NEW YORK – Piece by piece, the legend started to reveal itself.
“How do you know about that?” Michael Young asked.
A whisper here. A story there. Something about the greatest pregame speech since Rockne invoked the Gipper, one laced with profanity and delivered to the American League All-Stars every year.
“It’s why we win,” David Ortiz said.
He pointed to Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners’ wisp of an outfielder, a man who still uses a translator to do interviews with English-speaking reporters – and happens to be baseball’s amalgam of Anthony Robbins and George Carlin. Every year, after the AL manager addresses his team, Ichiro bursts from his locker, a bundle of kinetic energy, and proceeds, in English, to disparage the National League with an H-bomb of F-bombs, stunning first-timers who had no idea Ichiro speaks the queen’s language fluently and making returnees happy that they had played well enough to see the pep talk again.
The tradition began in 2001, Ichiro’s first All-Star appearance, and the AL hasn’t lost a game since. Coincidence?
“I know how important it is to the game,” Ichiro said. “I’m more concentrated at that moment than I am in the game.”
A wide grin spread across his face. Ichiro’s secret had been exposed, so, hey, why not have fun with it?
He crafts his public portrayal similar to the image he projects on the field: a technician, a warrior, a Ph.D. in stoicism. In reality, Ichiro’s All-Star teammates love him for his wicked sense of humor and sly deceit, shown with a vocabulary far more expansive than he leads on.
All the first baseman around the AL know Ichiro speaks English, singles accounting for 1,393 of his 1,711 hits since joining Seattle in 2001. Generally, the conversation doesn’t move much past pleasantries, which makes the speech all the more shocking.
“That’s kind of what gets you, too,” Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau said. “Hearing him say what he says. At first, I talked to him a little bit. But I didn’t know he knew some of the words he knows.”
The exact words are not available. Players are too busy laughing to remember them. Ichiro wouldn’t dare repeat them in public. So here’s the best facsimile possible.
“Bleep … bleep bleep bleep … National League … bleep … bleep … bleeeeeeeeep … National – bleep bleep bleepbleepbleep!”
“If you’ve never seen it, it’s definitely something pretty funny,” Morneau said. “It’s hard to explain, the effect it has on everyone. It’s such a tense environment. Everyone’s a little nervous for the game, and then he comes out. He doesn’t say a whole lot the whole time he’s in there, and all of a sudden, the manager gets done with his speech, and he pops off.”
And onto the field they go, enemies during the regular season, friends because together they just saw a 5-foot-9, 160-pound man from Japan, a national icon who surely could win office there, create beef where there wasn’t any.
Certainly it ranks high on his list of accomplishments. Two-time AL batting champion. Rookie of the Year. MVP. Unparalleled instigator.
“The cool thing,” Young said, “is that for two days, at least, we call a truce and become a bit of a team.”
It is somewhat bittersweet, then, to change sides and end up playing for the hated National League, as many have done over Ichiro’s eight seasons. These players know the Ichiro effect, relish it, perhaps even need it to win.
And so Miguel Tejada, the longtime Oakland and Baltimore shortstop who made the NL team this season with Houston, wonders whether the speech isn’t so much an Ichiro thing as it is a cultural blessing.
“I hope Fukudome does it this year,” Tejada said.
Kosuke Fukudome, the Cubs outfielder, will start in center field for the NL team. He is not fashion conscious, does not have a sycophantic following and does not start trends. He is, aside from sharing a left-handed swing and exemplary bat control, the anti-Ichiro.
“I have no plans for that,” Fukudome said.
Which leaves the NL hoping for some kind of a miracle. Ichiro was asked how much he believes the speech has contributed to the AL dominance that has stretched more than a decade now.
“I’ve got to say over 90 percent,” he said.
Well, maybe last year. Ichiro went 3 for 3, hit the All-Star Game’s first inside-the-park home run and won MVP honors in the AL’s 5-4 victory. And, remember, he concentrates more on the speech.
At the All-Star interview session Monday, Ichiro readied himself for Tuesday’s performance with his vocal cords – albeit with some trepidation.
“If I don’t say it this year, I want to see if we win or not,” Ichiro said. “Personally, I want to see what happens. But I think Ortiz is going to make something happen.”
Oh, Big Papi knows better than to let an All-Star Game go by without Ichiro’s speech. The winner gets home-field advantage in the World Series, and his Red Sox may need it. And the All-Star Game just wouldn’t feel right without a waif Japanese warrior telling the National League to …