Sayonara to a good group of Japanese journalists

This would be me with Keizo Konishi of Kyodo News at the Tokyo Dome this year before the Mariners played the A’s in their season opener.

One of the oft-mentioned, but rarely developed story lines of the Ichiro era with the Mariners was the group of Japanese journalists that followed his every move both in Seattle and on the road.

The trade of Ichiro to the Yankees changed more than just the Mariners lineup. It has made a discernible change in the media crew covering the team as well.

For the past 12 years, there have been more Japanese journalists at many games covering Ichiro than U.S. journalists covering the entire Mariners team. That was an oddity I never really got my head around, to be honest.

It’s hard enough covering a 25-player team and coming up with fresh story angles every day. To cover one player, on a daily basis, for a six weeks of Spring Training and then a 162-game season? I’d probably go crazy.

But these men and women did it for 12 years and many of them now are following Ichiro to New York, traded in their own way to a new market and new team.

It was an interesting dynamic, having the Japanese journalists in the mix. They were very quiet, for the most part, often standing silently in the back during interview sessions with the manager or other players and rarely asking questions. Most were hesitant because of the language difference to speak up in group sessions, but they’d interview Ichiro on a daily basis — sometimes with one pool reporter doing the interview and then sharing the quotes, sometimes with the whole group getting access.

I got to know some of the Japanese writers well, particularly the group that traveled with the team, and I’ll miss them. Masa Niwa of Sankei Sports, Keizo Konishi of Kyodo News and Nobu Kobayashi of Daily Sports are great guys, knowledgeable baseball writers and fun companions who have already headed to New York after a decade of working out of Seattle.

Asuka Iinuma Brown of Jiji Press is staying in Seattle, at least for the rest of this season, to continue covering the Mariners as Hisashi Iwakuma and Munenori Kawasaki remain part of the team. Asuka is typical of the group. She’s covered Ichiro since 2002, has established her home in Seattle and her son is headed to Western Washington University in Bellingham this fall to start college.

Others covering Ichiro this year have been Michi Murayama of Tokyo Chunichi Sports, Hideo Kizaki of Nikkan Sports, Koji Sasada of Sports Nippon and Taiko Stroud of Hochi Shimbun.

All these writers knew that Ichiro’s run wouldn’t last forever, but having him traded in midseason — totally out of the blue — left them in definite scramble mode. Those moving to New York are looking for places to live the next 2 1/2 months and wondering what will happen after this year.

Those staying behind in Seattle are more settled for the moment, but also know that next year figures to be a whole new ballgame.

There may never be another Ichiro in Major League Baseball as he was a pioneer, the first Japanese position player who wound up developing into a Hall of Fame-caliber outfielder. There will continue to be Japanese journalists, however, as groups are following Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka and even Hideki Matsui last week when we were in Tampa.

There clearly is a large appetite for Major League Baseball in Japan and apparently a significant budget from newspapers and media outlets willing to keep journalists in a foreign country year-round to provide coverage.

How long that continues will be interesting to see. When Ichiro first came to Seattle, I assumed Japanese media outlets would cover his story initially and then pull back. And while the numbers did decline, they certainly never dwindled the way I expected.

Consider that the typical Mariners traveling party of U.S. media consists of Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times, Larry LaRue of the Tacoma News Tribune and myself from MLB.com, plus 710 ESPN radio reporter Shannon Drayer.

Since the death of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer a few years ago, that’s it. Yet somehow there is enough interest and financial support from Japanese media outlets that there’d normally be 5-6 Japanese writers traveling with the team on every road trip, just to cover Ichiro … and this year Iwakuma and Kawasaki.

Just as with U.S. media, that number grows for home games in Seattle. But now, that situation has changed. Ichiro is gone. And with him, a group of professionals who built their lives the past 12 years around telling his story to an audience that apparently never tired of the tale.

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