After the final game of the season Ichiro held two different sessions with the media at his locker, one with representatives from the Japanese media and one with the Seattle group. I was present for the latter and have to say that it wasn't one of his more illuminating interviews.
It turns out that his interview with the Japanese media was much more in depth. I have seen a couple of different translations but this one from Gen at yakyubaka.com is the most thorough. While it seems to be the most complete please take into account that it is a translation and there is no way to get clarity after the fact. What I can provide is a little insight from interactions, conversations and the experience of watching Ichiro both on and off the field on a day in, day out basis.
Below I will list what caught my attention with this interview. The first thing that jumps out at me is something that is pretty literal so I think we can take him at his word on this.
He was healthy this year.
Physically, I felt great, the whole time. My spirit, there were times when it broke in half. But physically I felt good.
He went on to say in most years it was his spirit that carried him through when his body faltered but this year it was the opposite. The important thing here is apparently health was not to blame for his decline in numbers.
In his mind he struggled for two months.
There were some tough times, certainly. About two months. Partway through. It was tough.
He expanded on this later in the interview.
It was a long time. May and June. To have that happen over two months was really tough. At month a month... With little drops here and there. But when it comes over a long period of time, it really affects you. And that came twice. So it was really difficult.
Two things. First, he admits that it was difficult. Good to hear. He is human. That can't have been fun.
Second, why does he only view May and June as a struggle? July and September were not exactly great either, especially by his standards. More on this below.
The 200 hits issue.
A lot to tackle here. First let me tell you that when asked by the Seattle media what his feelings were about not reaching 200 hits Ichiro reacted with annoyance claiming he personally had never "mentioned about 200" in either of the last two seasons.
He did in fact address the issue after he hit the 200 milestone in Toronto last year and did admit that he felt pressure to do so. He did not bring up the topic but he did answer the questions. At the time I got the feeling that the pressure he talked about came mostly from the media in Japan and the expectations of the Japanese fans.
When asked by the Japanese media about the importance of 200 he replied,
Getting 200 hits is difficult (laughs). It probably a little more difficult than what everyone probably thinks. It's difficult. It's just difficult. It's something special. And in times when you can't do it, it makes me think how amazing 200 hits is. And a number of people have hit 200. And I think that's amazing. I've done it all this time and I thought I might get a little sad, but I'm not really feeling that.
He doesn't quite say 200 is important to him but he does acknowledge the feat is special and something he would ultimately desire each season.
Every year, and I said this often, that it wouldn't be a problem if it ended this year. But then I wanted to get it as I got closer. That's what it was like all this time.
This is the first I have heard of this. First the question from the Japanese media.
"Beginning last year, you started moving towards the idea of paying less attention to numbers and more attention to putting up results. How much of that do you think you were able to accomplish this year?"
Last year Ichiro spoke to us about of the importance of the result in everything he did but he did not say that he was paying less attention to the numbers or that this was a focus. He told the Japanese media that even though the result was the focus this year, he still couldn't help himself when it came to 200.
This is the strange part. When you get to where it seems like you can't accomplish something, it makes you want to do it. So there was something I wanted to accomplish, partway through. That was a certainty. When I first started, I took on an easy going attitude. And when you start something like that, the normal story is that you end up accomplishing, but that wasn't the case here.
Again, very human. What he said next a member of the Japanese media tried to explain to me recently.
End of an era?
On not reaching 200 this year...
I'm glad I was able to do it last year. Yeah, if it ended after the 9th year, that would have been difficult. That it ended at 10 probably made it easier. I'm really glad this year isn't last year.
My Japanese colleague told me shortly before the season ended that Ichiro would be more at peace with the fact that he didn't reach 200 because the last time he did was in his tenth year and that he seemed to put ten year dividing lines in his career. I am not sure how this works because he came to the US after his ninth season in NPB but even so, okay, that sounds good and I kind of get it. The question is, what comes next? Is he more willing to change or does he even see a need to change because he completed a decade of baseball in the US and failed to duplicate his success in the eleventh year?
According to Ichiro, he did make changes, costly ones in his mind.
I was able to try out a number of different things this year. Last year was my 10th year, so it wasn't as if this year was a throw away year, of course, but it was sort of an end of a chapter, so it was a year where I was able to things, accomplish things. This is something that happens often, but it's the difficulty of putting up results in April. And it was this, the decisions I made then, that made this year difficult. You could say that I made an error in judgment. And that comes out in May and June. The difficulties in April are pretty much the same every year. And that results can in turn make things more difficult.
So right out of the gates he was doing something different and despite the fact that he matched his career high for hits in April, he says that what he did impacted May and June in a negative manner and made the year difficult. What was that adjustment? I would have loved a follow up question here.
Although he talked only of the April adjustment he said that he tried a number of different things. I suspect that in late August he made another adjustment as it seemed that he was driving the ball more. At the time I thought and mentioned on the post game show that he perhaps was trying something for next year. I hope this is the case although I am not sure because when we asked if he would look at making a change this off season in his reply was, "I don't understand why you think that. I've been this style for 20 years so it is hard for me to imagine doing that now."
Alarming comment at the time but I think it was more reaction to the question than actual answer. Earlier in the interview he declined to talk about what he would be focusing on in the off season saying it was too early to determine that and that he would never reveal those changes publicly. We won't know until we see it.