TEMPE – One of my new friends in the Japanese media, Taro Abe of Tokyo Chunichi Sports, had his game face on early Sunday morning.
“Big day today,” Taro told me. “Ichiro is coming with the Mariners. Ichiro and Matsui.”
Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui are the two biggest names in the biggest sport in their homeland. It is not an exaggeration to refer to them as the Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson of Japan — or LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, to be more current.
They are as different off the field as on, Matsui down-to-earth and easy-going, Ichiro edging toward flamboyant — and less accessible. Seven or eight Japanese media members accompany Ichiro, while the Matsui following runs from 15 to 40 or so, depending on the day and the storyline.
“We’ll have a lot of Japanese media here today,” Taro said, grinning.
This is the first meeting between the new American League West rivals, Ichiro in right field and leading off, Matsui batting fourth as the Angels’ designated hitter.
The matchup lost some of its appeal when projected Seattle starter Cliff Lee was forced to withdraw with a lower abdomen strain, taking some heat off a potential confrontation in the desert sun with Jered Weaver. Another lefty, Luke French, replaces Lee.
This game doesn’t count in any significant way, shape or form, but it will be covered with passion and feeling in Japan, where every movement by Ichiro and Hideki is a photo opportunity.
Asked on a fairly daily basis when Matsui will take a glove to left field, manager Mike Scioscia offered a creative new response Sunday.
“We’re down to hours,” he said, pausing with the timing of Jack Benny for effect. “Of course, it might be 316 hours, something like that.”
Matsui batted five times in a camp game Saturday against the Giants and was 0-for-2 with three walks. He is still searching for his power stroke, hitting a lot of ground balls while going 2-for-18 in Cactus League play. The lift will come when his balance and timing are at optimum levels.
Ichiro is doing what Ichiro does, hitting .250 in nine games with four steals. The new man behind him in the Seattle lineup, former Angels leadoff catalyst Chone Figgins, is off to a sluggish start, hitting .130. Behind Figgins, No. 3 in the order Sunday, is another former Angel, first baseman Casey Kotchman.
When the opening bell rings and the games matter, Ichiro and Figgins will form one of the game’s most dynamic 1-2 tandems, bringing new flavor to a newly shaped rivalry along with the Matsui-Ichiro duel.
The Angels haven’t lost a season series to Seattle since 2003 and have won four in a row. They’ll face the Mariners 19 times this season, and each one will have a great deal of meaning in a distant land.
One thing is certain: Japan’s media won’t miss a thing. The first of those 19 meetings, on May 7 in Seattle, is circled on a lot of calendars. They won’t get together in Anaheim until May 28 for a fthree-game series. The pot should be boiling by then. – Lyle Spencer
Jered Weaver looked at me, and this is what his astonished eyes said: “You’re crazy.”
He was right, of course, but that was beside the point.
It was Saturday afternoon in the Angels’ clubhouse, and a bright, new Kobe Bryant jersey was hanging next to Weaver’s locker. My mind started racing. Weaver loves the Lakers. Like Gary Matthews Jr. and Sean Rodriguez, two other big Lakers fans, Jered actually has listened, with sincere interest, to my tales of the amazing ’80s when I was traveling with Magic, Kareem and Co., the greatest show on Planet Sports.
Strictly spur of the moment, I ran an idea past Weaver, who was pitching what would turn out to be his first career shutout, against the Padres, the next day.
“Jered,” I said, “why don’t you put the jersey on before you go to the mound on Sunday – a show of support for your other team – and have one of the clubbies come running out to take it as you pulled it off and waved it to the crowd? The Lakers are playing after your game, so it would be a nice touch.
“It would make all the highlight shows,” I added, “but more than that, it would be a show of solidarity. I think the fans would love it.”
That’s when he gave me that look that told me I was crazy.
He probably couldn’t have gotten it past manager Mike Scioscia, anyway. Mike is a serious-minded guy who fully adheres to all the principles about respecting the game, and I appreciate that.
But the game also could use some color, some characters in addition to all that character. Some honest emotion, from deepest left field if necessary, wouldn’t hurt from time to time.
I told Weaver, as he stood there in amused disbelief over my suggestion, that it was my idea to have Detroit Tigers sensation Mark Fidrych speak to baseballs and manicure pitching mounds in the mid-1970s.
It was a complete lie, and he called me on it immediately. But I did know “The Bird” and spent one memorable night out with him in Detroit after he’d shut out the Angels.
That was the same night I sat beside Fidrych in the home dugout at old Tiger Stadium and watched about 50,000 people stay in their seats for 15 minutes after the game while “Bird” did a radio interview, a headset wrapped around his curly head of wild hair.
“What’s going on here?” I asked him, pointing to all the people who’d remained in the house after the game, just sitting there.
“Watch,” he said, grinning.
When the radio interview was over, he pulled off the headset jumped up on the dugout steps and waved to the crowd, which rose and cheered for at least a full minute before finally dispersing.
It remains to this day one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever witnessed, a stunning show of unbridled love for an athlete who clearly moved to his own beat and did pretty much what he felt like at all times, without regard for how critics would react.
I long for those old days, but they’re gone, gone, gone. So is Fidrych, who died in an accident not long after Nick Adenhart, another pitcher with uncommon talent, left us in this most distressing of baseball seasons.
Bird, I’m sure, would have put on that Kobe jersey, happily, without hesitation.
In fact, it would have been his idea.
It was a less structured, less controlled, less serious world back then.
I miss it terribly.