Native-son outfielders lift Japanese from their slump

Fans cheer Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, players on two US teams whose every line drive seems to 'ease the pain' of the Japanese mind.

The best American baseball usually comes in chilly October. In Japan it may have been this weekend.

Fans reveled in a three-game seesaw slugfest between the New York Yankees, team of Hideki Matsui, aka "Godzilla," and the Seattle Mariners, whose right fielder is Ichiro Suzuki, now batting .336 and leading the league in hits.

Talk about the stars aligning. In Japan the TV showdown of the native sons was a national sports fest and a collective reaffirmation of virtue - embodied in a right and left fielder whose every line drive seems to "ease the pain" of the Japanese mind, to borrow the famous "Field of Dreams" phrase.

"They give us pride. Because Japan is not doing well in the economy, there is nothing enjoyable in the news," says Naoko Shimamura, a conference organizer who has trekked to Seattle with her husband and two boys to watch Ichiro. "How well Ichiro and Godzilla do is really important. Even though I don't like Godzilla because I'm a Mariners fan, if he does well, I feel good."

Indeed, bring on the hits and the stolen bases. The yen has slipped and slid for years. There's a banking mess and public works spending mess. The world, which used to come to Japan's door seeking management wisdom, no longer does. North Korea's nuclear program worries people. South Korea beat Japan in the soccer World Cup. China's sucking up jobs.

Everyone has a nagging knowledge that Japan must undergo structural reform. But all the solutions involve unthinkable levels of discomfort.

So hey, why not go out to the virtual ballpark? In the crowded suburbs of Tokyo they turned on those super-sized Sonys - and took comfort that Japan is showing its stuff.

"Ichiro and Hideo make us very proud because they are Japanese; they look very Japanese," says Mitsuke, a systems analyst and father of two. "They aren't fancy. They look serious. They work hard. They do their job."

Yes, no doubt, baseball has been here since the turn of the century. The American Marines signed and sent a Japanese baseball found on Okinawa to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, for heaven's sake. There are major leagues, and little leagues, and women's softball. And Japan has sent some pretty fine pitchers to the US bigs.

But in Ichiro and Hideki, the Japanese now have two starters on the top two teams in the American league.

Ichiro is the second major-leaguer to ever win top rookie and most valuable player honors in the same year. Hideki, the Barry Bonds of Japan's fearsome Yomuri Giants, went to the Yanks in December - and is starting to hit with power. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners was the first major-leaguer to win top rookie and most valuable player honors in the same year.]

Every Yankees and Mariners game is televised live; usually at 8 a.m. and ll a.m. Coverage is a little selective: Each Matusei and Ichiro plate appearance is an event. Each hit, each sliding catch, gets a dozen replays, give or take.

You want wide-angle? You want slo-mo? Wait for the quarter-hour highlights. They feature Ichiro and Godzilla from the previous week, the previous night, the previous inning. When the Yanks take the field, the camera follows Hideki. Next, cut to a locker room interview - with Hideki!

Sports news leads with the stars' daily exploits; if there's a lot of heroism to recap, the actual score of the game might get crowded out of the news.

There are websites, T-shirts - a whole industry, of course. Kids go to bed wearing Ichiro Suzuki pajamas. Stony-faced corporate saririmen can't hide a blush when the boss finds a Godzilla coffee mug on the desk. Families build vacations around group tours to New York or Seattle, complete with stadium tickets and team banners.

The stars' talents are minutely studied, and gravely appreciated. Ichiro in particular is a favorite. "Look at him. He's not a big, beefy super guy. He is small. But he uses his talent and his mind," says Mitsuke.

"Ichiro's movements are beautiful, very Japanese," says Ms. Shimamura. "He is a natural athlete. He runs the bases well. He does laser-beam throws from right field. Every move seems correct. I'm not interested in his personal life. I want to know him just as a player."

The Asian occasion in baseball's majors is settling in: As Boston embarks on its annual Sisyphean struggle with New York for the AL East, Godzilla will face Kim Byung-hyun, the Korean sidearm corkscrew closer recently traded from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Korea has produced numerous pitchers, and may soon get a daily starter, Chicago's minor league first baseman-slugger phenom, Choi Hee-seop.

But that's another story.

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