DENVER — The spectacle starts before the game begins, as the pitcher is taking his warm-up tosses and the umps are conferring at home plate. This is the scene as the Seattle Mariners prepared to meet the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.
Out in the first row of the center-field bleachers, four bright signs appear, rustling in the sun. The signs are incandescent yellow-green, each with a thick, black character in Japanese calligraphy. One of the 20 Japanese journalists in the press box translates. The signs say "Ichiro," he explains with a smile.
In the on-deck circle, the Mariners' lead-off hitter, Ichiro Suzuki, swings his bat in repetitive arcs, perhaps like a samurai sword drill in the Japanese sport of kendo. Next, he stretches with the bat behind his back. Then, before stepping to the plate, he plants his feet outside his shoulders and slowly lowers his torso to the ground. This is the "horse stance," from Japanese martial arts, designed to establish one's center of gravity. This entire meditative routine is a sight unknown in American baseball - until this season.
Eight Japanese players are on major-league rosters, and some are putting up impressive numbers. Boston's Hideo Nomo has pitched two no hitters in his career, including one earlier this year - more than any other active player. In New York, Mets' outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo is hitting over .300. In Seattle, Suzuki's teammate, closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, leads the major leagues in saves (26).
But no one has captured the public quite like Suzuki, known simply by his given name, "Ichiro." (It means "fast man." While often given to a first-born son, it is nowhere nearly as common as "Suzuki," which is akin to the American "Jones." That's why "Ichiro" appears on his jersey.)
The Mariners' sleek right fielder is the major-league leader in hits (112) and among the leaders in batting average (.352, fifth); stolen bases (23, tied for first); and runs scored (64, tied for third). He also tops the balloting for the All-Star game (July 10 in Seattle), notwithstanding the fact that an extraordinary number of the votes have been cast in Japan.
Baseball has thrived in Japan ever since it was introduced by an American schoolteacher in the 1870s. Professional leagues were established in the 1930s. American major-league players have toured Japan since the 1920s, and some 500 Americans have played there, mostly closing out their careers. Remember Derrick May, an outfielder with the Chicago Cubs in the early '90s? May hit his 18th home run of the season last Sunday as the Chiba Lotte Marines bested the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, 7-5.
Until the mid-'90s, the only Japanese on an American major-league roster was Masanori Murakami, a pitcher who compiled a 5-1 record in 1964 with the San Francisco Giants. Following his successful season, Murakami was summoned home by the Nankai Hawks, who had him under contract in Japan. For the next 30 years, all of the best Japanese ballplayers spent their entire careers in Japan.
"We are a little bit of a closed-door society," acknowledges Hide Sueyoshi, a Mariners' official who serves as Ichiro Suzuki's translator. With a law degree from Japan and a B.A. from the University of Oregon, Sueyoshi is typical of the cross-cultural types one meets around the Seattle Mariners. The franchise is owned by the Japanese entertainment conglomerate Nintendo.
In the mid-'90s, the closed door of Japanese baseball swung open. Satellite TV was a major factor. "Thirty, 40 years ago, we did not have much information about major-league baseball," Sueyoshi says. "But now you get live coverage of [American] games. Players realized that this is the highest level where they can compete. We see the power [hitting] here and a different kind of baseball, and we are fascinated by that."
Currently, all of the Mariners' home games are broadcast live in Japan, and one broadcaster is in the process of laying cable at Seattle's Safeco Field to deliver the games in high-definition television.
But why, besides TV coverage, are there suddenly so many Japanese in the major leagues - and more likely to come?
"I can answer that question in one word," says Brad Lefton, an American television producer who spent eight years in Japan and now sends sports programs there. "It's 'Nomo.' "
In the mid-'90s, pitching sensation Nomo engaged in a long, drawn-out process of trying to get free of his Japanese contract, during which he earned the ire of most of Japan. Finally, he announced that if he wasn't allowed to go to the United States, he was going to retire.
"Now his courage is respected in Japan," says Keizo Konishi, a Japanese journalist. "Nomo came in and showed what he can do. And Japanese players understand that there's some kind of option to [play] here."
Will we see other Japanese next year? Both Konishi and Lefton suggest two names to keep in mind. Kazuo Matsui is a slick shortstop and switch-hitter with a career batting average over .300. Currently with the Seibu Lions, he becomes eligible for free agency in 2003.
Kazuhisa Ishii of the Yakult Swallows is Japan's most dominant left-handed pitcher. His fastball has been clocked at 97 m.p.h. He'll be a free agent at the close of this season.
For more about baseball in Japan, read 'You Gotta Have Wa,' by Robert Whiting (Vintage Books, 1990), or log on to ww1.baywell.ne.jp/fpweb/drlatham/index.htm for news about Japanese teams.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor