Interview with Ichiro Part 1 (Gold)
I sat down in December with Ichiro for an off season interview at Safeco Field. When I arrived he had just finished his daily workout and was waiting for me in the clubhouse. He was wearing a white SUW warm up suit designed by his brother in Japan. He was sitting at his empty locker facing the door reclining in his chair wearing his silver Oakleys. I think the glasses were for my benefit as he got a good laugh out of my reaction to seeing him that way and calling him the Rock Star.
It was a very relaxed Ichiro I spoke with that day. There was no hint of any of the unavoidable tension you see during the season. While always accommodating within his daily schedule during the season Ichiro’s routine is so time consuming that just speaking to him for a couple of minutes you leave with the impression that he has other more important baseball things he must do. This day was different. He was relaxed. He looked well rested and like he didn’t have a care in the world. He looked ten years younger than he did when he was chasing the consecutive season with 200 hits record earlier in the summer. It was good to see.
I wasn’t given guidelines for the interview. I just wanted to have a chat. Before we started I asked Ken Baron who as always translated Ichiro how long I had. He said he did not know which presented a problem as I am pretty sure I could ask Ichiro questions all day long. I told him that when Ichiro had enough to let me know and I would wrap it up. What followed was an hour long conversation (which incidentally, I decided was enough and ended for fear he would never sit down with me again!) which I bring to you here.
You wake up October 5 and you know there will be no baseball for a long time. What are the things that go through your mind on that day?
I remember waking up on October 5 and thinking to myself no baseball today and I don’t have to face all the pressure. I remember feeling real good waking up that morning. I told myself, ‘Don’t hold the bat. Don’t pick up a bat,’ but I still had a feeling that once a few hours passed by that I wanted to pick up a bat really bad so I really had to suppress that feeling of wanting to pick up a bat. By October 6 I did pick up a bat. (Laughs)
I feel often that I think I like baseball more during the off season.
Like golf? A release of sorts?
I believe it is the same thing. Often people ask me, ‘How come you practice so much? How are you able to practice so much.’ Often my reply to such a question would be like you said, to me it is like the same feeling as going to the driving range or golfing for other people. Some people enjoy taking a light stroll in the morning and that gives them relief and that sort of feeling. That is what I gain by practicing, by swinging the bat.
So for me actually it is tougher for me to go to the golf range and hit golf balls than it is to practice baseball because I am not that good at golfing so I would get bored with it and it is not as much an enjoyable time for me. For me getting to enjoy baseball and making these skillful moves, baseball moves, during the off season gives me the most pleasure. To be able to do these things in a no pressure environment because during the season you are always fighting with having to come up with results. Having to establish results and there is always that mental weight and the pressure that you have to battle with. It is hard to purely enjoy baseball. During the off season you are able to just enjoy baseball in its purest form and to me it is the most fun thing to do.
You are at the stadium almost every day. What is it like to have that opportunity to go out on the field by yourself in front of 40,000 empty seats? What goes through your mind when it is just you and baseball out there?
For me, to get to enjoy this amazing stadium by myself, what a greedy person I am. To think that in the entire world the only guy who gets to practice all by himself in a major league stadium…I am probably the only guy who gets to do that and when I think of that it makes me so happy. Because in that moment, in the entire world, I am the only one. (More laugher) The only one.
Was there more pressure this year?
As an individual yes, because there were many tough records this year. It was something I expected, that there would be more pressure than before this year, and also I can’t help it because it is just that, that kind of pressure is just that. But as a team we had Junior, we had Sweeney, we had so many positive things going for us that it was really easy for me more than before as a team. I really felt that we fought together as a team and it was very helpful this year in the team aspect.
What kind of foundation was put in place this year? Is it enough to take the next step?
I think that we were able to have a conglomeration of good people.
No matter how many people you get with potential and skill, and they are able to have good results, if these people you get are not good people I feel the team will not be successful. Contrary to that I think if you have a team of a bunch of good people, if you lack in these areas such as skill and potential you have a lot more of a chance to have a good team.
But in the history of baseball there are 25 guys 25 cabs teams that were successful.
To dig deeper into what we were talking about, we are all professionals here. We come together here as professionals so even if we don’t get along in our private time I really don’t think that matters. What’s important is when we are on the field to let those feelings go so if you have a bunch of players that drag that kind of feeling onto the field. Then you have a problem so of course it’s the best if even in your private time you get along and you have the same values and you are all striving for the same things and you share these things. It’s great but that is very hard to do. What is important is even if you don’t like each other you are able to fight together on the field. That is the important part
I assume you have experienced all of the above here?
Yes. At this point I have managed to accumulate some years in baseball. Nine years in Japan nine years in the United States at the professional level and I was able to see things and make these kind of evaluations in my own way.
If you think about it I played on the 2001 team, the team that won the most games in the history of Major League Baseball and also I played on one of the worst teams of Major League Baseball. During that time I was able to see the changes and the different things and I think that because of those experiences I am at a place where I am better able to notice these kinds of things.
Eighteen years. Eighteen Years! What do you think when you realize you have played this game at this level for eighteen years?
It’s eighteen years but I am pretty much the same weight I was eighteen years ago. And I am not really surprised about anything. I think if I had a big gut hanging out now and I was saying, (laughs) ‘I can’t believe these youngsters,’ I would probably be surprised at myself and saying, ‘Man, I can’t believe myself, that I have come to this.’
A lot of people for a long time have thought that you can’t do this forever. A lot of people were thinking by now Ichiro would be a three hitter, he would be hitting 40 homeruns a year, but you can still do everything you did before. Are you in any way surprised that you are still doing these things and what is your reaction when people say Ichiro is going to move on and become this?
Probably for my style of baseball the key to maintaining it is not to get a gut.
As far as what other people say… The thing is a lot of people who comment about other people, especially people who say negative things about other people, they are not really in positions to be able to evaluate other people in the first place. If we input that information into ourselves more than necessary only negative things will come of that. So it is really about knowing yourself and not being controlled by people who have no value or say. I guess now that we have talked about this I guess you can say that is one key to where I am now is that I have not been swayed by what other people have said.
Have you always been able to push the negative out? As long as I have known you, you have always said people are going to think what they are going to think and you can’t change that. Have you always been that way or is it something you have had to learn in order to put up with what you have to put up with every day?
I think it is both. It is something that once I got to a position where other people would say things about me, I felt things and I learned things from those experiences. I think it is also a situation where looking into it I realized that only negative things could come of it. I inputted what everyone was saying and I realized it was something that I had to do. I think it is both.
How would you characterize yourself as a person?
(Ichiro pondered this one for a good 55 seconds)
It is very hard to evaluate or say things about yourself. (Small laugh)
I am definitely not, I definitely don’t think I am a bad person, but I am definitely not like a pure, good guy either for sure.
(Expands on in Japanese)
I am definitely not the kind of person where people would say, he’s a nice guy, he’s a great guy. I am definitely not that guy especially because if I felt something was wrong I would definitely fight over it and I am not a nice guy to everyone. I think if you look at the friends, the kinds of relationships I have, I am not the kind of guy who has many shallow relationships. I think you could say I am the kind of guy who has a few relationships, but those are very deep.
So what do you value in a friend?
Once we become adults and we go out into the working world it seems like that is where most of our new relationships come from. From work. So definitely for me it would be somebody that I could get along with away from work. Some people you get along with but if work is not there you can’t continue to have the relationship. From that you come up with things such as trust that are important. For me, once you establish a friendship I feel that it is forever. So I like to think that it’s a relationship you can have without work getting in the way.
Coming up Thursday, Ichiro talks about the future and how and why he chases something that he believes does not not exist.