 11 in the morning here, while most people were at work or in school, and it was shown only on a premium satellite channel. It also was competing against the live national coverage of the extremely popular high school baseball tournament.

After a search, the only public place in the local area that my translator and I found where it was being shown was in the front lobby of Osaka's NHK studio.

Of the handful of people who wandered in, one spent his lunch break there because he knew it was the only place where he could watch both the high school tournament and the Mariners game at the same time. Another took the day off from his banking job just so that he could see Ichiro make history as the first Japanese position player in the majors. After watching Ichiro ground out weakly his first two at-bats, then strike out feebly his third at-bat, he groaned and walked out of the lobby.

Ichiro singled in his next two at-bats to finish the day at .400, news that delighted the fans I spoke with at the Blue Wave game several hours later. No matter how the issue was phrased, they were disappointed in his departure but offered support for their former player. Not that they think the seven-time batting champ needs any additional help from them.

"I think he will only hit .350," Hiso Kirai said. "He has the heritage of Japan with him -- he will do very well. Not just with his hitting, but with his arm, his fielding, his running, everything.

"Ichiro is still the property of Japan so I like him. And I want him to prove that Japanese players can play in America as well."

See? Not one crack about a personal merchandising tent. These are forgiving people. Either that, or they're too polite to tell a nosey American how they really feel about one of their own.

Then again, they have to be understanding to put up with the Blue Waves' hideous mascot, Neppie. The mascot is either a cross between a monkey and a bat or a Haley Joel Osment cloning experiment that went very, very bad. Whichever it is, he is positively frightening.

"He is the shame of Japan," said my translator, Nobutaka Shimotsuma.

I know Ichiro says he left Japan to prove himself against major leaguers, but I suspect Neppie had a lot more to do with it. (Just wait until he meets the Mariners Moose, though.)

Ichiro may be gone but he is not forgotten. I saw one souvenir stand still selling T-shirts with his famed No. 51 on them, and there are posters throughout the stadium advertising an upcoming movie about him that is appropriately titled, "Run, Ichiro."

"Before, 40 percent of what we sold was Ichiro-related," a souvenir stand worker said. "Sales have plunged since he's left."

It's sad in a way but in time, perhaps the Blue Wave's new rightfielder, Ikuro Katsuragi, will become a star to carry on Ichiro's legacy. One woman I talked with said he already is her new favorite. Until then, the fans will cheer for their remaining players and wish Ichiro the best in America.

"It's a little complicated to explain to a little kid why Ichiro went to the United States," said Nashimoto Kazuyoshi, who swelled the attendance total by bringing his wife and three children to the game. "But that's what he chose to do. He's doing the same thing as (Mariners reliever) Kazuhiro Sasaki. The American players come over here and the Japanese players go over there and that's the way it is.

"Besides, Ichiro would have become a free agent at the end of the year anyway, and he could have signed with the Chunichi Dragons or the Tokyo Giants."

Spoken like a true fan. Some things truly are universal.

Jim Caple is a regular contributor to Page 2.

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