When I brought our Speed Freaks concept to Lou Piniella’s office a few weeks ago and asked him if he thought Ichiro Suzuki was one of those players -- like Wayne Gretzky or Larry Bird -- who could slow the game down, the Mariners manager didn’t exactly take to the topic. I got the feeling Piniella thought I was insinuating the game was easy for Ichiro.
“The great ones may make it look easy,” Piniella said. “But it’s not easy. Ichiro works very hard. Very hard on his conditioning and strength programs and stretching, and very hard on his hitting. You see a guy go out there and spray the ball around and people say, ‘He’s a natural.’ Well, there may be some natural talent there, but he works on his art.”
Piniella wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. I’ve written a couple of long Ichiro stories for The Magazine now and I’ve studied the man’s regimen. It’s incredible. From his pregame reflexology routine, to his non-stop stretching, to his methodical BP, Ichiro is meticulous in the way he prepares to play a game. In fact, in this latest story, when I asked Ichiro if he could go through his checklist, he scoffed (through his translator, Hide Sueyoshi). “There are too many details to go through them all.”
But Piniella did surprise me with a few things he had to say about Ichiro, such as, “He’s the best defensive rightfielder I’ve ever seen.” Yes, that list would include the likes of Dwight Evans, Dave Parker and even the late, great Roberto Clemente.
“But that was something we were certain of when we signed him,” Piniella said. “Because we’d had him work out with us in spring training. But he has shown us more than we thought he would in other aspects of the game.
“First of all, he’s faster than we thought He’s the fastest from home to first in our league, and that puts tremendous pressure on the infielders. If they have to go one way or another for a ball, they’ve got to make a heck of a play to get him.
“And he’s a better hitter than we thought. When he’s hitting well, he can almost hit the ball anywhere he wants on the field.”
But wouldn’t that -- this idea that Ichiro can place the ball -- suggest that Ichiro sees the game more clearly than hitters who are merely trying to hit the ball hard?
“No,” Piniella said. “I think it’s just another sign of how hard he works. I’ve never asked him, but I’d bet when Ichiro’s driving to the ballpark each day, he’s going through his game plan for that night, thinking his at-bats through before he even gets here.”
And it’s that intense focus, according to Piniella, that makes it appear that Ichiro slows the game down. “I’m telling you, the scrutiny, pressure, attention he got last year, and continues to get this year, is unprecedented,” Piniella said. “I know there’s been the Barry Bonds Watch and the Mark McGwire Watch, but this is different. This is a guy who came over from Japan to prove to his country what he could do, and it was all chronicled every day by hundreds of Japanese media. It would’ve beaten up lesser men.
"This spring, he hit a home run in his first spring training game and the Japanese media came into my office and said, ‘Ichiro is going to hit 30 home runs this year.’ I had to dispel that real quick. I know he looks so natural, so fluid, so graceful that it looks that easy. I promise it’s not.”Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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