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Day 1: Feb. 4, 2018
“There is timing in the whole life of the warrior, in his thriving and declining, in his harmony and discord.” –Musashi Miyamoto (circa 1584-1645), samurai and artist
Ichiro Suzuki steps out of the cold into the small restaurant that serves him dinner most nights. It’s winter in Kobe, Japan, where he once played professional baseball and where he comes during the offseason to train. His wife, Yumiko, is back home in Seattle. He is here alone, free from the untidy bits of domestic life that might break his focus. Every day, he works out in a professional stadium he rents, and then he usually comes to this restaurant, which feels like a country inn transported to the city. It’s tucked away on the fifth floor of a downtown building and accessible by a tiny elevator. Someone on the staff meets Ichiro at the back door so he can slip in unseen. Someone else rushes to take his coat, and Ichiro sits at a small bar with his back to the rest of the diners. Two friends join him. Inside the warm and glowing room, the chef slips on his traditional coat as he greets Ichiro in mock surprise.
“Thanks for coming again,” says the chef, wearing Miami Marlins shorts.
“You guys made me wait outside,” Ichiro jokes.
Ichiro is a meticulous man, held in orbit by patterns and attention to detail. This place specializes in beef tongue, slicing it thin by hand and serving it raw alongside hot cast-iron skillets. They do one thing perfectly, which appeals to Ichiro. Tonight he’s got dark jeans rolled up to the calf, each leg even, and a gray T-shirt under a white button-down with a skinny tie. His hair looks darker than in some recent photos, maybe the lighting, maybe a dye job. Either way, not even a 44-year-old future Hall of Famer is immune from the insecurities and diminishments that come with time. This winter is the most insecure and diminished he’s been.
He doesn’t have a professional baseball contract in America or Japan. His agent, John Boggs, has called, texted and emailed teams so often that one MLB general manager now calls Boggs “the elephant hunter,” because he’s stalking his prey. Boggs recently sent an email to all 30 teams. Only one wrote back to decline. Ichiro hasn’t spoken to Boggs once this offseason, locked in on what he and his aging body can control.
The restaurant fills up. Customers take off their shoes. At every table, signs warn that no pictures can be taken. Ichiro waves at an older couple. A producer type brings two young women over to meet him, and Ichiro makes small talk before they bow and recede. He makes some jokes about aging and turns a wine bottle in his hand to read the label. The waiters, wearing sandals and blue bandannas, sling plates of raw tongue and mugs of cold beer with ice flecks in them. The chef installs a fresh gas can and sets down a cast-iron grill in front of Ichiro.
“This is really delicious,” Ichiro says.
He and his companions discuss the future, debating philosophies of business, a new world opening up. Later they turn nostalgic and talk about the past. He started training every day in the third grade and has never stopped. Once during his career he took a vacation, a trip to Milan that he hated. This past October, Marlins infielder Dee Gordon came to get something at the clubhouse after the season. He heard the crack of a bat in the cages and found Ichiro there, getting in his daily swings. “I really just hope he keeps playing,” Gordon says with a chuckle, “because I don’t want him to die. I believe he might die if he doesn’t keep playing. What is Ichiro gonna do if he doesn’t play baseball?”
Former teammates all have favorite Ichiro stories, about how he carries his bats in a custom humidor case to keep out moisture, how in the minors he’d swing the bat for 10 minutes every night before going to sleep, or wake up some mornings to swing alone in the dark from 1 to 4 a.m. All the stories make the same point: He has methodically stripped away everything from his life except baseball. Former first baseman Mike Sweeney, who got close to Ichiro in Seattle, tells one about getting a call from an old teammate who’d had an off-day in New York. You’re not gonna believe this, the guy began. He’d brought along his wife and they walked through Central Park, thrilled to be together in such a serene place. Far off in the distance, at a sandlot field with an old backstop that looked leftover from the 1940s, they saw a guy playing long toss. The big leaguer did the quick math and figured the distant stranger was throwing 300 feet on the fly. Curious, he walked closer. The guy hit balls into the backstop, the powerful shotgun blast of real contact familiar to any serious player. He became impressed, so he got even closer, close enough to see.
The man working out alone in Central Park was Ichiro.
His agent and those close to him think he’ll sign with a Japanese team if no offer comes from the major leagues. Television crews floated around the Ginza district in Tokyo the night before asking people what they think about Ichiro’s future. Ichiro, as usual, is saying nothing. He’s a cipher, keeping himself hidden, yet his yearning has never been more visible. His old team, the Orix Buffaloes, wants him back desperately — but Japanese spring training started three days ago and Ichiro remains in Kobe. For a private man, these three days speak loudly about his need for another season in America. Over the years, he’s talked about playing until he’s 50 but also of his desire to “vanish” once his career ends. Those two desires exist in opposition, and if America never calls, he holds the power to make either of them real. He can sign with Orix, or he can fade away. The choice is his.
These are the things working in his life at dinner, a cold Sunday night between the Rokko mountains and Osaka Bay. Ichiro finally stands to leave. Two customers step into the aisle and bow, not the perfunctory half-bow of business associates and hotel bellmen, but a full to-the-waist bow of deep respect. Is this what the end of a great career looks like up close? Ichiro hates not playing baseball, but he might hate playing poorly even more. When he’s slumping, his wife has said, she will wake up and find him crying in his sleep. The first time he went on the disabled list as a major leaguer was because of a bleeding stomach ulcer. That year, he’d led Japan to a victory in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, winning the final game with a base hit in extra innings. The stress ate a hole in his stomach. Weeks later, a Mariners team doctor told him he couldn’t play on Opening Day. Ichiro refused to listen, his teammate Sweeney says. Before the team ultimately forced him to sit, the doctor tried to explain that a bleeding ulcer was a serious condition that could actually kill him.
Ichiro listened, unmoved.
“I’ll take my chances,” he said.
Day 2: Feb. 5, 2018
The next morning at 11:46, Ichiro moves quickly through the Hotel Okura lobby. A hood covers his head. This 35-story waterfront tower is where he always stays, an understated gold and black lacquer palace that looks designed by the prop department from “You Only Live Twice.” His green Mercedes G-Class SUV is parked directly in front of the hotel and he climbs inside. The ballpark he rents, literally an entire stadium, is over the mountains, and he takes a right onto Highway 2, then an exit onto Fusehatake. He uses his blinker to change lanes.
The temperature is 38 degrees and falling.
A waterfall in front of the hotel is frozen mid-cascade.
On the drive toward the stadium, it begins to flurry.
At the field, he changes into shorts and steps out onto the field. A hard wind blows. Passing clouds drop the mercury even more. Ichiro isn’t here in spite of the brutal cold but because of it. Japanese culture in general — and Ichiro in particular — remains influenced by remnants of bushido, the code of honor and ethics governing the samurai warrior class. Suffering reveals the way to greatness. When the nation opened up to the Western world in 1868, the language didn’t even have a word to call games played for fun. Baseball got filtered through the prism of martial arts, and it remains a crucible rather than an escape. Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh wrote in his memoir: “Baseball in America is a game that is born in spring and dies in autumn. In Japan it is bound to winter as the heart is to the body.”
A group of people always works out with Ichiro. Today there are 11 of them, not one a serious athlete. One is the chef from last night. One is a white guy who runs like a wounded animal. All of them wear long pants, because only a maniac would dress for this weather in shorts. Every day, the workout is the same. They stretch and jog. Ichiro runs the bases and the rest follow him around the path. He takes 50 soft-toss swings, hitting the ball into a net, then he stretches again and steps into the batting cage.
Five people stand around the outfield with yellow crates and gloves.
Outside the stadium, two fans wait by the road with a gift of chocolate candy. They bring him this every year. A woman named Minako traveled here from Tokyo to find a crack in the bleacher walls wide enough to see through. She, too, makes this pilgrimage once a winter. As she stands on her toes and trains her binoculars on Ichiro, she wonders aloud whether this might be the end. Ichiro doesn’t believe so. Last year, he came within one hit of setting the single-season record as a pinch hitter. The year before, he hit .291 playing in 143 games. His friend and former Orix BP pitcher, Koji Okumura, says Ichiro’s swing has changed over the years. He now opens his hips and shows his chest to the pitcher earlier. “His eyesight is deteriorating,” Okumura says. “He’s trying to adjust to survive. He knows his death as a baseball player is getting closer.”
In the stadium, Ichiro cracks line drives around the field. The wind whips around the bleachers, really blowing now. The final group of pitches, 24 of them in four minutes, comes a ball every 10 seconds. The last ball he arcs high into the air and miraculously it lands in one of the yellow crates. His friends go nuts, screaming and yelling, and Ichiro raises his arms in celebration and runs around the batter’s box in a little half circle. He walks off the field and disappears into the dugout tunnel.
The temperature continues to fall.
Day 3: Feb. 6, 2018
Ichiro walks through the hotel lobby at exactly the same time as the day before, 11:46 a.m., repeating his routine to the minute. He’s a funny self-deprecating guy who often makes light of his own compulsive behaviors, which extend far beyond his baseball-related rituals. He said in a Japanese interview that he once listened to the same song for a month or more. There’s enlightenment in obsession, he says, because focus opens perception to many things. It boils life down.
“I’m not normal,” he admitted.
He gets stuck in patterns. In the minors, sometimes his 10-minute bedtime swinging ritual stretched to two hours or more. His mind wouldn’t let him stop. For years, he only ate his wife’s curry before games, day after day. According to a Japanese reporter who’s covered him for years, Ichiro now eats udon noodles or toasted bread. He likes the first slice toasted for 2 minutes, 30 seconds, and the second slice toasted for 1 minute, 30 seconds. (He calculates the leftover heat in the toaster.) For a while on the road he ate only cheese pizzas from California Pizza Kitchen. He prefers Jojoen barbecue sauce for his beef. Once Yumiko ran out and mixed the remaining amount with Sankoen brand sauce — which is basically identical — and Ichiro immediately noticed. These stories are endless and extend far beyond food. This past September, a Japanese newspaper described how he still organizes his life in five-minute blocks. Deviations can untether him. Retirement remains the biggest deviation of all. Last year, a Miami newspaperman asked what he planned on doing after baseball.
“I think I’ll just die,” Ichiro said.
Today Ichiro walks onto the field in Kobe, right on time, and everyone is waiting. It’s uncanny. They bow when he reaches the dugout. It’s a Tuesday, even colder than the day before, but the routine doesn’t change: the four jogging laps across the outfield, the baserunning, the 50 soft-toss pitches, exactly 50. Except for the cold these aren’t hard workouts, more like a ritualized ceremony among friends. He could choose the best players in Japan to help him but he doesn’t. He doesn’t need to get better at swinging a bat. What he needs, and what he seems to find in this rented stadium, is the comfort of the familiar, a place where he knows who he is supposed to be.
He is equally precise during the season, to the amusement of teammates. Dee Gordon says Ichiro even lint-rolls the floor of his locker. He cleans and polishes his glove and keeps wipes in the dugout to give his shoes a once-over before taking the field. The Yankees clubhouse manager tells a story about Ichiro’s arrival to the team in 2012. Ichiro came to him with a serious matter to discuss: Someone had been in his locker. The clubhouse guy was worried something had gone missing, like jewelry or a watch, and he rushed to check.
Ichiro pointed at his bat.
Then he pointed at a spot maybe 8 inches away.
His bat had moved.
The clubhouse manager sighed in relief and told Ichiro that he’d accidentally bumped the bat while putting a clean uniform or spikes or something back into Ichiro’s locker, which is one of the main roles of clubhouse attendants.
“That can’t happen,” Ichiro said, smiling but serious.
From that day forward, the Yankees staff didn’t replace anything in his locker like they did for every other player on the team. They waited until he arrived and handed him whatever he needed for the day.
These stories are funny individually, but they feel different when taken as a whole. Like nearly all obsessive people, Ichiro finds some sort of safety in his patterns. He goes up to the plate with a goal in mind, and if he accomplishes that goal, then he is at peace for a few innings. Since his minor league days in Japan, he has devised an achievable, specific goal every day, to get a boost of validation upon completion. That’s probably why he hates vacations. In the most public of occupations, he is clearly engaged in a private act of self-preservation. He’s winnowed his life to only the cocoon baseball provides. His days allow for little beyond his routine, like leaving his hotel room at 11:45, or walking through the lobby a minute later, or going to the stadium day after day in the offseason — perhaps his final offseason. Here in the freezing cold, with a 27-degree wind chill, the hooks ping off the flagpoles. The bat in his hand is 33.46 inches long. He steps into the cage and sees 78 pitches. He swings 75 times.
Up close, he looks a lot like a prisoner.
Day 4: Feb. 7, 2018
Ichiro hits a home run on his final swing today, always quitting on a positive result. Boggs is still weeks away from opening discussions with the Mariners, and an hour northeast of this stadium, Ichiro’s father has been following the news of his son’s free agency. Nobuyuki Suzuki orchestrated Ichiro’s brutal boyhood training regimen, and now they don’t speak.
Father and son both appear to be modern men, but their vastly different upbringings offer little common ground. They can’t see each other. Just as Nobuyuki cannot understand the pressure of being Ichiro, who once had to be smuggled out of a building wrapped in a rolled-up rug to avoid photographers, Ichiro cannot imagine the bleak early years of his dad’s life. Nobuyuki was born during the war in 1942 and grew up in a bombed-out world dominated by hunger, privation and the shame of defeat. He wears threadbare slacks and cries when he talks to a reporter about his son. This offseason, Ichiro hosted an event in his hometown. He visited only with his mother, Yoshie.
Nobuyuki is left with his memories and his museum.
Before Ichiro signed with the Mariners in 2001, the family built a home in Toyoyama for them to live in together and an adjacent two-story museum filled with artifacts, from Ichiro’s Star Wars toys to his first glove. It’s open to the public for $11 a person. In the early pictures, Ichiro is always smiling. He smiles less as the years pass. There’s a gym stocked with unused equipment, intended for Ichiro’s workouts and now used to store boxes. Sometimes at night, Nobuyuki comes alone and walks through the exhibits. He dreamed of his son living here forever, and now he’s gone. Nobuyuki found out about the Mariners signing the morning of the news conference. He insists he has no regrets and would do everything again if given a chance.
When Ichiro was 3, Nobuyuki bought him his first glove, made of shiny leather. It cost two weeks’ salary. Nobuyuki taught his son to clean and polish it carefully. It wasn’t a toy, he said. It was a tool. He taught his right-handed son to hit lefty, to gain a few extra steps out of the batter’s box. They went to a nearby park, every day the same: 50 pitches, 200 soft-toss swings and 50 fungo drills. At night, they went to a batting cage near the Nagoya airport and Ichiro would take 250 to 300 swings on a pitching machine. They did this 365 days a year. Sometimes it got so cold that young Ichiro couldn’t button his shirt, his fingers too stiff to work. In elementary school, he wrote in an essay that he played with other children only two or three days a year. Once Ichiro didn’t want to practice baseball. He wanted to run around with his friends, so he defiantly sat down in the middle of the field. A furious Nobuyuki started throwing baseballs at his son, but Ichiro’s fast reflexes allowed him to avoid them. Ones aimed directly for his face he easily caught.
Ichiro started this life in third grade and hasn’t stopped. With people he trusts, he’ll talk about how Ichiro Suzuki did not create Ichiro. In the past, he has hated Ichiro. Only rarely do his private feelings become public. When Ichiro finished his second season with the Mariners and returned home, the writer Robert Whiting was granted an interview. He was escorted to a private floor of a Tokyo hotel overlooking the flashing neon Blade Runner world below. Whiting is a best-selling author and Japanese baseball expert and among the world’s most sophisticated translators of the two cultures. He asked Ichiro about a passage in his father’s book describing their training sessions as fun for both father and son. For the first and only time in the interview, Ichiro switched to English.
“He’s a liar,” he said.
Everyone laughed but Whiting didn’t think he was joking at all. The next day, Ichiro’s manager successfully petitioned Whiting not to run that quote because of the importance of filial reverence in Japan. Whiting left in what Ichiro said next in Japanese. Ichiro said his dad’s behavior “bordered on child abuse.”
There are other issues widening the gap between Nobuyuki and Ichiro. Rumors occasionally find their way into Japanese papers about problems between Nobuyuki and Yumiko. Nobuyuki once ran all of Ichiro’s business concerns but got in trouble in Japan over an enormous unpaid tax bill, which caused Ichiro great embarrassment and cost him perhaps as much as $168,000. That seems to have cemented the split: Yumiko now oversees Ichiro’s finances. There’s a hometown sushi restaurant where Nobuyuki and Ichiro once ate together. The owner feels sad because they come separately now. Nobuyuki has become a teacher without a student, except for the old artifacts he keeps behind glass.
Ichiro appears to be searching for people and stories to fill the place once occupied by his father. He loves old baseball players and their histories. He formed a relationship with former Negro Leagues star Buck O’Neil, and when the Mariners played the Royals in Kansas City, Ichiro took himself to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He didn’t tell anyone, and they wouldn’t have known except for someone in the business office noticing his name on a credit card receipt. When Buck died, Ichiro sent flowers to the funeral and wrote a personal check to the museum in his memory. He’s visited the graves of old players whose records he’s broken, George Sisler in suburban St. Louis and Wee Willie Keeler in Queens, and in Japan he visits the grave of the scout who discovered him. He remains connected to his own history. The alternate address on the filing forms of his personal holding company is the old Orix dorm, which has since been torn down. He’s visited the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown more than any other current major league player, sneaking in and out under the radar. (He’s promised all his collection to Cooperstown and not his father’s museum.) The tiny village with its glowing lights and happy baseball spirit captivates him nearly as much as the museum. Ichiro likes to hold the gloves and bats of other great players and commune with them. “It’s not looking at Lou Gehrig’s glove,” says Hall president Jeff Idelson. “It’s wondering what he might have been thinking when wearing that glove.”
Nobuyuki sits in his museum today and wonders how Ichiro might be feeling. He’s been having recurring dreams recently about his son. In them, Ichiro is in elementary school and none of the reckoning has begun. They are close still in these dreams.
Nobuyuki cries again.
Ichiro has broken away from his father — the man who invented Ichiro, the wellspring of all that’s good and bad in his life — but he cannot break away from the man his father created. He cannot escape the patterns burned into him as a boy. His American teammates all talk about how he still polishes his gloves and spikes, as he was taught. He works out every day without break, forsaking even a family, wearing shorts in the freezing Kobe winter. He’s made a $160 million fortune and can’t enjoy it. He’s earned his rest but can’t take it. He’s won his freedom but doesn’t want it. The kid in the essay who wrote of a life away from baseball no longer exists.
Ichiro now does to himself all the things he resents his father for having made him do.
Day 5: Feb. 8, 2018
Today at the Hotel Okura, 11:46 a.m. comes and goes and he doesn’t pass through the lobby. His Mercedes out front doesn’t move. Over the mountain at the baseball stadium, he and his friends don’t take the field, and he doesn’t hit 50 soft-toss pitches or swing until he’s happy. Heavy rains are coming soon. Maybe snow if the temperature stays low. A thick soupy fog covers the city when weather rolls in and it’s impossible to see, a gray blanket stretched between the peak of Mount Rokko and the cargo ships floating in Osaka Bay. The cherry blossoms are at least six weeks away. Winter maintains its grip on the islands. In the hotel lobby, an enormous painting of a forest by artist Ikuo Hirayama matches the ethereal, melancholy vibe. It’s Japanese baseball weather.
His American agent is still a month away from any hint of interest from the Mariners.
His Japanese manager isn’t returning phone calls.
Yumiko says the timing is bad for her to talk.
Few people can ghost like Ichiro. There are no sightings of him on social media, or mention of his whereabouts in the Japanese or American press. He’s not at Japanese spring training in the southern prefecture of Miyazaki or at American spring training in Florida or Arizona. He could be in Tokyo, fulfilling some of his many promotional responsibilities. The bravest thing he could do is make good on his desire to disappear. Maybe, just maybe, he found the will to put down his bat and won’t emerge for five years, wandering the earth until Cooperstown calls.
Of course, that’s not what he’s doing. He’s somewhere out there — hungry for a chance to keep his routines in motion. It’s a circle Ikuo Hirayama would find typically Japanese. Ichiro’s American journey will continue where it began: Seattle. He needs five more winters until he reaches 50. There are goals to reach. There are patterns he can’t abandon, scars he won’t let heal, and the people who run the batting cage by the Nagoya airport know about them both. They’ve seen the boy whose father dreamed of something and the man who lives with the reality of those dreams. The cage is open today, 11 to 11, and there’s a photo of him hanging near Lane No. 8, where his father sharpened Ichiro Suzuki into Ichiro. The old man working the counter in the small office says that Ichiro has come back to the cages to hit perhaps five times in the past two decades. The last time was five or six years ago.
Each visit has played out the same. Around 10:15 or 10:20 at night, the staff says, a luxury car turns into the small parking lot lined with Japanese pine trees. If the cages are empty, Ichiro gets out and carries his black bat to Lane 8. He pays his bill like everyone else, $2 for every 22 balls. The staff members don’t bother him, but they do watch, understanding that they’re seeing something intimate. The old man behind the counter thinks Ichiro is looking for something, coming back to the place where he split in two. He swings for about 20 minutes, and only he knows what is on his mind during this trip through his past. Soon the communion is over. He pulls out of the parking lot, carrying his private burdens into the night.
A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi; he currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Previously, he worked at The Kansas City Star and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In 2001, he graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.