The moment Ichiro Suzuki cracked a three-run homer into the right field bleachers at Marlins Park Wednesday night, Keizo Konishi and Nobuyuki Kobayashi began typing furiously. It was 11 a.m. back in Japan, and the two Japanese journalists, assigned to cover him fulltime, raced to post the news online.
Within an hour, Ichiro’s home run was the hottest trending story on Yahoo.com in Japan.
Everything “Ichiro’’ does is big news back home — when he gets a hit, when he doesn’t, when he drops his equipment off at Spring Training, when he chats with the manager, when he wears a funny t-shirt, when he tries a new cuisine.
Inquiring Japanese minds want to know everything about the 41-year-old Miami Marlins icon, which is why there are more Japanese reporters covering Ichiro fulltime than South Florida reporters covering the Marlins beat. It has been that way since Ichiro joined the Seattle Mariners in 2001, becoming the first Japanese position player in history.
Back then, the Japanese media corps reached a peak of 150 reporters, some of them paparazzi who attempted to delve into the outfielder’s private life. Marlins media relations director Matt Roebuck worked for the Mariners back then. He remembers the frenzy.
“It was a whole other level from what we have following Ichiro now,’’ Roebuck said. “There were 100-plus reporters at every practice, every game. None of us had ever dealt with anything like that.’’
Things have calmed down, many Japanese papers tightened their purse strings, and the full-time Japanese media contingent has dwindled to about a half-dozen. But those reporters cover Ichiro’s every move. On the last road trip to New York and Philadelphia, seven Japanese reporters traveled to cover Ichiro. Five American reporters were there for the Marlins.
When the Marlins played a pair of preseason games against minor league affiliates in Greensboro, N.C., and Jacksonville in early April, the South Florida reporters didn’t go. The Japanese reporters did.
When Ichiro showed up at Spring Training in a unique t-shirt, the Japanese reporters wrote about it. Each day for 14 days, he showed up in a different shirt, some featuring funny Japanese sayings. It created a big buzz back in Japan. On the 15th day, he wore a white shirt with nothing on the front. The reporters laughed. When he walked past, on the back of the shirt, written in Japanese, it read “This is the last one.’’
Konishi, who writes for the Kyodo News wire service, has been covering Ichiro since 1994, when he played for the Orix Blue Wave in Kobe, Japan. He has covered all but a handful of Ichiro’s 2,227 Major League games, and is a walking encyclopedia of Ichiro statistics.
Konishi and Kobayashi, who writes for the Daily Sports News, have homes and families in Seattle, but their publications are paying for them to be based out of South Florida hotel rooms — Konishi in Coconut Grove and Kobayashi in Fort Lauderdale. When the Marlins hit the road, the Japanese reporters check out of their rooms, put their luggage in hotel storage, and travel with the team.
“I am separated from my family, and that’s bad,’’ said Kobayashi, who has sons aged 10, six and three. “Once a month, I go home for three days. The elder son starts to understand, but the younger boys don’t understand where I am going. I talk to them on Skype every night.’’
Despite the difficult living arrangement, Kobayashi says he has “A dream job. To me, writing baseball and following Ichiro is the best job in the world. I’m looking at history. Ichiro’s performance makes people happy, gives them some energy, and I feel honored to write about it.’’
The Japanese reporters have discovered a few favorite Japanese restaurants in Miami, such as Matsuri on Bird Road. Konishi has also taken a liking to Latin cuisine, and become a regular at Pollo Tropical (“It’s very good, and cheap’’) and Doggi’s on Coral Way (“I am becoming very fond of Venezuelan cuisine.’’)
Ichiro is generous with all the media, and has a special arrangement with the Japanese reporters. He speaks only to Konishi and Kobayashi daily, and they share his quotes with the other Japanese reporters. When he has a big game, such as last Wednesday, all the Japanese reporters are invited to the interview.
He trusts those two reporters because of their longevity. Also, he and the Japanese reporters don’t want to cause a daily commotion in the clubhouse.
“If we have such a big press conference every day for a position player, it could be annoying to the other players,’’ Konishi said. “We are in the States, different country, and even if he has a great achievement, we have to think first of all we don’t want to offend anybody. We have to be polite.’’
Ichiro is meticulous about everything, from his equipment to his pre-game stretching rituals to his words. He leaves nothing to chance. Though he understands English and speaks it with his teammates, he chooses to do interviews through his full-time interpreter, Allen Turner, a Japanese-American former high school baseball player who has been alongside Ichiro since 2001.
Turner has a locker in the clubhouse, wears a Marlins uniform, plays catch with Ichiro during batting practice, and is in the dugout during games.
“Ichiro wants to make sure his quotes are precise and not misinterpreted,’’ Turner said. “It’s been a fascinating job. My goal as a kid was to be a Major Leaguer, so it kind of worked out.’’
Ichiro has become accustomed to the scrutiny.
“At the very beginning, there were a few paparazzi and tabloid magazines, just a small minority. But the guys here today respect the boundaries. I don’t really consider myself a big star, but sometimes my story becomes the top news in Japan, and that is a testament to how safe the country is. There is not much other news happening, so my homerun is big news.’’
Marlins manager Mike Redmond marvels at how Ichiro handles the media crush.
“It’s definitely unique, but he’s used to it,’’ Redmond said. “It’s a lot to be under the microscope all the time.’’
Ichiro said the biggest adjustment to dealing with Major League media has been the open clubhouse.
“It’s still weird every day that the media can come into the clubhouse,’’ he said. “In Japan they can’t. The clubhouse was just for the players. Here, all the media can come in and see what kind of underwear I’m wearing that day and make a story of it.’’