He does, however, have strong feelings about his name. As was stated in a Mariners press release issued before their May 17 game against the Chicago White Sox, "It is Ichiro's preference to be identified by his first name only. He is the only current Major League Baseball player to have his first name on his jersey." Yes, there's a presence to the man, and not only because he's 27 years old, with seven straight Japanese League batting titles and seven consecutive Gold Gloves to his credit.
Ever since Seattle paid the Orix Blue Wave of the Japanese Pacific League $13 million last November for the right to negotiate with its best player and then signed him to a three-year, $14 million deal, Ichiro has exuded an aura of professionalism mixed with a boy's giddy excitement over discovering a new playground. "He's a rookie, but only by the standards of the league's rules," says Mariners catcher Dan Wilson. "Nobody here is treating him like a kid coming up. Really, how can we?"
Instead, Wilson and his teammates have marveled at Ichiro's one-of-a-kind approach. Between pitches in rightfield, Ichiro puts on a calisthenics clinic. If he's not rolling his shoulders, he's stretching his quads. If he's not stretching his quads, he's bending at the waist and touching his toes. When he sits at his locker, Ichiro methodically rubs a six-inch wooden stick up and down the sides and the bottoms of his feet. "It's for pressure points," he says through an interpreter. "If your feet are healthy, you're healthy." In an effort to keep his vision sharp, Ichiro rarely watches television for extended periods without wearing sunglasses. Before every game a Mariners trainer gives him a massage.
After he steps in the batter's box at the start of every at bat, the lefthanded-hitting Ichiro crouches into a catcher's tuck, loosening his hamstrings. Then he pops up, plants his left foot, drags it parallel to the plate and plants it again. With his right foot resting outside the box, Ichiro wags his black Mizuno bat back and forth below his belt like a putter. He proceeds to whip it around in a counterclockwise loop, stopping as soon as his hands reach his chest. Then Ichiro uses his right hand to hold the bat parallel to his upper body. When he brings his right foot into the box, Ichiro—knees bent, left elbow cocked high—is ready for the pitch. This routine is repeated before every pitch. "Some people may think it's strange," says Ichiro, "but if something works, there's no need to change it." It works. Thanks in no small part to Ichiro and despite not having a top slugger in their lineup, the Mariners through Sunday had scored 243 runs, second in the league to the 256 scored by the power-laden Cleveland Indians.
In spring training various scouts, coaches, managers and players took one look at Ichiro's 5'9", 160-pound frame and his open stance, and thought the same thing: inside heat. But Ichiro, a quick-wristed, fast-out-of-the-box slap hitter with excellent bat control, will not be bullied. In the second inning of the Mariners' 6-2 victory on Sunday, Yankees ace righthander Roger Clemens threw a wicked 93-mph splitter that broke near Ichiro's knees. No matter. Ichiro grazed the ball with the tip of his bat, sending it rolling down the third base line for a double. (Typical of the way he has helped manufacture runs since Opening Day, when he keyed a game-winning rally with a bunt single, Ichiro took third on a wild pitch and then scored on second baseman Alfonso Soriano's throwing error.)
"It's almost as if he has a tennis racket in his hands," says John Moses, Seattle's first base coach. "I'm gonna lob this one—and it's a blooper over the shortstop's head. I'm gonna ace this one—and it's a liner down the rightfield line. He's toying with guys, and there's nothing they can do about it."
After Ichiro puts the ball in play, fielders have to deal with his speed down the line. The Mariners have timed him to first at a Mickey Mantle-like 3.7 seconds. In the bottom of the ninth during New York's 14-10 win last Friday, Ichiro startled several Yankees when he hit an innocent one-hopper back to Rivera and—whoosh!—missed beating the throw by only half a step. "He caught Mo 100 percent by surprise," said Yankees lefthander Ted Lilly. "He tore off for the base like a rocket."
When they are not calling him Wizard (a tribute to his magical offensive abilities), the Mariners gleefully refer to Ichiro as Ichiballs (pronounced itch-ee-balls). He has learned a variety of English curse words, plus some of America's most useless phrases. Rookie reliever Ryan Franklin taught Ichiro to say "chillin' like Bob Dylan."
"Then," says Franklin, "I had to teach him who Bob Dylan is."
Ichiro is also quick to utter such dandies as "chillin' like a villain," "whassup?" "thanks, dogg" and "no pain, no gain." When a reporter noted Ichiro's smooth feet, Ichiro nodded, smiled and said, "They sexy." He has picked up bits and pieces of English by listening to conversations, as well as television, movies and hip-hop. "I very much like hip-hop," he says in English, pronouncing hip as heep.