Brad Lefton, writing for the Wall Street Journal, reveals that although Ichiro Suzuki may use an English interpreter when he speaks to the press, he has no problem bandying Spanish phrases about with Latin players. Suzuki has made a concerted effort to befriend the Latin players, seeing them as compatriots who are also living in a foreign land.
I feel a bond with them. We’re all foreigners in a strange land. We’ve come over here and had to cope with some of the same trials and tribulations. When I throw a little Spanish out at them, they really seem to appreciate it and it seems to strengthen that bond. And besides, we don’t really have curse words in Japanese, so I like the fact that the Western languages allow me to say things that I otherwise can’t.
Shortstop Ramon Santiago of the Cincinnati Reds remembers the first time he met Suzuki in 2003. Santiago was a rookie, and after Suzuki singled, he slid into second base on a successful steal attempt. Coming up from his slide, he turned to Santiago and said, “No corro casi,” intimating, “I don’t have my legs today.” Santiago smiled, but two pitches later Suzuki stole third base. Santiago said, “I knew he always spoke through an interpreter. And that was for English, so of course I never imagined he could speak such nice Spanish.”
Carlos Pena recalled when he was playing first base for the Tampa Bay Rays when Suzuki beat out an infield hit. Ichiro glanced at Pena, then asked, “Que coño tu mira?,” or, “What the hell are you looking at?” Pena had to stifle laughing out loud.
Victor Martinez, catching with Cleveland, heard Suzuki mutter “muy peligroso,” or “very dangerous,” to someone as something funny happened. The next time Suzuki came to bat, Martinez chirped, “Mui peligroso” prompting Suzuki to laugh. In future games, when Suzuki came to bat, Suzuki would kid around in Spanish, even saying “Mala mia,” or “my bad,” when he fouled off a pitch.
Suzuki’s reputation is such that Toronto’s Macier Izturis has a ball signed by him, Detroit’s Victor Martinez has a signed photo, and Washington’s Asdrubal Cabrera had a bat until he himself shattered it in a game.
The natural question arises: if Suzuki has picked up Spanish all these years, why does he use an interpreter for English? Suzuki explained:
Those are two completely different things. When I’m being interviewed, presumably it’s because people want to know how I feel about something or what my motivation is, not because they want to hear what I sound like in English. I wouldn’t be true to the task if I responded in my unrefined English. It might be funny for a second to hear me bumble my way through, but I have to believe that they’re asking because they sincerely want to know my thoughts. I’d rather respond, then, in my native tongue so I can most accurately express myself.
Raul Ibanez said Suzuki has another reason for speaking Spanish beyond bonding with the Latin ballplayers:
I think he’s very conscious of not being a polarizing figure. He realizes his status in the game and what he’s done and he uses small phrases and moments like that to show that side of himself. Carlos Pena will remember that moment forever, more than many of the things he’ll remember. That’s the legacy that you really leave the game, those moments where you were interacting with your opponent or with your teammate. That’s what Ichiro’s going to leave guys and that’s a great legacy to leave because everyone knows he’s a Hall of Fame player, but he can interact and be on that level with guys as well as produce at the highest level on the field.
Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers first met Suzuki at the 2004 All-Star game in Houston, when Suzuki was invited to join the seven Venezuelans in the game in a photograph. Years after the game, when Suzuki was playing for the Yankees and running the base paths, Cabrera shouted out “Feo!” (ugly) as Ichiro zipped toward him. Suzuki grinned and answered something off-color in Spanish.