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Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Ichiro unhappy with M's
Star player decries lack of leadership and commitment
By JON PAUL MOROSI
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Ichiro Suzuki, the iconic Mariners right fielder, believes his team is in dire condition, lacking clubhouse leadership and proper commitment to game preparation, following its second straight 90-loss season.
In an interview with Kyodo News Service published in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper last week, the Seattle superstar scattered nonspecific criticisms, in sharp statements the American public has scarcely heard from him before.
Ichiro lamented his necessity to motivate himself with individual goals, rather than pennant aspirations, and acknowledged his implicit leadership role as the lone remaining regular from the memorable, disappearing dreamers of 2001.
The question-and-answer story appeared in two parts in the well-regarded Japanese newspaper. Dr. Kaoru Ohta, a lecturer in Japanese at the University of Washington, translated Ichiro's remarks for the Post-Intelligencer.
Robert Whiting, a scholar on Japanese baseball and the author of "The Meaning of Ichiro" and "You Gotta Have Wa," provided an additional interpretation.
At no point in the interview did Ichiro berate a Seattle player or coach by name. He did not ask to be traded. He did not threaten to retire. Still, his responses indicated a level of frustration many observers saw throughout a long season that Ichiro described as an unexpected struggle.
While few expect the Mariners would consider a trade involving Ichiro, let alone consummate one, the team's sustained struggles have prompted industry scrutiny of the team's personnel. Still, Ichiro expects to fulfill his contract and play at least the next two seasons with the Mariners, according to his agent, Tony Attanasio.
Attanasio said he believes Ichiro, who is currently in Japan and could not be reached by the Post-Intelligencer for further comment, has expressed "more disappointment than unhappiness" at the club's current status.
"Seattle was his first choice when the posting was done," Attanasio said. "He feels fortunate to come here. Ichiro doesn't want to go anyplace.
"But there is also the fact that he has limited time as a player. He wants this club to be a contender."
That desire may explain the timing of his remarks. Ichiro told the paper that he normally prefers to get away from baseball at this time of year, but has not been able to do so because of the concerns weighing on his mind.
Among his concerns, as reported by the Tokyo Shimbun and interpreted for this story:
# He was upset to see his teammates playing cards so frequently, and was dismayed that no coach or veteran scolded them for doing so.
# Midway through the season, he felt as though his teammates had given up on the rest of the year. (Mariners manager Mike Hargrove, by contrast, said he was satisfied with the team's approach, though he also indicated there were instances in which the team could have done better.)
# Ichiro is disappointed that the team has finished out of the playoffs every year since 2001. He misses playing in postseason games. Amid the losing culture, his pursuit of 200 hits has been one of his few motivating factors. Given a choice, he said he would much rather be compelled by the external influence of a pennant race, rather than individual statistics.
Ichiro's words could resonate through the winter, as the Mariners seek a way out of a cycle of underachievement that has seen 90-plus losses paired with payrolls near and beyond $90 million.
"He has some thoughts on how the club can improve," Attanasio said. "He's voiced himself to the powers that be.
"If it was one season, that would be one thing. But you can't just talk through two seasons."
Bobby Madritsch, a left-handed pitcher waived by the Mariners at season's end, buttressed Ichiro's sentiments Tuesday, saying that his assessment of the team's morale was "absolutely right."
"A lot of guys gave up on the season too early," said Madritsch, who rarely traveled with the team due to a season-long shoulder injury but was present in the clubhouse before many home games. "The veterans who make the most money, none of them stepped up. We had no leadership.
"When you have a young team like we did, you look to the veterans, the older guys. But they weren't saying much. Playing cards is not how you prepare for a game, but that's what we did."
However, center fielder Jeremy Reed pointed out that individual players have different methods of preparation. "If being serious and sitting at a locker is one of them, that may be a way for some people, and not for others," Reed said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Jeff Nelson, the veteran relief pitcher who turns 39 Thursday, said rookies should be given latitude to adjust to the big-league lifestyle before being held to a rigid routine.
"Put it this way," Nelson said, "in a rough season, when you have so many young guys, they're just happy to be in the big leagues. They're out of the minors. They're going to different cities. They're making big-league money. Who cares if they win or lose?
"With guys like (Yuniesky) Betancourt or (Jose) Lopez, it's hard to tell them, 'Hey, it's time to win.' It's overwhelming. Give them some time to shine. Maybe next year you tell them that it's time to buckle down."
Bill Bavasi, who as the club's general manager is charged with returning the Mariners to contention, did not address Ichiro's remarks in great detail Tuesday, other than to say that the organization "talks with every player, and their opinions matter to us." Bavasi would not discuss specifics of any year-end meeting with Ichiro.
Through a club spokesperson, CEO Howard Lincoln and club president Chuck Armstrong referred interview requests to Bavasi.
Ichiro's comments seemed to suggest that adding clubhouse character should be as much of an offseason priority as starting pitching or left-handed power. It may be, however, that Ichiro himself is best fit to be the leader the team seeks.
Near the end of his interview with the Tokyo Shimbun, Ichiro said he feels he has attained seniority in Seattle, similar to his status during his final seasons with the Orix Blue Wave. That, he said, affords him the ability to speak out and offer his opinions on the team.
Madritsch, however, said Ichiro was not often vocal during players-only meetings. So, the question persists: Is Ichiro, while fighting against linguistic and cultural barriers, capable of becoming a clubhouse leader?
"It's possible," Madritsch said. "Ichiro knows English. He's just been waiting for another vocal leader to step forward. He hasn't seen it yet. Right now, there's no one to follow.
"The clubhouse is segregated. It's almost like high school all over again. They pick their cliques and leave the rest of the people alone."
Madritsch, again, did not travel with the club often, and Reed said that the players "did our share of hanging out together," especially on the road.
"We're together, 24/ 7," Reed said. "You'd have to try pretty hard not to get along with the other people. You're around them all the time."
One reported divide mentioned in a New York newspaper last weekend -- between Ichiro and Hargrove -- appears to have been greatly exaggerated. Hargrove said he spoke with Ichiro in his office "five or six times" over the course of the season, as the two discussed differing philosophies on baseball situations, but gave no indication that their relationship had soured.
As recounted by the Tokyo Shimbun story, one particular difference of opinion came after the Mariners' Aug. 8 game against Minnesota, when several Seattle players made outs early in the count, swinging at pitches out of the strike zone in the early innings. Given that the Twins' starter was renowned strike-thrower Carlos Silva, Hargrove instructed his team -- especially the younger players -- to take the first pitch, in an attempt to build Silva's pitch count.
"That was something that, as a manager, I felt needed to be said at the time," Hargrove said. "It wasn't aimed at the entire group.
"Ichiro has a way to hit, and a philosophy he believes in. It works for him. Not everybody does the same thing, the same way."
On this particular night, Ichiro did not adhere to the auto-take. Part of his method involves swinging often early in the count. According to the Tokyo Shimbun report, Ichiro's first-pitch batting average was above .420 over his first four seasons, before dropping to .200 this year.
He made contact with Silva's first pitch twice. Both times, he was out.
Ultimately, Hargrove's strategy worked. The Mariners won, 5-4, with the deciding run scoring on Reed's bases-loaded walk, issued by relief pitcher Jesse Crain, a true triumph in the name of patience.
Hargrove met with Ichiro after the game, and said the two left with a mutual understanding.
"It's a difference in philosophy, that's all," Hargrove said. "I don't have a problem with that. I really don't. I don't want robots playing for me. They have their abilities and talents, and I want them to be creative."
Perhaps owing to his sense that his teammates had given up on the season in July, Ichiro told the Tokyo Shimbun that he began playing in such a way as to best satisfy the Seattle fans. His numbers, in fact, bear that out. He hit 15 home runs and 12 triples, both U.S. career highs. Twelve of his home runs came after June 1, even though he told the newspaper that his style had not changed.
A cynic might suspect Ichiro has come forward with these remarks now, at a time when some in baseball argue that he is concerned with individual achievement, content to collect his 200 hits in a losing effort. In fact, the opposite appears to be true.
"If anybody were to call Ichiro a selfish person, I'd love for them to tell that to my face," Madritsch said. "What I see in Ichiro is beyond unselfish. He has one goal. Win. He was doing whatever he could to help the team out."
Now, it appears he is communicating his desire for the Mariners to recruit, mold or nurture clubhouse presences of strong character, lest the full burden of franchise leadership be his alone to bear.