SAN DIEGO – To witness the rebirth of Ichiro Suzuki throughout the World Baseball Classic has been like watching Bob Dylan after he went electric. First came shock, then trepidation, and now, after the requisite adjustment, it's nothing short of beautiful.
Ichiro is not a robot, not anymore at least. Who knew? During his first five years with the Seattle Mariners, he embraced the role of stoic samurai he earned playing in Japan and displayed all the emotion of a doorknob. Over the last month, Ichiro has, in order, insulted an entire country, unleashed a scream that burst at least a dozen eardrums and paraded around a baseball field draped in his country's flag.
The last act occurred Saturday night after Japan avenged two losses to archrival Korea and advanced to Monday's WBC final against Cuba at 9 p.m. ET. It might have been the most poignant moment in a tournament full of them: Ichiro bathing in cheers, lifting his arms over and over. He had recaptured his nation's adoration by reinventing himself, not through an epiphany or a single moment of reckoning but through a love for his country that reached its apex Saturday.
"I have the Japanese flag on my shoulders," Ichiro said, "so that might be the primary reason that I became so emotional in these games at the WBC."
Oh, to feel alive again. Last season, Ichiro looked and played complacent on an awful Mariners team. He could bang out 200 hits a season with his eyes closed, which is, more or less, how he played in 2005. Though he did finish with 206 hits, Ichiro batted .303, a career low, and his popularity in Japan, long unparalleled, was under threat of eclipse by Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui.
A year earlier, Ichiro had broken George Sisler's single-season record for hits by lashing 262. Never had anyone seen a swing like Ichiro's, which, with its delicate balance on one foot, is an amalgam of a flamingo and a drunk trying to pass a field sobriety test. Ichiro embodied everything great about Japanese baseball: its elegance and its precision and its paean to hard work.
Turns out, he wields a fiery tongue to go with his bat. Prior to the tournament, Ichiro said he wanted to beat Korea so badly that it wouldn't want to play Japan for another 30 years, which is like hearing Derek Jeter tell Canada that he will beat them, then buy Roots and turn it into American Eagle.
When Korea beat Japan for the first time, Ichiro fumed. After the final out of the second loss to Korea, he turned toward his dugout and screamed, not knowing that the United States would gag away its chance to advance and send Japan, instead, to the semifinals.
The transformation of Ichiro, already in motion, rooted itself in Saturday night's 6-0 victory against Korea. His three hits raised his batting average for the tournament to .345. He stole two more bases, giving him a tournament-high four. And for the first time in years, people actually hissed at Ichiro.
"I do welcome the boos from the fans, actually," he said. "They didn't really boo me hard enough. I was expecting a little harder heckling, and I would love that as well."
For so long Ichiro has been at worst beloved, at best deified. In Japan, he is a rock star. People emulate him, cop his style and name their children after him. Because he is in such demand there, he shields himself and comes off aloof, like Barry Bonds minus the paranoia.
"There was a wrong impression of Ichiro that he is sort of selfish," said Sadaharu Oh, the Japanese manager and legendary home run hitter. "But as people can see, he really committed himself to this team, and he put so much time into this."
Dedication is Ichiro's way. If there were a tuning fork for his swing, he would carry one at all times. Though he's 14 seasons into his professional career, Ichiro constantly quizzes Oh on the art of hitting, asking if it ever will become easier.
The answer, of course, is that it doesn't – not for anyone, not even someone with 2,408 hits. Between here and Japan, that is what Ichiro has, and that's what the Cubans must deal with in the championship game.
Since 1951, the Cubans have finished second or better in all 36 of the major international tournaments they've played. They have three Olympic gold medals and a wealth of talent finally exposed to a United States audience – talent that, like Japan and Korea, has been groomed in their own leagues and remains unvarnished by steroids and untainted by the home run.
Sounds like Ichiro. Ever since he came here, managers and teammates and scouts have said he easily could hit 30 home runs. The Mariners could stick him in the No. 3 hole instead of the leadoff spot, and he would thrive. He could be Hideki Matsui.
Instead, Ichiro the baseball player stayed true, while Ichiro the man grew into what we saw Saturday and what Matsui declined the chance to be: a national treasure.
During a Q-and-A session Sunday afternoon, Ichiro fielded an assortment of queries about what this tournament means and how he feels about making the finals. Only one, however, brought out the new-and-improved Ichiro. A reporter, asking about Matsui, accidentally directed his question at "Sadaharu and Hideki."
Ichiro lurched forward.
"Hey," he said in his perfect English. "I'm not Hideki. I'm Ichiro."
Amen to that.