The true scoop behind Japan’s baseball superheroes


Another spring and another baseball season for the sports-numb nation of Japan. And once again the TV-viewing public is being regaled with starry-eyed tales of wonder regarding its established heroes: Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and, this year — perhaps due to the shortage of heroic clay here in Japan itself — Kazuhiro Kiyohara of the Tokyo Giants.

Now, hero worship can be fun, but oftentimes the media love-fest makes the ballplayers seem bigger than life. Or even candidates for sainthood. The root-root-root-for-the-home-guys approach can also slosh glossy paint over bleak realities — realities that the media don’t dwell on.

For example, a repeated clip of Matsui blasting a double, punctuated by camera-ham New York fans screaming Matsui’s name, can seem a bit surreal when set alongside game-sized facts. Such as . . . in the end, he went one for five, and his team lost by six runs. Of course, with Matsui currently slumping, one for five might look good.

But wait! A inside source has let it slip that the real surreal workings of these great men are — incredibly — underreported. Here, then, is a quick peek at unpublished tidbits in the true lives of Ichiro, Matsui and Kiyohara from just last month.

April 11 . . . “Gosh,” exclaimed little Joey Antlerhead, after having driven with his dad from Montana to see his first major league game in Seattle, “you mean other will people play besides just Ichiro?” “Son,” laughed Joey’s father, Alvin, “doesn’t someone have to pitch to Ichiro? And doesn’t someone have to hit the almost home runs that Ichiro catches? He can’t do it all, you know! Perhaps you’ve been watching too much Japanese TV.” Ichiro himself meanwhile again denied rumors that he was a candidate to replace John Paul II as pope.

April 12 . . . Even though the Yankees scored 29 runs in the first inning and went on to clobber the Red Sox 38 to nothing, manager Joe Torre agreed that the climax of the game was Matsui’s infield roller in the eighth, his only hit in 19 at bats. “That headfirst slide showed fighting spirit,” said Torre, “so I hope NHK runs the replay a hundred times. I bet they will.” Later, Matsui too backed out of papal contention, saying, “How about So Taguchi of St. Louis? I mean, he’s already a Cardinal, right?”

April 13 . . . In a hastily called news conference, Kiyohara begged Japanese broadcasters not to train their TV cameras on him between every single pitch, ” ’cause sometimes I like to scratch myself, you know.” When asked about the papacy, Kiyohara openly declined, stating he wouldn’t want to do anything that would make him give up his earrings. “Besides,” he said, clutching his Giants shirt, “this uniform is holy enough.”

April 14 . . . At St. Peter’s Square in Rome, tens of thousands cheered slow-motion replays of Ichiro making a sliding catch of a pop fly during pregame practice. In an unrelated story, Ichiro thwarted an attack on Seattle by an army of renegade Canadian Mounties by cracking a series of line drives off their kneecaps.

April 15 . . . Matsui went hitless, but happened to be in left field when an escaped gorilla from the Bronx Zoo broke into the stands and threatened to eat a baby. Matsui rushed to the dugout, grabbed his bat, sprinted into the bleachers and pounded the gorilla on the head, driving it into the ground and through the center of the Earth all the way to China, where it shot up just in time to block a jar of paint aimed at the Japanese Consulate. “I got good wood on the ape,” said Matsui, humbly. “Plus the flow of the Earth’s core was going out.” Matsui then waved his bat and turned everyone’s beer into Magnum Dry.

April 16 . . . Tokyo suffered a magnitude 94.2 earthquake, but fortunately was saved from damage when Kiyohara bent over and held the ground together with his hands. “I’d like to see the pope do that,” said Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. But the evening’s bigger thrill came when Kiyohara hit a foul ball off the Tokyo Dome ceiling. “I’d like to see the pope do that, too,” said Koizumi.

April 17 . . . Ichiro went two for three, raising his average to .447 and prompting Japanese headlines that he would soon shatter all batting records and then take over the world. Headlines that downplayed the fact that the season was only two weeks old. “But — can’t you see! — he’s just toying with us!” screamed White Sox hurler Ace Wunderkind. “We’re doomed!” Wunderkind then threw himself off the Seattle Space Needle in despair, but was spared when Ichiro made yet another sliding catch. The crowds at St. Peter’s went wild and began doing the wave around the clock.

April 18 . . . At a formal dinner to honor his having survived Japanese media feeding frenzies for 500 games in a row, Matsui healed a man of Hanshin Tigerosis, saying: “Go now! And do not root for them again!” Matsui then jogged back and forth across water and concluded the event by leading the guests in a hummed version of “YMCA.”

April 19 . . . A professor at Tokyo University released results of a 20-year study that proved conclusively that the real reason behind Japan’s aging society is that many old folks yearn to live longer just to see Kiyohara bat once more. “When you consider the people I am keeping alive,” said Kiyohara, “that the Giants stink this year doesn’t mean much . . . does it?”

April 20 . . . Ichiro, Matsui and Kiyohara all voiced profound relief to learn someone else had been elected pope, even though Kiyohara admitted it might have been cool to “wear that little beanie.” Now all three superheroes can turn their attention to their next challenge. Ichiro began.

“Once again,” he stated vociferously, “I am not — I repeat — I am not a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.”