Like Ichiro, daily beat demands dedication to craft
By Evan Webeck
PHILADELPHIA -- The horde of Japanese and American media had just finished a pregame session with manager Don Mattingly inside the Marlins' dugout at Citizens Bank Park. Hiroki Toda, one of the 10-15 members of the Japanese press watching Ichiro Suzuki's every move as he approached his 3,000th hit in the Major Leagues, leaned against the dugout railing and was asked who among them knew Ichiro the best.
His answer was almost second nature: "Keizo" -- Keizo Konishi -- who hasn't had a day off in four years. He has followed Ichiro from Kobe, Japan, to Seattle, New York and Miami. From 1994-96, Konishi covered the Orix Blue Wave, Suzuki's Nippon Professional Baseball team in Japan. He then transitioned to a general baseball reporter, even covering Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's home run race in 1998.
In 2001, Konishi became one of more than 100 Japanese reporters on the inaugural Ichiro beat in the United States. The total has since dwindled to about one-tenth of that, but the duties remain the same. Konishi is not reporting on the Marlins, Mariners or Yankees. There is a singularity to his coverage, but it is wide-ranging. To cover Ichiro, one must appeal not only to the baseball fan but also the fashion connoisseur and pop-culture enthusiast. At least a sliver of Ichiro piques the interest of nearly everyone in Japan.
To understand the Ichiro beat, you must first understand Ichiro, as well as his standing within Japanese culture. "A mere baseball star when he played there, Ichiro is now an omnipresent cultural icon," S.L. Price wrote in his 2002 Sports Illustrated profile. Added Brad Lefton, the lone American on the Ichiro beat: "The real challenge in this is when we try to understand his stature through our own culture, and we can't. You're already off in the wrong direction when you try to do that."
There is no Ichiro in American sports. The diverse landscape doesn't allow for it. Some will offer comparisons to Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, even Elvis Presley. Each merited and received his own gaggle of press, but none was the unofficial ambassador for his country on the world stage.
Ichiro achieved the highest level of success in Japan, topping NPB in hitting seven times, three times leading to an MVP Award and twice to Pacific League pennants. Then, in 2001, he joined Honda, Sony, Toyota and Nintendo as the island nation's most prominent cultural symbols to reach the U.S.
"When Ichiro came to America, what Japanese words or proper nouns did you know?" Lefton asks. Ichiro became a brand. He became synonymous with Japan. He became, as Price wrote, omnipresent.
Toda, Konishi, Koji Sasada -- the swath of reporters eyeing Ichiro's locker in the Marlins' clubhouse -- all at one time or another uprooted their lives in Japan and traveled across the Pacific to join the Ichiro beat. Not Lefton, though. ("I may be the only person who's ever only lived in St. Louis and Japan," he says.) Toda is still based in Japan but travels to the U.S. to cover Ichiro, Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka and other Japanese players, mostly pitchers. Konishi still owns a condo, where his family lives, in Bellevue, Wash., just east of Seattle. Sasada originally came to the States to cover NPB's first player to come to America, Hideo Nomo, and he still lives in Los Angeles.
But no amount of homesickness or hardship gives them pause. The Ichiro beat is among the most coveted. It is what Konishi dreamt of nearly three decades ago when teaching himself English by reading books like David Halberstam's "Summer of '49" and, more recently, Buzz Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights."
Now, Konishi is one of the most fluent English speakers of the bunch and also heads the Ichiro coverage. It's like nothing else in the U.S. Konishi is one of two men who act as pool reporters for the remaining crew of Japanese media. He is the point man responsible for asking the world's hit king pertinent questions and relaying the answers. The system started as a method to temper the zoo-like coverage in 2001. Things hit a boiling point when Japanese photographers followed Ichiro to his Medina, Wash., home. From then on, Ichiro and Konishi's mutual respect only fueled their relationship.
"He's a private guy," says John McLaren, who was among the key figures in the Mariners' acquisition of Suzuki and coached him for three seasons. "I don't think his favorite part of the day is meeting with the media."
McLaren, spitballing with the former superstar, speculated about a managing career in Ichiro's future. "No -- have to talk to media too much. No way," Ichiro responded, according to McLaren.
Ichiro's interactions with Konishi, though, span the calendar year. After a break at season's end spanning a couple of weeks, both head back to Japan, Ichiro to begin offseason workouts and Konishi to cover them. Even after -- especially after -- two decades, Konishi is still fascinated by the work ethic and methods by which Ichiro hones his hand-eye coordination.
Sometimes they'll grab dinner. One of Ichiro's hobbies is his cars. He currently drives a white 2015 Porsche Macan.
"I don't even know what he's talking about," Konishi says of their conversations.
Cars offer Konishi nothing more than a way to get from point A to point B. But he listens intently to Ichiro discuss them nonetheless. During the season, Ichiro relies on the Japanese press to stay informed on his former league and the its best new players. Living in the U.S., Konishi admits he's not the best source but tries to help anyway.
It's unlikely that anyone among those players and those who come after them will rise to Ichiro's stature. He will always be the first. The first Japanese position player in the Major Leagues. The first Japanese MVP. The first Japanese player to 3,000 hits. The first to prove a 5-foot-11, 175-pound man from Japan could hit an American fastball.
No player will prepare so intricately, offer as many angles to cover or appeal to such an audience. Says Konishi: "He requires me to be ready. It's really not easy. After the game, when we ask questions about the game or what he did in the game, it's very serious."
Evan Webeck is a reporter for MLB.com based in Philadelphia. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.