Every so often, an athlete comes along who simply mesmerizes fans. Ichiro Suzuki is one of those athletes for me.
From the moment he took his longstanding legend in Japan to the Seattle Mariners, he hooked me in. Maybe it was his cannon arm from right — so surprising from such a diminutive baseball player. Perhaps it was the way he’d take a step toward first mid-swing and still slap the ball for a hit. Then again, it could have simply been that he was everything he was purported to be — a speed demon on the base paths and in the outfield, a remarkable fielder with a rocket arm, and one of the best pure hitters on the planet.
His game certainly drew me in first and foremost, and as an Ichiro fan from the moment he took the diamond in the Pacific Northwest to even now in his twilight as a member of the New York Yankees, my fascination has only grown.
Beyond his exploits on the field — exploits that make everyone wonder whether or not he could have broken Pete Rose’s all-time hits record had he spent his entire professional career in Major League Baseball — he’s been perhaps the game’s most mysterious and subtly hilarious player. I mean, just take a look at some classic, ridiculous and downright funny Ichiro quotes.
A personal favorite of mine:
“I’m told I either look bigger than I do on television or that I look smaller than I look on television. No one seems to think I look the same size.” Source: Tacoma News Tribune (May 23, 2001)
And as it turns out, Ichiro is even more fascinating than I thought. Not only does he answer questions in a way only he can — and through a translator most of the time — but he has become an unofficial favorite among his Spanish-speaking colleagues in the MLB. Why? Because he’s spent the past 14 years picking up the language and engaging both Spanish-speaking teammates and opponents alike with some hilarious quips, as outlined in this Wall Street Journal piece by Brad Lefton:
Veteran first baseman Carlos Pena remembered one of his frequent encounters with Ichiro. He was defending first for the Tampa Bay Rays, and Ichiro had just arrived on one of his patented infield hits. Ichiro peered over at Pena and asked, “Que coño tu mira?,” or, “What the hell are you looking at?” Pena clamped his lips together to prevent the laughter from bursting through.
“I feel a bond with them,” he said. “We’re all foreigners in a strange land. We’ve come over here and had to cope with some of the same trials and tribulations. When I throw a little Spanish out at them, they really seem to appreciate it and it seems to strengthen that bond. And besides, we don’t really have curse words in Japanese, so I like the fact that the Western languages allow me to say things that I otherwise can’t.”
The best part? He did it all simply by listening to and emulating Spanish phrases he’s heard.
Raul Ibanez, a former teammate with the Mariners, said he never saw Ichiro with a textbook or a study aide. Instead, he said, Ichiro was a sponge for Spanish phrases, and attentive to detail in the much same way he is when preparing for games.
It’s why, as Lefton mentions, Ichiro is revered by his Spanish-speaking colleagues — so much so that he was asked to join a photo with seven Venezuelan players at the 2004 All-Star Game.
He may play coy with the American media and speak through a translator to better get his thoughts and feelings across most of the time, but this story just adds to the allure of Ichiro.
And just like he was when he first came to the United States as a finished product and immediate star, Ichiro Suzuki is one of the most fascinating athletes on the planet.