Baseball fans clear air about stars ‘Spaceman’ Shinjo, ‘boring’ Ichiro

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — While most of Japan has celebrated the American success of Ichiro Suzuki, baseball fans in the Kansai region are sharply divided in their enthusiasm for the Seattle Mariners newest superstar.

“The problem with Ichiro is that he’s great, but boring,” said 38-year-old Junichi Kaneda, who works for a bank in central Osaka and describes himself as an avid baseball fan.

“Everyone knew he would be a success, but who cares? He’s like a robot.”

Despite the fact that Ichiro’s former team, the Orix Blue Wave, is located in Kobe, many in the Kansai region, especially in Osaka, don’t particularly care if he succeeds or fails.

Kaneda, and many other Osaka baseball fanatics who are Hanshin Tigers fans, are more interested in how the New York Mets’ newcomer, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, will fare in the Major Leagues.

“Shinjo’s decision to play in the majors surprised a lot of people, who felt he wasn’t in the same league as Ichiro,” Kaneda said.

“But Shinjo has won the hearts of Kansai fans because he has heart and a good personality.”

The love of Shinjo was particularly evident at the beginning of the season, when local television sports announcers began not with a report on Ichiro but on Shinjo.

Dubbed “the Spaceman” by the media and fans, many in the Kansai region took delight in Shinjo’s less-than-polished remarks.

“He says what he thinks and isn’t afraid to admit he’s wrong, which is why so many people here are hoping he will be a success,” said 32-year-old Kazuko Arimura, who isn’t a baseball fan but says she keeps up with the exploits of both Shinjo and Ichiro.

Not surprisingly, fans of Ichiro see Shinjo, and his fans, in a slightly different manner.

“Shinjo is a bit of a clown and not too smart. No wonder people in Osaka like him. He’s one of them,” scoffed Hiroshi Mizutani, a 45-year-old restaurant owner and Orix fan who lives in Kobe.

While fans of both men are happy that their heroes are making it in the big league, they are also concerned about how their former teams will fare in their absence.

Both Hanshin and Orix are currently in the middle of the standings and, without a power hitter who can make that crucial base hit or home run, are likely to find it hard to contend for the top spot.

For example, at a recent game between the Hanshin Tigers and the Chunichi Dragons, one die-hard Hanshin fan, after watching the Tigers fail to capitalize with runners on base, commented that if Shinjo had been around, it would have been a different story.

With the Hanshin Tigers being baseball’s perennial losers for so long, nobody is saying that the loss of Shinjo will impede the team’s chances for the Central League title. But Blue Wave fans are wondering if Ichiro’s departure will mean the difference between first and second place this year.

“I think the Blue Wave has a shot at the pennant. The problem will be, what happens if we have to face the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series without Ichiro?” Mizutani asked.

Unlike the pride and extensive media coverage that greeted Hideo Nomo (another Kansai ballplayer who pitched for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in Osaka) when he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers, though, the moves by Ichiro and Shinjo were seen by many in Kansai as “atarimae” (natural) given their abilities.

While department stores in Osaka and Kobe report that sales of Shinjo and Ichiro memorabilia are steady, they note that things are quieter compared with sales experienced after Nomo made the big leagues.

“Part of the reason (for the lack of sales) is because Kansai people have very strong loyalty to their local teams and aren’t as nationalistic as other parts of Japan,” Kanda said.

“They wish both men luck but are more interested in how the Tigers or the Blue Wave will do this season.

“Baseball fans in Kansai don’t really see Ichiro or Shinjo’s going to America as special just because their nationality is Japanese.”