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Ichiro Suzuki is a superstar both in his homeland of Japan, and also very much abroad. His significant athletic talents, style, flair, and even humor wowed American fans for 16 seasons in Major League Baseball ~ all this even after playing 9 seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB).
Ichiro was popular with fans and the media alike, yet still while playing in America, he used a translator for lockerroom news interviews. Which makes one wonder, after 16 years working in the United States, does Ichiro speak English? The answer: yes, Ichiro speaks English quite well, according to former teammates and coaches, and video clips over his career.
For whatever reason, a few years ago while at the tail end of his career, Ichiro was challenged by a major network sports personality (ESPN’s Todd Grisham, a SportsCenter anchor, in August 2016) for not learning English after all the years playing in the United States. Grisham was then heavily, and at times rudely, corrected. He ultimately apologized.
Why do People Think Ichiro Can’t Speak English?
Ichiro Suzuki played many seasons in the Major Leagues, and honestly, the question of whether or not he speaks English is a non-starter. Baseball is a very hard game to play when everyone speaks the same language, let alone having some players speaking a different language.
That Ichiro played so long in America’s top-tier league indicates that he at least had to understand some English. After all, deep in the outfield, he couldn’t have an interpreter standing next to him if the centerfielder yelled over an order or suggestion.
He also had to, at one point, understand what his manager and coaches were saying. It’s just a normal part of playing baseball, something where you cannot have an interpreter along with you at all times.
Baseball is a game, perhaps more than any other sport, where player communication is imperative. So it’s very difficult to believe that Ichiro did not speak English at all.
This video (see below), showing Ichiro’s farewell speech to Mariners fans, occurred a few years after the comment by ESPN’s Grisham, but remains to serve as proof that the future Hall of Famer spoke English okay.
Why Did Ichiro Always Use a Translator?
Have you ever heard the phrase, “lost in translation”? It’s a real phenomenon, which Ichiro wanted to avoid out of respect for his fans.
Though he can speak English fluently, he prefers to speak with an interpreter present, so his deeper thoughts and statements would not be misunderstood. This is common practice in Japan. Ichiro continued to have a translator present to avoid the potential for confusion about what he was trying to convey.
The Best of Ichiro Speaking English
Ichiro didn’t just learn enough of the American language to get by on the field. He took it a step further by learning certain phrases, lingo, and deliveries to make it quite entertaining when he switched to using English. Some of the examples are quite legendary in the MLB:
- All Star Game pep talk. Ichiro was asked to play in a lot of MLB All Star games. From the start, he created a tradition to offer a pre-game clubhouse speech to his teammates on the American League team. Loaded with English curse words that surprised American players unfamiliar with Ichiro, the speeches were intended to loosen nerves ~ and those who heard them said they were hilarious.
- Spanish smack talk. Ichiro might not have learned to speak Spanish fluently, but he did pick up just enough to talk trash to opponents. After a base hit and standing on first base next to former Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, Ichiro is reported to have said, “Que cono tu mira?” (Meaning, “What the Hell are you looking at?”). Pena almost burst out laughing.
- American slang. Ichiro became fond of some of the, well, unique lingo of his fellow teammates.
- Umpire arguing. If he didn’t use English to get his point across, he certainly used a universal body language to express his displeasure with some umpire calls.
- Writing fans. Ichiro was always known for friendliness with baseball fans ~ to the point he sometimes even wrote them back!
Question: Why doesn’t Ichiro use his last name, Suzuki?
Answer: In Japan, Suzuki is the 2nd-most-common family name (surname), and at the suggestion of his manager in 1994 he began going only by only his first name. At first he was somewhat embarrassed with it, but it wasn’t long before Ichiro was a known entity nationwide. At one point his agent said, “When you mail Ichiro something from the States, you only have to use that name on the address and he gets it (in Japan). He’s that big.”
Q.: How many hits did Ichiro get in the MLB?
A.: He recorded 3,089 base hits in Major League games, becoming part of the distinguished “3,000 Hits Club.” What’s more amazing is that he also collected 1,278 hits in the top Japanese level of baseball, bringing his total to 4,367 hits in top-level pro baseball. Pete Rose holds the all-time MLB hits record with 4,256.
Q.: Is Ichiro in the Hall of Fame?
A.: Not yet. He is expected to be a first-ballot Hall of Fame member 5 years after his retirement (as required by the rules), or in 2024.
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