As part of ESPN’s ongoing “Baseball Fix” series with Tim Kurkjian, ESPN was kind enough to put us in touch to discuss Tim’s piece on Ichiro Suzuki and his early years in the majors. The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tim Cantu: Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to do this. I grew up, and most of our readers grew up, with Ichiro and Felix as the two hugely formative Mariner experiences of our fandom. So it’s really exciting to talk to someone who’s covered him for so long. I’m really curious since your baseball fix piece talked about Ichiro and his debut and that great anecdote about hamburgers and then the chairs collapsing. I’m kind of curious, covering him for his entire American career, what did you notice as far as differences in him personally? Obviously he went from 27 to 44, but what sort of differences did you notice in Ichiro as he grew and played in major league baseball through 17 years?
Tim Kurkjian: Well, he became much more comfortable with the language. That of course is the key point from when I talked to him that day. You know, that first spring training, it’s the first time I’ve ever met him, right? He has the interpreter, and I think he really needed an interpreter. By the end, I don’t think he needed his interpreter, I think he understood the language so well, but he kept an interpreter just in case. But he was so much better and more comfortable at the end than that first spring training that I met him. Those couple stories that I told, I was really surprised at how playful he was and how comfortable he was discussing things about America, even though he just really got there, and I think that just shows how he understands people. He understands situations. And the fact that he wasn’t 19 years old coming over, he was 27. He was a very worldly man when he got here. I think that was part of it—I don’t think he was overwhelmed by anything including the language, not even as soon as he got here.
Tim Cantu: My eternal image of Ichiro, whether it was 262 hits or any other achievement or even late in his career is someone who is perpetually in control of himself and his environment. I’m curious about when he came over: He wasn’t 19 or 23 and he stepped into a Seattle clubhouse that obviously was on the verge of literally making history, winning 116 games. How was he perceived by young players, or not even young players, all players? That team had Bret Boone, Mark McLemore, a lot of really established big baseball names. How did they see Ichiro? Obviously Lou Piniella and Pat Gillick had some curiosity that he quickly dispelled—was that basically the same for players who were like “okay, this guy can play, let’s go get it.”?
Tim Kurkjian: Yeah, I mean, the Mariners, obviously you’ve never been to the World Series but they’ve had star players go through that franchise, and that’s why I think everyone there was prepared for Ichiro because they’ve had Randy Johnson, they’ve had Alex Rodriguez, they’ve had Ken Griffey Jr., so they knew what this was all about. When a star showed up they knew what a star looked like. And it was pretty obvious right away that Ichiro was going to be a star. But the story as I wrote was that Lou Piniella, the most impatient man in the world, he wasn’t so sure that Ichiro was going to be a star right away, I think Lou will acknowledge that now. He saw a lot of soft contact to the opposite field, and he wonders, “Can you hit it hard over there?” and Ichiro said I can hit it hard over there. Okay, go ahead and hit it hard over there. And I think soon after that Ichiro started to say, look, I can do whatever you want out here. This is how I get ready. How many hitters have I seen in my career, from Carlos Beltran to Freddy Freeman, they take BP a certain way. Joey Votto—they prepare a different way. It was just Ichiro’s way of getting ready, get his hands used to hit the ball over there, but when he needed to pull it, when he needed to hit it or drive it somewhere, he could certainly do that and Lou was a very relieved man when he could see that Ichiro could do some other things. And then when that season started and from the jump, it was pretty obvious this guy knows how to get ahead. He knows how to hit as well as anyone the game already and man did he show that.
Tim Cantu: That’s for sure. On routine, I remember the Mariners, in those early years, they ran a commercial that I remember seeing as a kid and it was people, ordinary people in everyday life, and they have a rake or a pen or what have you, imitating Ichiro’s famous one arm out, tug on the sleeve, and it was great. Everyone just immediately latched on to the way he did that.
Tim Kurkjian: Sorry to interrupt, but if you ever want to see the most perfect Ichiro in the batter’s box, you have to watch Aaron Boone. Aaron Boone is the master of all batting stances. Really, batting stance guy is great. He’s great. Don’t get me wrong. He’s great. But, Aaron Boone does more stances anyone I’ve ever seen. And I hate to promote anything but if you go back to Baseball Tonight when I used to host a show on Sunday. I brought Aaron Boone on once to do all of the batting stance I did probably five or six of them, Larry Bowa, Pete Rose, , and one of them of course was Ichiro, and it was perfect, just every movement was perfect. It was the facial motion, it was the facial features, it was everything.
Tim Cantu: Merging what we’ve talked about here thus far, so as you said Ichiro is very playful and very in control. However, one thing that I was struck with Ichiro, while he’s very sometimes reserved in his answers, he’s never anything but honest. If he’s saying it, it’s the truth. But there’s one line that sticks out to me always and it’s kind of a famous one: He says he can hit 40 home runs if he hit .220. Now a lot of people have asked that question, but where do you come down on this? Could Ichiro hit 40 home runs in a season if he wanted to do it and not care about anything else?
Tim Kurkjian: Oh yeah, he has great power. I’ve seen him in batting practice and I know it’s almost become a cliche, that you’d love to see Ichiro in the home run derby. He would win, everyone who’s said that is not just making it up. I’ve seen him. It was tremendous power, and yes, Wade Boggs could hit 40 home runs also. I’m not sure Tony Gwynn could because Tony just wasn’t built that way, but Ichiro, for as skinny as he was, he was a really strong man, so he and Wade Boggs, both of them could have hit 40 homers if they wanted, but they both told me at one point or another, “That’s not what I do. That’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to hit .220 and hit 40 homers. I want to hit .350 and hit eight homers. It’s better that way.”
Tim Cantu: Well, it’s gonna get him to the Hall of Fame. So who are we to question it? There’s another Mariners anecdote from a few years ago. Edgar Martinez was hitting coach—now guys on that level, even among the talent in Major League Baseball they are otherworldly. When Edgar was the Mariners hitting coach, one day he just stepped into the cage during batting practice for the team one day and everyone was just losing their minds watching him. He’s 53, 54 years old and he’s still just cranking line drives out into the gap.
Moving on, it was a bittersweet time for all of us in Seattle when Ichiro reached the end of his playing career. And obviously a very strange one being traded to the Yankees, literally, while the Yankees are in Seattle, switching dugouts from one night to the next. With all of the media circus that surrounded Ichiro from Japan, coming to Seattle, the iconic figure that he was—was he uniquely prepared to handle the New York media environment? What was that transition like for him? We get a chip on our shoulder about this, because Seattle is in something of a backwater in baseball terms as opposed to New York. What was that like?
Tim Kurkjian: Well, again, he was such a worldly person, so smart, before he got to the United States, before he got to the big leagues, that I think he was prepared for anything. It wasn’t easier for him in Seattle at the beginning of his time there, and New York I would say that would be an accurate statement, I think anyone would say that. Once he got to New York, he had close to 3000 hits, he’s been around, everybody knew who he was, and he knew everyone knew he was going to the Hall of Fame. So I think he went there confidently, thinking “I don’t have to prove to everyone what I can do, I think I’ve already done that.” Part of me just wishes he had gone there in the prime of his career. If you can imagine Ichiro hitting .350 at Yankee Stadium and stealing 50 bases and throwing from right field to third base in the air like he did so many times. That would have been breathtaking. He was not the same player when he went to New York, but he was still a good major league player, and that’s why I knew he would be able to handle that, because he could handle just about anything, you guys know that. He’s been in Cooperstown several times over the years all by himself with family not on induction weekend. He was just curious and it wasn’t like, “Hey, this is where I’m going to end up someday.” He was just fascinated by the best players in baseball history, and he made separate trips to Cooperstown on his own, just to see what it was like.
Tim Cantu: Okay, so, best contact hitters of all time. You’ve covered baseball for a long time and seen some of the absolute greats, both as a reporter and I’m sure before that just as a fan. Is there anyone who is as good as Ichiro at getting the bat to the ball?
Tim Kurkjian: Well I think Tony Gwynn was even better than that, it really is hard to argue. Tony Gwynn never struck out more than 40 times in a season. Tony Gwynn for a five year period batted .335 with two strikes on him. That’s just ridiculous. Mike Piazza in those five years, the only player to hit higher than that, using all his strikes. Good Tony Gwynn was in his prime, as great as Ichiro was. and he was great. And he’s one of the great contact hitters I’ve ever seen, but I think Tony Gwynn was even better. Wade Boggs was really good too. He’s lifetime .328, he never struck out 70 times in a season, he could really put bat to ball. And Rod Carew in his own right, was again another .328 lifetime hitter. I grew up watching him play, he had a magic wand. The way that he would just wave that bat, his wrists were like water, it was amazing to watch him. Those are the four guys that I always look at and say if I need somebody to get a hit here, maybe not the biggest hit, and driving in the run in game seven of the World Series, I might pick somebody else, but if I need a hit right now, I may go Tony Gwynn, Boggs, Carew, and Ichiro in some order.
Tim Cantu: My favorite Tony Gwynn factoid is that he faced Greg Maddux I think 107 times and never struck out, you go up against Greg Maddux and never strike out, you’re probably the best contact hitter.
Tim Kurkjian: Right. And Ichiro is in that group and that’s really saying something.
Tim Cantu: So Ichiro, now he’s retired as a player, he’s got this role in Seattle as special assistant, he’s still Ichiro so he’s still out there every day in his uniform wearing batting gloves with the team. Towards the end of his career, we had several stories about what happens to Ichiro after he plays because it was almost like you couldn’t imagine him doing anything else. Dee Gordon said I hope he keeps playing because I don’t want him to die. How is Ichiro fitting in to the Seattle front office? Are they kind of keeping him around so he can be involved in baseball? Is he taking a real mentoring role with the young guys? what’s he doing now?
Tim Kurkjian: Yeah, I think he’s enjoying the fact that he’s still in a uniform, I don’t think he’s one of these guys that needs to wear a uniform for the rest of his life. I just think he likes imparting wisdom on the young people. And I think the young people should listen to him. Just like Tony Gwynn was the most diligent rigid hitter you’ll ever see as far as “Look, I got to hit off the tee for 20 minutes, before I go do anything else.” Ichiro is the same way and everyone in Seattle knows, Ichiro hit when Ichiro wanted to hit. That is not a criticism, everyone got out of the way, because he was not only so much better at it than almost anyone who will ever play, but he just was so regimented with the bat. “This is what I do in order to remain as great as I am”, and everyone just kind of stepped aside as they should have for the most part. I think if nothing else he’s proving to people there in Seattle, the guys on the team, look if you really want to be good, you don’t have to do exactly what I do, but you have to be dedicated because if you’re not dedicated, this game is way too hard for you to figure out. As great a hitter as he was, he wasn’t as great a hitter as Edgar Martinez was just naturally. Edgar of course is a Hall of Famer and Edgar hit with tremendous power, but I think after it came a little easier to him, and Ichiro always recognized, I got to work harder if I’m going to be really good at this, and I’m not sure anybody worked harder than Ichiro.
Tim Cantu: Ichiro once said he was going to vanish once his playing career ended and as a Mariners and an Ichiro fan, I sure I’m glad he didn’t. I hope he sticks around a few more years no matter what. I think we’ll be seeing him resurface at Cooperstown—I gotta think Ichiro is going to be a first ballot guy, right?
Tim Kurkjian: There’s no doubt he’s a first ballot guy. 3000 hits gets him in pretty much no matter what, but it was so much more than that. Baserunning, stolen bases, and of course the defense, 10 Gold gloves, one of the great throwing arms we’ve ever seen. Hit machine, all time record holder with 262 hits in one season, and a charismatic guy in so many ways, wherever he went, interesting things happen. The only inside the park homer in the history of the all star game. He’s a fascinating character, and that story that I told about him hitting a bouncing ball that first year? I’m still staggered by that and that was 20 years ago. Pat Gillick’s response on the other end of the phone that day was, “Yeah I see that all the time.” He wasn’t even surprised to see that, because Ichiro actually practiced it. Now I’ve covered baseball for 41 years, I’ve never heard anyone practicing to hit a bouncing ball. I’ve seen guys do it, maybe three times in my life, but I’ve never seen anyone actually work at it, but that speaks a lot to Ichiro. And the other thing I pointed out in the story I wrote was how much of a craftsman he was and how much he values his bat. I know bats are really important—Tony Gwynn told me he went to the Louisville Slugger factory and picked out the billets of wood that he wanted to make his own bats. Typical Tony Gwynn, that’s the degree of expertise he took into the making of his own bats. Ichiro’s the same way. Nobody ever saw him throw around his bats, he always treated them with care, and as he said, a carpenter doesn’t throw around his best hammer. He’s careful with it. That’s how he felt about his magical bats.
Tim Cantu: All right, well, thank you so much for your time. Stay safe with everything going on right now, I can’t wait till we have you back covering regular season games. I sure hope it’s soon.
Tim Kurkjian: Well, me too, Tim, thanks so much.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Thanks to Tim Kurkjian and to Katie Hughes of ESPN!