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Originally published September 20, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified September 21, 2010 at 2:20 PM

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Steve Kelley

Maybe all Ichiro owes us is hits

Mariners star Ichiro, who speaks rarely to media, is interviewed as part of the new Ken Burns baseball documentary, "The Tenth Inning."

Seattle Times staff columnist

Listening to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick talk about their interview with Ichiro, listening to Novick mention Ichiro's intelligence and pitch-perfect use of metaphor, I got jealous.

I've covered Ichiro for 10 seasons and I hardly know the guy. I've appreciated his brilliance and his creativity for a decade, but he's made the conscious decision to keep his personal thoughts and his personal life private.

With Burns and Novick, Ichiro talked in metaphors. In the rare times he talks with Seattle reporters, Ichiro mostly talks in clichés.

"There are so many factors," documentarian Burns said of the aloof Ichiro. "He needs to maintain, for the Japanese, the sense that he hasn't become Americanized. And he's so internally disciplined that, I think, his day-to-day relationship with the press isn't so important."

As Ichiro approaches his 10th consecutive season with at least 200 hits, as he completes his 10th straight year hitting better than .300, it would be fascinating to hear what he thinks about his legacy in the game.

It also would be enlightening to have an idea of the level of his frustration with a franchise that is close to losing 100 games for the second time in three seasons.

But I doubt that it's going to happen.

"He's negotiating a hugely different culture with a language that is so completely different and doing something at a level that few people have ever done," Burns said. "It's tough for (sportswriters), but we all get to enjoy the show."

Novick said scoring the interview with Ichiro was a process even for them.

"The interactions we had with his people, his agent and his manager and his translator before we actually did the interview were quite extensive," she said. "I think he's managing his image in a very conscious way.

"I think he's more interested in his performance and wants to be judged by that, but I also think he's not unaware of the other things."

Burns equates the challenging relationship Ichiro has with the press with the discomfort Joe DiMaggio and Barry Bonds encountered. DiMaggio could be a diva. And the steroid allegations against Bonds turned his relationship with writers sour. But Burns believes there is a deeper reason all three protected their privacy.


"I think at the heart of this is that all three of these people had the burning desire to be the best," he said. "So I think maybe there's a sacrifice that takes place, a human one, but also a professional one."

Ichiro is one of the players Burns and Novick feature in their new PBS documentary, "The Tenth Inning," which will air Sept. 28 and 29.

Ichiro tells them he believes that baseball is what made him. He talks about the importance his father has had on his journey through the game.

I think he is one of the most fascinating athletes Seattle has had the pleasure to watch. Even in another dolorous season like this, it is a unique pleasure to watch him play. There is such an intelligence and creativity to his game.

But we only get to know Ichiro through his game. In large part, he remains Seattle's unknown icon.

So the questions I posed to Burns and Novick are the questions about Ichiro I ask myself all the time: How much does Ichiro owe Seattle? Is it part of his job to explain what makes him tick? And does he always have to be guarded around writers?

"You know what they said about Joe DiMaggio," Burns said. "He owes us nothing but hits. And maybe, in the end, for as much as our media culture needs more, maybe Ichiro owes us nothing but hits."

Burns calls him Greta Garbo.

"He's so well known," Burns said. "And if you asked, of all the actresses of the thirties who was the most famous, your answer would be the one who never talked. It's a mystique."

Ichiro has stayed and rained hits in this wet city. That fact should be celebrated.

"There are so few players in every generation that are for the ages," Novick said, "and Seattle is lucky enough to have one like that on their team for a long time. You've been lucky to see him here for all these years. As a Yankee fan I feel the same way about Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera."

As Burns and Novick talked Friday at Safeco Field, Mariners starter Felix Hernandez was working on a no-hitter against Texas that wasn't spoiled until Nelson Cruz's leadoff homer in the eighth.

It was a sweet reminder that even in mid-September, watching a going-nowhere ballclub, magic can happen at the park.

Burns and Novick love the game, but "The Tenth Inning" works because they don't let their hearts interfere with their journalism.

In their previous nine-part series they dealt with all of baseball's ugly past — the Black Sox scandal, issues of race discrimination, alcohol abuse, free agency, amphetamine use.

And in "The Tenth Inning," even as they wax romantically and eloquently about Joe Torre, Cal Ripken Jr., Pedro Martinez, Ichiro, Jeter and others, and even though they spend much of the documentary on the melodrama that is the Red Sox and Yankees rivalry, they also shine their cameras' lights harshly on both the labor unrest and the game's once out-of-control steroid problem.

"We see baseball as a prism through which we can see refracted much more than games won and lost," Burns said. "And really, steroids is the reason we wanted to do this. It wasn't obligatory. It wasn't like we said, 'Let's do the bad stuff, so we can get to the good stuff.' We wanted to tell a complicated 'Tenth Inning.'

"But can we just agree that baseball is the best game ever? It's an incredibly different game. It's so different from all others and it's been with us since our beginning. So it really is a reflection of who we are, more than any other game."

And in this most American game, Ichiro, a player from Japan, has touched fans with his legs and his genius. Maybe all he has ever owed us is hits.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation. | 206-464-2176



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