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Originally published March 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 30, 2007 at 9:06 PM

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Ichiro matches wits on own TV show

When he's not playing baseball, one of Ichiro Suzuki's favorite offseason activities is the taping of his Japanese TV show, "ICHIRO VERSUS," which is beginning its second season.

Special to the Seattle Times

KOBE, Japan — There are no flashing lights. No plush carpet. Not even a backdrop. It's simply an empty studio devoid of a live audience.

Just two oversized Lucite chairs, each with a small, white seat cushion. It's not low budget, it's high tension. The strategic absence of nearly everything makes the tautness palpable.

Seated in the chair stage right is Ichiro. His legs are spread comfortably, about shoulder width, and his hands are noticeably relaxed. His face is expressionless as he stares straight ahead, never giving in to the temptation to let his focus wander. He takes the hard stuff as well as the occasional curve with flair. Even on this stage, the man who plays center field for the Mariners is typically unflappable.

That is, until it's all over. The instant the cameras are cut and the studio lights are brought back up, the usually composed Ichiro lets out a gasp of exasperation. Collapsing forward, he bellows, "This is why I can't sleep at night."

He has just completed one of his favorite offseason activities, the taping of an episode of his TV show, "ICHIRO VERSUS," in which he matches wits against a well-known figure from far-ranging disciplines such as stage, fashion, science or law. The show, which airs every Saturday night, is beginning its second season.

Tapings comprise several segments, including an amusing psychological test and a lengthy, free-flowing conversation. But the one Ichiro finds most challenging is the word-association game, in which both participants utter the first thought that comes to mind in relation to a series of words or phrases.

"I really enjoy it," Ichiro said after a taping last month. "It's tough, but exhilarating because you have to use your head. You're on the spot to crank out a meaningful thought in a split second. My brain's probably worked harder in these two years of taping than in my entire life combined.

"Even so, when it's over, I'm always thinking, 'I wish I would've been quick enough to say it this way.' "

For a guy who puts a premium on preparation, part of the challenge here comes from Ichiro's insistence on not knowing the questions ahead of time. It's one instance where he thrives on spontaneity.

Keeping in mind that much gets diluted in translation, here's a sample from a recent episode with acclaimed actress Keiko Matsuzaka in the opposite chair.

Off-camera narrator: "Ready? Associate to this thought: First encounter."

Matsuzaka: "Your first step into an unknown world."

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Ichiro: "Forgive me, I was just a curious 18-year-old." (Guest and studio hands laugh out loud.)

Narrator: "Your teenage years."

Matsuzaka: "Quick maturation through constant reprimand."

Ichiro: "Sacrifice."

Narrator: "Experience."

Matsuzaka: "Asset."

Ichiro: "What you use to develop yourself."

Narrator: "Workplace."

Matsuzaka: "At times, the promised land."

Ichiro: "The only place where certain things exist."

Narrator: "Judgment."

Matsuzaka: "Your inner conscience."

Ichiro: "Something that has to be exercised in a split second."

ESPN's "Budweiser Hot Seat" this is not. In Japan, Ichiro's show transcends sport and strives for a higher level of intellect, wit and insight. Beyond simply marveling at his athleticism, Ichiro fans here crave to understand the psychology of what allows him to perform at such an elite level. When he's pitted against a high-profile figure equally decorated in his or her own field, the intrigue rises, especially for Ichiro.

"The world is filled with different sensibilities," he explains. "There's a sensation that comes from interacting with people outside your normal profession. If you limit yourself just to the sensibilities that are familiar to you, then you can't achieve self-development.

"For that reason, I think it's important to come in contact with people from as many different walks of life as possible. Otherwise, you limit what you can experience and you end up stifling your growth potential."

Ichiro enters this season trying to become the third player to achieve at least seven consecutive 200-hit seasons, and only the second since 1901. Clearly, he feels the need to look beyond sports for the necessary mental edge to maintain his balance and progress further across the tightrope of consistency that thrusts him near baseball's elite records.

That helps explain why only one athlete, a 15-year-old female figure skating prodigy, sat in the guest chair during the first season of his TV show. In fact, Ichiro says one of the most invigorating experiences came in his exchange with the most unlikely of guests, Peter, a popular Japanese singer/actor who performs in drag. During the conversational segment of the taping, Peter explained how he values looking at himself in the mirror.

"When he, or should I say she ... " Ichiro laughs. "Let's say he — when he said he often stands in front of the mirror just gazing at himself, there was an essentialism to that. When you choose a profession in which you're constantly being watched by people, it's imperative to be concerned with how you present yourself.

"Baseball players are the same. They have to be. If you're oblivious to the fact that you're being watched, then you don't have the ability to see anything beyond yourself."

For Ichiro, the salient point of Peter's mirror-gazing story is how it relates to self-respect. Ichiro believes self-respect allows individuals to make a stronger contribution to the team because they believe they have it within themselves to contribute. Those who lack self-respect bring the team down.

"When you talk to people who have achieved the pinnacle of success in their professions, they all share that view. Every one of them," he insists. "But if you go on record expressing such a view, you're labeled as being selfish; you're criticized for thinking only about yourself. But that's so shallow, it really is.

"The point is: A professional who respects himself can only have a positive influence on others around him. If your mantra is that everything you do should be for the benefit of the team, you become incapable of valuing yourself. You become a less-than-ideal player. You become a player that fans don't pay to come and see. In the end, that kind of player doesn't benefit the team.

"The player who learns to respect himself is the kind of player who ultimately benefits the team. The player who always makes a point to declare that his efforts are only for the sake of the team is ultimately the kind of player who does not think well of himself and, by extension, doesn't help the team. I was impressed with Peter's ability to verbalize that. I think he hit it right on."

In Ichiro's world, even offseason fun and games can give serious meaning to his on-field quest to be the best.

Brad Lefton is a bilingual, St. Louis-based journalist who covers Ichiro and the Mariners for Japanese media. He has spent his career covering baseball in Japan and America and interviewed Ichiro in Japanese for this article.

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