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|| News Item: Posted 2001-06-29

All Ichiro, All the Time
By Rod Mar, The Seattle Times

Photo by Rod Mar/Seattle Times

Photo by Rod Mar/Seattle Times
Pssst. Wanna make a cool $2 million?

For one photo?

Just make a frame of Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners new star right fielder, and a certain publication in his homeland of Japan will pony up the bucks (that's $2 million dollars, not yen, by the way).

Oh yeah, and he has to be nude (we didn't say it would be easy).

That's just how crazy they are in Japan about Ichiro (one name, please, as in Tiger, or MJ, or Madonna), that country's latest and greatest import to America.

A seven-time Pacific League batting champ who averaged .370 in Japan, Ichiro has erased any doubts that he couldn't hit major league pitching. He's currently batting .352 and leading the American League, has sparked the Mariners to the best record in baseball and is the leading vote-getter for this year's MLB All-Star Game.

So what does all that talent get you if you're from celebrity-hungry Japan?

Media. Scores of media. This season, the Mariners credentialed over 160 members of the Japanese media during spring training. And over 30 are covering him now on a daily basis, over a dozen of them still photographers, with others dropping in for big weekend series' and day games.

Note that I didn't say "covering Ichiro AND THE MARINERS on a regular basis".

They are covering their national hero, plain and simple. In fact, Seattle manager Lou Piniella has been exasperated on morethan one occasion after a loss when the first question from the Japanese media is somewhat along the lines of, "well, yes, you lost, but what can you say about Ichiro going 4-for-5?"

For a working photographer here in Seattle who is used to seeing the same five or six photographers at the ballpark each night, this season has been an all-new adventure.

Having the Japanese photographers crowding the photo wells has been at the same time cool, educational, and maddening.

Cool, because, well, these guys are for the most part cool. They like baseball, are fairly friendly (there is a language barrier), and do their jobs professionally. Also, being from Japan, they have the coolest gear. They have the smallest laptops, the smallest phones (which they transmit from), and the coolest bags (Hanashiro, eat your heart out).

Educational, because lately I've been teaching some of them swear words in English, and they teach me how to curse in Japanese.

Maddening because for the most part they're just covering one guy.

Photo by Rod Mar/Seattle Times

Photo by Rod Mar/Seattle Times
Translated: when Ichiro is at the plate, there are 20 or so long lenses focused on the batter's box. However, if he should happen to make an out, when on-deck batter Mark McLemore steps to the plate, 15 of those photographers aren't paying attention anymore.

Which wouldn't be so much of a problem except that so far, the shooting spots are not reserved, creating a "first-come, first-served" situation. Now I'm all for coming early and staying late, but the shooting spot game at Safeco Field is getting out-of-hand ! The Japanese shooters have the luxury of showing up in the neighborhood of FOUR HOURS early to get front row spots, leaving the wires and other locals (who might have to shoot something else that day) to shoot from the back row with a view partially obstructed by safety railings.

Let me tell you, it can be more than a little frustrating to shoot from the back row while the guys in front are shooting one of every 18 batters who comes to the plate, killing time in-between with their lenses down.

Even Sports Illustrated photographers, in town to do a cover story on Ichiro, had to ask the Mariner's p.r. staff for help in securing shooting positions.

Photo by Rod Mar/Seattle Times

Photo by Rod Mar/Seattle Times
Which recalls a funny story: Robert Beck, a SI staffer (and Sports Shooter contributor and all-around good guy) has a monopod wrap he got while in Japan. He loves this wrap, but can't find one in the states. At Safeco Field one weekend, he doesn't happen to have his with him, but sees a Japanese photographer with one on his monopod.

Politely, Beck goes over and says, "hey, I like that monopod wrap, and I'd love to get one - can you tell me where I can find them?"

The Japanese photographer gives him a questioning look, finally understands what it is the Beck is asking for, and then shakes his head.

"Oh, no. For PROFESSIONALS ONLY", he says with a smile.

Beck is stunned into rare silence.

The next day, Beck returns to the park, only this time he's brought his wrap. He searches out the Japanese photographer in question, points at the guy's monopod, and then points to his own, now with the very same wrap. Beck is grinning evilly.

Photo by John Froschauer

Photo by John Froschauer
It's the Japanese guy's turn to be stunned. "Wherewhere you get that?" he stammers.

"At some camera store in downtown Seattle", says Beck, returning to his work, leaving the other shooter agape.

If you're a Japanese photographer, besides dealing with "amateur hacks" like Robert Beck, is this a dream job? Or nightmare?

For them, it's a little of both. They've all been hand-picked for this prize assignment, with the ups (seeing America, shooting baseball nearly every night), and downs (living away from friends and family for over six months, in a country where you don't speak the language and aren't used to the food). They live in hotels both "at home" - Seattle, and "on-the-road".

Toshihiro Maeda, who shoots for Tokyo Sports Press, says that while he is "not a big fan of America", covering Ichiro "is an important job" and that is why he relishes it.

Is it less pressure or more pressure to cover one player? After all, you don't have to worry about anything else but Ichiro. However, what he makes a leaping catch at the wall and you happen to get blocked by the base umpire? What does your boss back in Japan say when every one of your competitors has the shot and you don't?

Says Maeda, "There is definitely more pressure than normal assignments, and I have gotten some criticism from the office in Japan, but thankfully that has been rare."

Perhaps the best way to sum up the experience for these shooters is to ask them about what they'd be shooting at home if they weren't over here shooting all Ichiro, all the time.

Photo by John Froschauer

Photo by John Froschauer
Most of us newspaper and wire shooters would be shooting general news, some business portraits, maybe cruising for features.

I ask what kind of stuff he shoots when not doing sports back at home - news?

The question is translated and the response comes back, "He says he shoots sports but when he is not he shoots nudes, porn stars and celebrities."

Excuse me? Did we lose something in the translation? I said news, not nudes!

"Oh," comes the reply. "He did say nudes. He says in Japan all the sports papers have sexy pictures."

I'm like, "uh okay" (remember Robert Beck's stunned silence). I recover, and say to the translator, "okay, ask him one last question - Is it better to be covering Ichiro in America every day or to be home shooting sports and porn stars?"

Maeda pauses thoughtfully. Rubs his lightly goateed chin. Looks up at the sky. Murmurs something is Japanese to another photographer. They laugh. Finally turns back to me.

"Ah, Ichiro is better," he manages in English.

(Rod Mar, a frequent contributor to Sports Shooter, is a staff photographer with the Seattle Times.)

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