'Fake' Ichiro turns heads at autograph session
Mariners players surprised to see lookalike at MLB Cafe event
TOKYO -- Imagine the surprise, wonderment and joy when Ichiro Suzuki made an unannounced appearance at Monday morning's Mariners autograph-signing appearance at the swank MLB Café Tokyo in the Ebisu section of Japan's largest city.
Mariners regulars Michael Saunders and Munenori Kawasaki were sitting at a table, surrounded by video screens in the wood-paneled restaurant, which resembled a high-end steakhouse or exclusive country club tap room, while being besieged by adoring fans who came to get baseballs, gloves, caps and jerseys signed.
So naturally it was a shock to see their iconic Japanese teammate standing in the line just like anybody else.
OK, so it wasn't really Ichiro. It was the kind-of-famous Ichiro impersonator, who made it all the way to Safeco Field last year and has been seen in the stands at Tokyo Dome for the Opening Series Japan festivities this week.
On Monday, Fake Ichiro had the matching road grays worn by Saunders and Kawasaki and even made sure to wear the real Suzuki's stoic game face.
"Hey, Ichiro, what's up, man?" Saunders said to roaring laughter before signing Fake Ichiro's cap and posing for a picture and even getting a smile out of his his new "teammate."
"I couldn't tell the difference," Saunders said. "It was unbelievable. Full uni, the facial hair, everything. That was dead on. That was really good."
So was the rest of the event, which packed in adoring fans -- many of them wearing Ichiro jerseys themselves -- and served as further notice that baseball is enormous in this country. The MLB Café was the perfect spot for such a gathering, too. One could not imagine a better venue for catching all the action on a typical Major League game day.
For center fielder Saunders and Kawasaki, the veteran infielder and Japanese baseball veteran who will begin his first year in the Major Leagues on Wednesday when the Mariners take on the Oakland A's in the 2012 regular-season lid-lifter, Opening Series Japan has already been an unforgettable cultural and baseball experience.
"I've been to Taiwan, I've been to China, and I've always wanted to come to Japan," Saunders said. "And to be able to come to Japan for baseball, I think, is really special."
Saunders likened the Mariners' first exhibition game here -- Sunday against the Hanshin Tigers -- to a European soccer league game, and that was before the Mariners got to play Tokyo's most storied franchise, the Yomiuri Giants, in Monday's exhibition.
"The fans were so passionate and have so much pride," Saunders said. "It's really exciting to play a local professional team from Japan and I'm having a blast."
Saunders was living it up at MLB Café Tokyo, sitting alongside a Japanese star in Kawasaki and encouraging the infielder, who's been working on his English-speaking skills, to announce the winners of the day's souvenir raffle in English. Kawasaki did so with enthusiasm -- loud enthusiasm that generated even more laughter.
"I've got Michael Jackson over here next to me," Saunders said. "I think it'll make my job that much easier. But getting to know Kawasaki, he's awesome. First impressions when he came over to Arizona are that he brings so much energy and passion to the game, he's a great team guy, and he can really play baseball."
"Just over the last few months he's become a good friend, and I'm glad to be doing something like this with him."
Saunders left the morning's events with the reinforced belief that baseball is alive and doing exceedingly well in the Land of the Rising Sun.
"The Japanese style ... they love playing baseball," Saunders said. "And they bring a lot of pride and passion, all the way from the fans to the players."