Ichiro is watching a tape of tonight's opposing pitcher. He does this before every game. After batting practice he sits oh-so-cozily amid the clubhouse bustle, looking for weakness. No teammate speaks to him. His eyes shine. He looks hungry.
"There's no secret way to get him out," says Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little. "All you can do is concentrate on the other eight guys."
"Impossible to defend," says Ray Knight, the bench coach of the Cincinnati Reds, "but he's a joy to watch."
Strange words from an opponent, but such is the nature of baseball's Ichiro paradox. He makes contradiction logical. Through June 30, he had but two home runs yet led the league in intentional walks. He speaks little English in a sound-bite era and yields no emotion in a culture that prizes personality; he's a contact hitter in a sport overdosed on power—yet he is baseball's most popular player. This year, for the second season in a row, Ichiro led every major league player in the fans' All-Star Game balloting. Yes, his 2.5 million votes were padded by Internet voters in Japan, but consider: even on hard ballots filled out mostly in American ballparks, Ichiro topped everyone with 1.7 million votes.
None of this leaves him the least bit mystified. "I'm unique," Ichiro says. "I'm a very rare kind of player."
More than even he knows. There's a Pepsi ad in Japan that pictures Ichiro swinging a bat above the words "change the world." It's not just marketing. His was supposed to be the tough adjustment, but in truth Ichiro has made few concessions. American fans, pitchers and general managers are the ones scrambling to adjust. Already his success has killed, once and for all, the long-held conceit that a small Japanese player (Ichiro is 1.75 m tall and weighs 72.6 kg) would be overwhelmed in the major leagues. In Japan, meanwhile, it has completely altered the landscape. A mere baseball star when he played there, Ichiro is now an omnipresent cultural icon.
Japanese mornings begin with unprecedented TV broadcasts of each of his games. His face stares from T shirts, newspapers, subway ads. He is, appropriately enough, both everywhere and nowhere to be found, dominating a nation while squatting in a chair half a planet away. But the Ichiro paradox cuts most deeply across the game he left behind. Ichiro has given Japanese baseball new life, yet by the time he's done, it may be crippled beyond repair.