Exploring the lighter side of Ichiro

Big Papi, others explain Japanese star's quirky humor

March 18th, 2019

No one knows what’s next for Ichiro Suzuki following the Mariners’ two-game series with the A’s in Japan this week. And if Ichiro knows, he’s not telling anyone -- at least not publicly.

Maybe he’s retiring after this week. Or maybe after this season. Or maybe next year. What we do know is eventually, someday, he’s going to have his day in Cooperstown, and it’ll be a global event, celebrating a phenomenal baseball talent who captured the imagination of fans on at least two continents.

Former teammates and contemporaries will laud his skills, his professionalism, his talent. What they may exclude, however, is insight to the other side of Ichiro, one the outfielder did embrace -- but in a more private setting.

Ichiro is funny. Hilarious, really. He can zing you with a one-liner and hurl an insult for a laugh. He also knows how to poke fun at himself, and he invites others to laugh with him.

"That's probably my normal personality," Ichiro said, during an interview with MLB.com, with the assistance of an interpreter, in 2018.

Retired Red Sox icon David Ortiz, one of many who had a front-row view of this side of Ichiro, enthusiastically concurred.

"I love that dude, man," Ortiz said, breaking out in his signature toothy grin.

For two players who never were teammates, Ortiz and Ichiro are tightly linked. As perennial All-Stars, they shared six American League clubhouses through the years -- 2004, '05, '06, '07, '08 and '10.

Ichiro and Ortiz quickly bonded, thanks in part to a shared trait: good-natured, impish personalities that made them want to do things to crack up their teammates.

Some of these antics can't be repeated in full, but here's what we do know: If their intention was to loosen up the room, it worked.

Ichiro's All-Star speeches were legendary, and intended for mature audiences only.

This got started in the earlier years of Ichiro and Ortiz as All-Star teammates. It's customary for managers to give a little "go get 'em" pregame speech just before the players head out to the field, and one year, after the AL manager was finished, Ortiz stood up and gestured toward Ichiro.

"I'd say, 'Hey guys, don't go anywhere,'" Ortiz recalled. "'Ichiro has something to say.' I pretty much put him on the spot."

Ichiro would get up in front of the players and say a few words, most of which he picked up in baseball circles as he was learning English.

Those words, not repeatable, sent the room into hysterics.

"It was funny because it was coming from a Japanese guy ... if it came from somebody that's lived here a long time, then it's probably not as funny," Ichiro said, chuckling at the memory. "It's things you can't write. So it was funny coming from me. It was funny that way, but it's something that shouldn't be written."

Eh, let's take a stab at it. Is there anything we can repeat?

"Basically," Ortiz said with a wink, "His speeches were, 'Let's go and whoop them.'"

Ichiro wasn't always that outwardly bold. As an 18- and 19-year-old honing his skills with the Orix BlueWave of Nippon Professional Baseball in the early 1990s, he was more reserved, especially around his older teammates.

It probably helped that, back then, he was only under-the-radar famous and not yet one of the most celebrated athletes in Japan's history. His pre-fame days allowed him a little more freedom when he stepped outside.

"The first year that I played with him, he rode his bike to the games," recalled Kelvin Torve, who had brief stints with the Mets and Twins before ending his playing career in Japan. "I don't think he was old enough to drive, and if he was, I don't think he owned a car. So he would ride his bike."

Torve's final two years as pro ballplayer overlapped with Ichiro's first two. At that time, most of the attention was on Hideki Matsui -- the big, strong outfielder who bore the nickname Godzilla and went on to sign with the Yankees.

The 5-foot-11 Ichiro, a slightly built contact hitter with sprinter speed, wasn't quite the same draw. Yet.

"Even when he was 18, he could do everything except throw," Torve said. "As he got older and matured and got stronger, he started throwing like a Major Leaguer. He could do it all, even at age 18. I saw a big leaguer there, but I did not see the unbelievable talent that he demonstrated in the United States."

As Ichiro got older, he got bolder. A rising star in his early 20s, he branched out a little bit and took some risks -- fashion risks.

"I was kind of influenced by the hip-hop culture," Ichiro recalled. "I went to the [Japanese League] All-Star Game [in 1994] in shorts -- baggy shorts -- and an Oakland Athletics jersey. I walked in and one of the older players actually got mad at me and said, 'You can't dress like that.' Some didn’t mind it, though."

It didn't end there. Underneath the A's jersey, Ichiro wore a T-shirt with an English phrase that would, ahem, never get past the censors in the United States.

But if you don't know what the T-shirt says, does it matter?

A TV station in Japan asked to interview Ichiro, and he tried -- half-heartedly, he admitted -- to warn them.

"It was a live interview," Ichiro said, chuckling at the memory. "I said, 'Well, I have this shirt on.' They said, 'That's OK.' So, in 1994, I did a live interview at the studio in a T-shirt that said, [expletive]. It was all over Japan. It was a national television channel."

To many, Ichiro is a still a mysterious figure. Mariners pitcher Yusei Kikuchi said as much several months ago at his introductory press conference, telling a roomful of reporters, "Mr. Ichiro is a person in the sky, a legend. I don't know if he really exists."

The two have since met, and they're both with the Mariners in Japan. Kikuchi's original statement, though an obvious exaggeration, did carry a tinge of truth -- Ichiro has an aura that makes him just a little different from the other star athletes from Japan.

But to those who know him well, he's unaffected and genuine. Perhaps no one understands this more than Ichiro’s teammate both in Japan and the United States, retired pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who played with Ichiro with the BlueWave in the early 1990s and again with the Mariners from 2002-05.

Hasegawa remembered a quiet Ichiro in the early years who, when he did open up, kept most the conversations centered around baseball. But as the years progressed, Ichiro branched out and started limiting his baseball conversations to when he was actually at the field.


"The only time we'd talk about baseball is when he reminded me he could throw harder than me," Hasegawa said. "Every time I'd get a strikeout with a fastball, he'd call and say, 'I could throw faster than that.'

Hasegawa once struck out Alex Rodriguez on a fastball, and heard from his pal minutes later.

“Ichiro would come up to me and say, 'You know, poor A-Rod. You got him out with a 90 mph fastball. I could get him out on 95.'"

Someday, when Ichiro is inducted into the Hall of Fame he’ll presumably give a speech that’s more in line with the more formal Japanese star the public grew to know over his incomparable Major League career.

His contemporaries, though, may view it with a wider-ranging lens, remembering that other side of Ichiro that made him not only respected, but also relatable.

"He didn't say much, but if you get him going ..." Ortiz said, cutting himself off as he started laughing again. "Those were some fun times. I love Ichiro, man."