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Outside the Lines: Japan's Rising Son

Here's the transcript from Show 66 of weekly Outside The Lines - Japan's Rising Son

Announcer - July 1st, 2001

Mark Schwarz, host - He's the marquis performer on baseball's winningest team, and the most popular player in worldwide All-Star balloting. He's bigger in Seattle than the megastars that have preceded him there.

Al Martin, Seattle Mariners outfielder - Ichiro is like a rock star. He's probably the biggest personality I've seen in all my years playing.

Schwarz - In his first sit-down interview in the U.S., Ichiro explains why he came to America. His answer may surprise you.

Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners outfielder (through translator) - I thought to myself, man, what can I change to pull myself out of this. The only idea that really came to mind was changing my surroundings.

Schwarz - How did the Mariners outfox noted Pacific Rim experts Bobby Valentine and Tommy Lasorda for the right to negotiate with the Japanese star? We'll meet the man who helped make it happen; the same man who says he may be the only one who can stop "Ichiro - Japan's Rising Son." Next, "Outside the Lines."

At 5'9", Ichiro is truly the mightiest of Mariners, but he is so much more than that. For Japanese-Americans, Ichiro represents a real-life hero of grand proportions in the body of an average citizen. For the Japanese, he symbolizes an historic breakthrough, the first everyday player from Japan to make it at baseball's loftiest level. For the Seattle Mariners, he represents a $27 million bargain, a phenomenal hitter with world-class speed, a cannon arm, and Jordonesque allure.

It's been 37 years since a rookie outfielder has started in Major League Baseball's All-Star Game. Not only will Ichiro start for the American League; he has received more votes than anyone else in baseball.

Over the next five days, ESPN will explore not only Ichiro, but the talented group of Japanese stars that could soon follow him to the states, how this could damage the game in Japan, and finally how Tommy Lasorda is leaving his imprint on the Japanese game.

Our five-part series begins with Ichiro's first nationally televised interview, as reported by Jeremy Schaap.

Jeremy Schaap, ESPN correspondent - It was an emotional farewell. Ichiro was leaving, his final game in Japan, and the fans wanted him to know just how much he would be missed. Many could not contain their tears. When he left the stadium, flanked by an army of security guards, the fans bid Ichiro a final farewell.

This is what Ichiro left behind, the unwavering adoration of millions, not to mention a $5 million annual salary, the highest ever in Japanese baseball. The Japanese have been playing baseball for 130 years. Their baseball heroes are enshrined here at the Hall of Fame in Tokyo. Among those whose plaques are on the wall, Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima, Oh's teammate who won six batting titles.

But before Ichiro Suzuki, no Japanese position player had ever dared test his skills in the land where baseball was born. None had played the game at its highest level. What made Ichiro first think that he could do what neither Oh or Nagashima nor any of Japan's great stars had ever done? Was it the seven straight Pacific League-batting titles? Was it the pennant-clinching hit? Was it hitting a record .387 last year? It was none of these things. Rather, it was a feeling five years ago that somehow his progress as a player had stalled.

Ichiro - I first started thinking about going to America in 1996, or maybe a little bit before that. You have to understand that around that time, I was mired in a funk that literally lasted several years where I just wasn't comfortable with what I was doing on the field. I was looking for a lot of answers that I just couldn't find. I tried lots of different things, but I just couldn't find that master plan for rediscovering what I thought I had lost. I just couldn't get myself going in the right direction.

I thought to myself, man, what can I change to pull myself out of this? The only idea that really came to mind was changing my surroundings.

Schaap - Ichiro went on to win his third straight batting title and MVP award, and led the Blue Wave to its first-ever championship. But soon he was thinking about America again.

Ichiro - Then in the fall, the bi-annual Japan Major League Baseball All-Star Series Game came to Japan. I kind of looked at those guys across the field, and thought to myself, hmm, that looks pretty good.

Schaap - Jack Sakazaki represents the marketing interests of American Major League Baseball in Japan. He escorted Ichiro on his first trip to the U.S.

Jack Sakazaki, MLB marketer in Japan - We went to see Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey Jr. and all these people, and he was just awed. When we went to see the Bulls play, he was jumping around like a kid. So, I think at that time he knew he wanted to go to the states.

Schaap - By the time Ichiro finally made the decision to play in the U.S., he was bored. He had mastered Japanese baseball.

Ichiro - In the end, the motivation for me to come over here was different than what triggered the initial thought to come over here several years ago.

Schaap - Ichiro is on pace to win his eighth batting title in eight seasons, and is a legitimate MVP candidate. But as brilliant as he's been, Americans haven't yet seen the full range of his skills. George Arias was Ichiro's teammate last year on the Blue Wave.

George Arias, former teammate - Believe it or not, Ichiro's got some power, you know. He's really got some power, and he's got such hand-eye coordination. It's like he's playing wiffleball out here, you know, it's that easy for him.

Ichiro - There are aspects of my game that I'm satisfied with and other parts that I'm not satisfied with. You know, baseball is a game of great detail. As I run through my mind how I performed the various little things that are so integral to this game, there are some areas in which I think I have done well, but others that I think I haven't done so good.

But all in all, I can't say I'm dissatisfied, but I certainly can't say I'm satisfied either. I feel like I should be more in touch with the nuances of this game. I've made far too many mistakes, that's the way I feel.

Schaap - But Ichiro has found it easier to master American pitching than the English language.

Ichiro - I think I'm doing a pretty good job of picking up the little phrases as they are said to me. But as soon as I go to bed at night, I forget them. That just seems to be the pattern.

Schaap - Meanwhile, his teammates are eager to expand his vocabulary.

Ichiro - The tendency with someone who doesn't speak your language is to try humor and dirty words. Most of the things my teammates have tried to teach me, I don't think I can say in front of the cameras here. But that's OK, I don't mind starting with that kind of stuff because I know it will help me to gradually learn to speak better. And I want to do that.

Schaap - Linguistic difficulties aside, it is clear that Ichiro is enjoying life in the U.S. The great experiment is a success. The cheers he heard in Kobe are echoing in Seattle.

For "Outside the Lines," I'm Jeremy Schaap.

Schwarz - Joining us now from San Diego, the man who identified and helped sign Ichiro for the Seattle Mariners as the team's director of Pacific Rim operations, now the pitching coach of the Dodgers, Jim Colborn.

Jim welcome. Now, the Dodgers have you ...

Jim Colborn, L.A. Dodgers pitching coach - Thanks, Mark.

Schwarz -... but they don't have Ichiro. Do they ever happen to remind you of that?

Colborn - They don't care. I left them with a nice parting gift, and I think they are satisfied.

Schwarz - I mean, the Dodgers certainly were one of the teams that probably would have liked a shot at Ichiro, but if it wasn't for you, the Dodgers didn't have a shot at him. What do the Dodgers say to you about the fact that they don't have him?

Colborn - Yeah, the Dodgers don't let me forget it, and I have to hide whenever the question comes up. And I tell them that I -- if I'd only known months ahead that I was going to have the position, maybe we could have tried to steer him to the Dodgers. I don't think it would have helped. I think, by then, Ichiro was committed to the Mariners, and if he had had his wishes, I think he would probably have gone there anyway.

Schwarz - Yes, that's what we understand. You're not the only guy that discovered Ichiro. Bobby Valentine, who had managed in Japan, said last October he was one of the five best players in the world. And he recently said that he said before the year was over, someone will say he has the best arm, someone will say he's the best hitter, and someone will say he's the best defensive player, and someone will say he is the fastest runner in baseball.

How did a team like Seattle win the bidding rights over teams like the Mets and Dodgers with more resources and considerable needs for a team just like Ichiro?

Colborn - Probably better scouting. No, I'd say it was just commitment. With the Japanese ownership, it was pretty much a do or die situation. And I think that ended up being the key in the end. The other teams knew about him, maybe as well as we did; maybe not, because we had a working relationship with (unintelligible). But in the end I think it was the determination to get him that did it.

Schwarz - Jim, what did you tell the Mariners to expect from Ichiro?

Colborn - Well, I think Pat Gillick asked me -- pinned me to the wall once about what he'd do. And my conservative guess was that if he played five years, he'd contend for a batting championship. He would be an All-Star, he'd probably have 10 to 14 outfield assists, steal 40 or 50 bases, and I didn't think he'd do it in the first year, but it's coming true, I guess.

Schwarz - You know, if you make these projections, obviously you have a feel for Japanese baseball. Why did you become a pitching coach rather than a guru extrapolating Japanese number to the U.S.?

Colborn - Well, take a look at that tape you just showed about Ichiro. Why did he come to the U.S.? That's part of it, you just -- you want to always challenge yourself to do something that you're not capable of doing. I always wanted to be on the field again. That's where my career started. And this opportunity with Jim Tracy and the Dodgers was something that couldn't be turned down.

Schwarz - OK, Jim, is there a way to get this guy out? Jim Colburn has seen Ichiro more than anybody who has faced him this year, so maybe Jim will be in the Dodgers rotation when the team meets the Mariners next week. We'll find out more as "Outside the Lines" continues in a moment.

Schwarz - You may have heard all about Ichiro, but until this morning, perhaps you haven't heard much from him. He's not exactly fluent in English, but he may know more of the language than he'd like us to know, as Texas first baseman Rafael Palmeiro found out this April, after hitting a grand slam against the Mariners in Seattle. When Ichiro reached with a single later in that game, he greeted Palmeiro warmly when the two met at first base.

Rafael Palmeiro, Texas Rangers first baseman - He came up and said, "You the man," you know, and he'd gotten like three hits or four hits. And I said, no, you the man. But the thing that surprised me the most was not that he spoke English. It was the next time that we went back to Seattle, he spoke to me in Spanish. That was the thing that was surprising to me. He said something in Spanish, so he's pretty talented.

Schwarz - And a few days after that, the Yankees met the Mariners for the first time, and Ichiro was standing at home plate and Jorge Posada, the Yankee's catcher, who had never been around a Japanese player before, was curious. And Ichiro could tell, so he looked back at Posada and he said, "Que pasa?"

Once again, we're joined by Jim Colborn, the man who united Ichiro and the Mariners.

Jim, a guy who can say "que pasa" to Posada, talks Spanish to Palmeiro, why can't he have a little more fun with the media?

Colborn - Yes, there's a good question. Well, to be honest, that was one of the tips that I offered to him before he came over here. I told him I just hope you can put your smile on when you talk to the American media because I know his charm is so engaging. And he completely -- the American fans would fall in love with him if he could show that smile once in a while. But I guess he's just not quite capable of doing it.

Schwarz - How much does he dislike the Japanese media and why?

Colborn - Well -- gee, I hate to say this because it sounds so derogatory, and individually, the Japanese media people are nice, but there's so darn many of them, it's like a swarm of flies around your head all the time, 24 hours a day. They camp outside his house.

He had to do -- it just looked like an espionage movie for him to come to our hotel to do the contract negotiations. You know, in the back there of the hotel, the service entrance, and have his wife pick him up a block away when he left the hotel. And he's got an alias on the mailbox of his apartment in Japan. So, he's had to go to great lengths to keep some sense of a private life.

Schwarz - Is there a way to pitch to this guy, and might we see the secret to getting him out when you take the mound for the Dodgers next week against Seattle?

Colborn - Well, I plan to do a Satchel Paige-like comeback only because I've thrown thousands of baseballs to him, and he and I have a thing called shogu, which is challenge, or man-to-man fight. And he'd usually let me try my one-out skills with him after he'd warmed up a little bit. And I will say, in the several thousand balls that I threw to him, I broke three bats and I got him to swing and miss twice. So, I would say, I pretty much know how to pitch to him.

Schwarz - You have his number. If he was here, he would agree with that?

Colborn - No, he wouldn't agree, but he doesn't know. He's a youngster, and he's still learning, and he doesn't know the wily tricks a veteran can pull on him.

Schwarz - Well, Jim, I think we'd all like to see that. I think the Mariners would especially like to see that.

Colborn - The Mariners would, no one else would.

Schwarz - Jim, thanks for getting up with us this morning from San Diego, where it is quite early. Good luck if you do manage to get activated next week.

Colborn - Oh, thanks, Mark.

Schwarz - OK, good to see you.

Colborn - Shall I be on your show for that if I do?

Schwarz - Absolutely. Of the Mariners' 81 home dates this season, 67 of them feature tour groups from Japan.

Next on "Outside the Lines," a look at how Ichiro has replaced the coffee bean as Seattle's most coveted resource.

Schwarz - Seattle has been the home address of some of baseball's most celebrated players -Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez; all three huge in the Pacific Northwest. But not Ichiro-huge. When measured in merchandise sold, Ichiro's appeal eclipses the marketing muscle of his predecessors. Even at the height of their popularity, Junior, A-Rod and the Big Unit each barely registered 10 percent of Mariner's merchandise sold. But Ichiro-related gear accounts for unprecedented 15 percent.

Ann Werner on Seattle's civic treasure.

Ann Werner, ESPN correspondent - Outside Safeco Field, fans stop to take in his larger-than-life image.

Unidentified male - Ichi, ni san

Werner - Inside, his presence is reality.

Announcer - Leading off for the Mariners, right fielder, number 51, Ichiro Suzuki.

Werner - Fans treat his every at-bat as a singular experience. Ichiro Suzuki, all 5'9", 160 pounds of him, is living large in the hearts of Asian Mariners fans.

Crowd - Ichiro.

Werner - How popular is he in Seattle?

Medumi Masui, Mariners fan - Everybody, Asian people, American people, get excited about him, and we love him.

Kevin Martinez, Mariners Director of Marketing - In the beginning, we had to market him a little bit. But right now, when he steps out on the field, he does all the marketing himself.

Martin - Ichiro is like a rock star. He's probably the biggest personality I've seen in all my years playing. You've got girls following the bus to the airport, people just crying when he comes up to them. It's pretty incredible seeing a guy with so much power like that.

Werner - It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Seattle's Asian community felt a bit of a backlash because of the Mariners. In 1992, when an ownership group that included Nintendo bought the baseball team, there were some concerns about a Japanese company invading a piece of America's pastime.

Carol Vu, editor, "Northwest Asian Weekly" - There was a little bit of xenophobia, and it was really subtle. Nobody was really outright about saying, I don't want any Japanese buying our team.

Unidentified male - We have some major policies of baseball that would be affected by having Japanese ownership. We'll look at it, but I would think it's (unintelligible).

Werner - Any opposition to the sale died down, partly because the new ownership succeeded in rejuvenating a struggling franchise.

Martinez - From my perspective, there was a great sense of celebration and relief in the community here in Seattle, and throughout the Northwest, that this group has come and saved Major League Baseball.

Werner - Now, with a new stadium, baseball is healthier than ever in Seattle, due in part to Ichiro's success. While his image may seem larger than life, to Asians, he's one of their own.

Vu - He's a guy who looks like us. And for a guy who is relatively short, relatively skinny but still doing well, really well, you know, we're proud of him. And I think a lot of our young people look at him and think, if he can do it maybe I can, too. It opens a lot of doors for us.

Schwarz - A recent piece in "The Boston Globe" said that Asian men have long had an image problem when it comes to masculinity in America; that they tend to be short in a society that values tall; that they are pushed to excel in academics in a way that often labels them nerds. But according to University of Washington professor of ethnic studies Stephen Sumida, the rise of Ichiro has boosted the collective self-esteem of young Japanese-Americans.

Stephen Sumida, University of Washington - A few weeks ago, the minister asked, who is it we turn to for all of our hopes and blessings? And the congregation answered with about maybe 75 percent saying Jesus, and about 25 percent saying Ichiro.

Schwarz - The gospel of Ichiro graces magazine covers, it brings new converts to the ballparks. He arrives at a time when national surveys reveal ugly feelings toward Asian-Americans.

Sumida - We have had a long history in this country of treating Asian peoples as the utmost of alien peoples in this country.

Schwarz - A nation-wide study found that 27 percent of Americans hold very negative attitudes towards Asian-Americans. Japanese-Americans in particular carry the collective sin of Pearl Harbor. The magic of Ichiro is that by hitting a baseball better than anyone else, he's made an entire community feel better about itself.

Sumida - To see Ichiro in the role of someone who is of the same race as others of us and playing the great American game like that in such a celebrated way, that's part of what I think the appreciation is.

Schwarz - "Outside the Lines" is online at And you can reach our site with the keyword OTLWeekly or by typing the address - for links to more on today's topic and our library of streaming video and transcripts. And a place to address your e-mail which we always read and share. The address - OTL Weekly at

Schwarz - ESPN's five-part series, "Japan's Rising Sons" continues tomorrow on Sportscenter. Tomorrow, Ichiro-mania - he became Japan's best pure hitter ever, so he was treated as a rock star. On Tuesday, who's the next Ichiro? Is there another like him on the horizon? Wednesday, how will Ichiro's success affect baseball in Japan. And Thursday, Tommy Lasorda helps the Kentetsu Buffaloes climb out of the Pacific League cellar, while selling and teaching the game in the process.

That's our program for today. Join us next Sunday morning, 10:30 Eastern, "Outside the Lines." Tonight on ESPN, it's the Braves and the Mets, 8 p.m. Eastern.

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 ESPN's Mark Schwarz explores the Seattle phenomenon known simply as Ichiro.
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