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Thursday, November 14
It's all Ichiro all the time at the Ichiro Exhibition Room

By Jim Caple

NAGOYA, Japan -- Look, over here is Ichiro's childhood desk, complete with a mannequin of a 12-year-old Ichiro sitting in a chair and working on an abacus.

Over there in the corner is the bicycle Ichiro rode between his high school dormitory and classes. Over there in that display case is Ichiro's high school identification card. Over there are Ichiro's childhood Nintendo game cartridges, Ichiro's transformer toys, Ichiro's "Go'' gameboard and Ichiro's model of a "Star Wars'' tie-fighter.

And right over there in that display case is Ichiro's retainer.

Despite being only 29, Ichiro has his very own museum back home in Japan.

We are in the Ichiro museum -- or as it is officially called in the full-color brochure, the Ichiro Exhibition Room -- a four-story, meticulously maintained shrine to all things Ichiro just blocks from his boyhood home and a short walk from the Nagoya airport. I have seen a lot of amazing things in my career but until Wednesday, I had never seen anything like this.

I wish I could show you photos of everything in the museum, but I can't. You can take photos at Cooperstown. You can take photos at the Smithsonian. You can even take photos inside the Louvre. But you are not allowed to take photos inside the Ichiro museum. After all, just imagine the chaos that would result if a photo of Ichiro's retainer leaked out.

Opened two years ago by his father, Nobuyuki Suzuki, who operates it, the Ichiro Exhibition Room contains more than 2,000 items spread artfully over two floors (two floors are devoted to office space). Ichiro's bats are here. His caps are here. His jerseys are here. His gloves are here. His awards are here. His trophies are here. His baseball cards are here. His grade school essays are here. His schoolboy satchels are here. His youth league scorecards are here. His Little League photos are here. His baby photos are here. His Lakers and Bulls tickets are here.

And not only are his shoes here, his shoe polish is here.

Surely, everything Ichiro ever wore, owned, won or played with must be on display here.

"We have more items but we keep them in storage because there isn't room,'' museum manager Kazuya Kinoshita says through a translator. "There are so many, you can't count. But less than 3,000.''

The mind boggles. A couple more thousand Ichiro items. What could they possibly be? If Ichiro's retainer made the cut, what didn't? The Hooter's costume the Mariners made him wear in a hazing ritual his rookie season?

No, that's it over there, neatly folded up in a display case. Right underneath a photo of Ichiro and the Japanese prime minister.

"When Ichiro was a child,'' the museum manager says, "his father told Ichiro's mother, 'He is going to be a great athlete. We must keep everything.' And they just kept everything.''

Ichiro's parents live in a large and very nice brick home next to the museum. His father is the museum president and is usually here. When my translator called in the morning, Mr.Suzuki offered to speak to us for an hour for $800. We politely declined. He agreed to speak for free for a few minutes, but unfortunately had to leave on an errand before we arrived. That was disappointing because on our way here I had thought of a lot of questions I wanted to ask him. And I thought of a lot more once I got here, beginning with this one: "Why?"

I can barely begin to describe how beautifully everything is maintained and displayed. This is not some musty attic crammed with stained jerseys and yellowing newspapers. This is a superbly ordered collection that puts many fine museums to shame. The museum sound system plays such music as the theme from "Around the World in 80 Days'' and everything here is expensively framed and mounted or positioned inside glass cases that don't have a single smudge on them. Almost every item appears as if it was only handled by white-gloved hands from the day Ichiro first owned it.

Even without his father there to answer questions though, the museum explains a lot about Ichiro, a man who cares so scrupulously for his bats that he stores them in humidors and once brought one back to his hotel room when he felt bad about throwing it down improperly after an at-bat.

I can barely begin to describe how beautifully and lovingly everything is maintained and displayed. This is not some musty attic crammed with stained jerseys and yellowing newspapers. This is a superbly ordered collection that puts the appearance of the world's finest museums to shame. The museum sound system plays such music as the theme from "Around the World in 80 Days'' and everything here is expensively framed and mounted or positioned inside spotless glass cases. A team of FBI agents armed with spectrographs couldn't find so much as a fingerprint residue on the cases. Almost every item appears as if it was only handled by white-gloved hands from the day Ichiro first owned it.

The museum floors are clean enough to eat off, though you wouldn't even consider bringing food into here. The only items in poor condition are his boyhood bats, splintered and blistered from repeated daily use in a nearby batting cage (the cage is still in business and my translator says it still has the special Ichiro spring it used to make the machines pitch fast enough to challenge Ichiro). The only sign of dirt is in glass goblet containing a handful of infield dirt Ichiro saved from his team's appearance in the prestigious national baseball tournament.

The Shroud of Turin is not displayed with such exquisite care as the sheet of paper Ichiro received after completing his driver's course.

"We all get that when we go to drivers school,'' the translator says, "but no one keeps it. No one.''

Look, there is the tape measure Ichiro's father used to mark the distance between home plate and the pitchers mound when he threw batting practice to him. There is the weight set Ichiro used to develop his muscles. There is the special "heavy ball'' Ichiro used to strengthen his arm. There is the banner reading "Bring back Tao'' that Ichiro sewed when he was 12 after the Chunichi Dragons traded his favorite player, outfielder Tao Yashushi, to the Seibu Lions (he patterned his batting stance after Tao).

There is the essay Ichiro wrote at age 12 about his life's ambition.

"If I become one of the best baseball players in the future, I'm going to give tickets to all my friends and family and everyone who helped me. Then if they come to the stadium they can cheer me.''

If Ichiro or his father ever had any dream other than baseball, there is no sign of it in the museum. Ichiro was so set on a baseball career that he went to a high school famed for its baseball program. His freshman year he had to wake up at three in the morning to wash the rest of the team's uniforms, then practice from six to eight, then go to class, then practice again in the afternoon.

Ichiro's high school uniform is here, as are 15 of the 16 home runs he hit for the team (somehow, home run ball No. 3 escaped). So are his Little League uniforms. So are the newspaper clips from his Little League days, even the ones that were only two lines.

There are more than 100 scrapbook binders preserving the articles that have documented the growing Ichiro legend over the years, including some I wrote myself. All the binders are stored upright in a circular case in precise chronological order.

There is a small gift counter as well, where you can purchase Ichiro t-shirts (about $28), key-chains, pins, bobblehead dolls and the book his father wrote, which is titled (what else?), "My Son, Ichiro.''

There are five other visitors during our two-hour visit and Kinoshita says the museum averages about one thousand visitors a month. He says on weekends they are lined up at the door when the building opens. During the season, many come in to sit and watch the Mariners games broadcast live on the museum's wide-screen TV. Admission is 900 yen, or about $7.50.

Kinoshita says he doesn't know how much it costs to run the museum but that there are six employees, plus heating, electric bills and other expenses. The museum loses money.

If all this seems just a little over-the-top, please keep one thing in mind: There also is a Hideki Matsui museum that his father runs. An Exhibition Room employee, however, assures me the Matsui museum is not nearly as large or as nice as this Ichiro museum.

God, I hope not.

I don't know if Ichiro will make it to Cooperstown, but if he doesn't, the Hall of Fame should at the very least hire his father to run the museum.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at cuffscaple@hotmail.com.

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