At the height of his heralded arrival two years ago, Ichiro Suzuki rarely left the ballpark without a caravan of Japanese reporters and photographers trailing him.
Once, after they showed up at his home, Suzuki grew so frustrated that he stopped talking to the Japanese press for a time. Teammate Kazuhiro Sasaki joined the boycott.
It’s rarely a problem anymore -- in part because many of those who used to follow Suzuki’s every move have been reassigned to New York Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui, the newest Japanese star.
“Nothing like that has happened this year so far,” Suzuki said through an interpreter. “This is more like, ‘Where there’s no smoke, there’s no fire.’ When there is a rumor, they look and try to find it by following me home.”
That’s not to say Suzuki is yesterday’s news.
Cameras remain trained on the Seattle right fielder during warmups, reminiscent of the scrutiny directed at British royalty. A buzz floats through the Safeco Field crowd each time he steps into the batter’s box.
Suzuki has led the majors in All-Star balloting for the past two years.
But the media frenzy? That part, he said with a smile and a look of relief, has subsided.
“The number of writers, the TV crews, is much different from my first year,” he said. “But the number of people I speak with is more.”
Suzuki’s interviews more frequently focus on baseball than on earlier topics, such as what he ate for breakfast. He even speaks in English sometimes.
The celebrity journalists and magazine writers from Japan are gone, leaving only regular baseball beat reporters.
“The quality of questions has gotten better,” Suzuki said.
Two years ago, Suzuki was the biggest story in baseball, helping the Mariners to 116 wins. He became the first Japanese-born position player to see daily action in a major league lineup.
He also had an exceptional season, hitting .350 to win the American League batting title and stealing an AL-leading 56 bases. He was voted AL MVP and rookie of the year.
For his first two seasons, Suzuki conducted pool interviews with Japanese reporters. He usually stared straight into his locker, paying little attention to those around him as he carefully massaged his feet with a small wooden tool -- a postgame relaxation ritual.
Now, he takes questions from any credentialed media members at the appropriate times. He’ll often make eye contact and smile.
“I knew two years ago was just not a normal situation,” Suzuki said. “Now, it’s more of a normal situation.”
Not so for Matsui. Since joining the Yankees this spring, the slugger has endured the kind of scrutiny that greeted Suzuki’s arrival -- attention that was magnified because he plays in New York.
“I’ve been trying to do the same things as I did in Japan,” Matsui said through a translator. “You have responsibilities, on and off the field, such as dealing with the media, and I try to fulfill them.”
Matsui has been very accessible to the press, meeting with the Japanese media after every game. He even seems to enjoy it. During spring training, he took a group of writers out to dinner.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been easy, but I’ve been able to become comfortable here,” Matsui said.
If there’s any tension for Matsui, it probably won’t last.
“It dies down in the second year,” Mariners second baseman Bret Boone said. “It was the same with Ichiro. There would be 100 people in spring training while we were stretching. They’d all be taking pictures.”
Interest has slowed as Suzuki settled into a new life. Reporters stopped following him home after he selected a house. He said they’d probably start again if, for example, his wife was pregnant.
“People know the fact I built a house, so there is no rumor,” Suzuki said. “If they heard a rumor I was going to have a baby, if that rumor was true, they might try to find out. They might follow me.”
He then emphasized that his wife isn’t pregnant.
Media interest in Matsui arguably has been a blessing for Suzuki, though he politely declined to say whether he agreed.
When the teams met in New York and Seattle, interest was high, as expected. In Seattle, the Mariners accommodated about 100 Japanese journalists, slightly fewer than the number for Suzuki’s 2001 debut.
About 50 covered him daily two years ago. Now, it’s about two dozen.
“When we went to New York or the Yankees came here, for the first game of each series, they created something that wasn’t a normal situation,” Suzuki said. “That gave me a lot of stress. They made something big out of it.”
This time, the public relations staff didn’t need to clear room for Suzuki to walk onto the field, as they did two years ago.
“The press lets him do his own thing now,” Seattle center fielder Mike Cameron said. “It’s not such a big issue, every single thing he does. They’ve seen it. They’ve gotten used to it. There’s a lot more going on.”
Sure, like Suzuki’s hitting.
After a slow start, Suzuki had his first four-hit game this season in Tuesday’s 8-3 victory at Cleveland, raising his average from .243 at the end of April to .299 as of midweek.
“He’s worked his way from below .250 at one point,” manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s swinging the bat much better right now. You knew it was going to come.”
Either way, Suzuki knows the cameras will be pointed at him.
“Even though nothing special happens, they still focus on me and try to find something,” he said. “It will still take a while to get into a more normal situation.”