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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

July 13, 2009 at 3:10 PM

How Ichiro got his groove back (and how Wakamatsu helped break down the clubhouse walls)

Ichiro’s press availability today was dominated by the Japanese press. He granted just 10 minutes to the English-speaking media, so the usual “State of Ichiro” address was more like “The County of Ichiro,” or perhaps “The Unincorporated Village of Ichiro.”

But I did the best I could, and he had some good insights, as always. Even better, however, were the insights offered by manager Don Wakamatsu, who is here as a coach. Turns out that Ichiro, Felix Hernandez, Felix’s wife and kids and Wakamatsu (as well as one of Wakamatsu’s sons), and the Texas Rangers’ contingent of Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton all flew out to St. Louis from Seattle on a private jet after Sunday’s game at Safeco Field. (Michael Young, the other Ranger in the game, flew out separately on Monday). That’s pretty common for the All-Stars from the two teams that meet in the last game before the break to fly out together. Oh, also on the plane was Ken Griffey Jr., who hitched a ride to St. Louis and then caught another plane home to Orlando.

The cool thing, Wakamatsu said, was that the close proximity he had with Ichiro on the plane that allowed him to pick his brain about why he does some of the things he does. He said he solicited Ichiro’s thoughts on subjects like weight training, his philosophy of batting practice, and numerous other topics on the jet. At least, while Griffey and Ichiro weren’t bantering back and forth.

“The whole time, they were on each other,” he laughed.

I give Wakamatsu high marks this season — perhaps the highest for any single thing he’s done in transforming the atmosphere of the team which as we all know was toxic last year — for making a concerted effort to understand Ichiro in a much deeper manner than his predecessors. And I think it’s paying dividends. Ichiro spoke at length today of his respect, admiration and fondness for Wakamatsu.

Wakamatsu was smart enough to recognize that the friction on this team is what tore it apart last year. I asked him how high a priority, after his hiring, he placed on forging a relationship with Ichiro and rectifying that situation.

“No. 1,” he replied. “Really, the lesson I tried to learn over the years, being around different managers, I know how paramount it is to establish trust with the veterans. That’s Ken Griffey Jr., that’s Mike Sweeney, that’s Ichiro, that’s Jarrod Washburn, that’s Erik Bedard — the main characters of that club. If they don’t respect me, or like me, or think I’m the guy for the job, I have an uphill battle. Obviously, his happiness was at the top of the list.”

And that didn’t just require winning over Ichiro – it required winning over the other players toward accepting Ichiro, and getting over the resentment, or friction, or whatever you want to call it, that existed last year.

“The biggest thing for us was to try to point everyone in his direction,” Wakamatsu said. “You need to stop pointing the finger that way and say, ‘This guy stayed healthy, this guy has been on the All-Star team every year, he’s had 200 hits every season. You might want to cherish that and learn from it rather than mock it.”

That’s exactly what this team needed to hear, in my opinion. All the complaints we’ve heard about Ichiro over the past few years ring hollow when you consider the high standard of play he’s upheld throughout his career in Seattle.

Ichiro, no question, has some unconventional ideas about strategy, preparation, et al, I think it’s fair to say. Those have confused, annoyed and perhaps even alienated previous managers. I asked Wakamatsu how he has dealt with it.

“I still think it goes back to the fact he trusts me, and what we’ve been able to do relationship-wise to build that trust from the start,” he said. “There’s certain issues, I brought him in, and he said, ‘Every manager has brought me in on that.’ Some of it’s old hat. Other things you see in the course of the day you know have changed. He’s smiling more, he’s laughing. But you can’t argue with the year he’s having. He’s done an awful lot. There was animosity with the club on certain things he does, but it was just as much my part to educate them on why he does that, and it’s not in a selfish manner. He plays and prepares as well as anybody.”

I asked Wakamatsu to give me an example.

“If you talk about Japanese-style baseball, if we’re down by 12 runs, in Japan, they’ll bunt, because that’s getting a runner on. Here, it’s like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ The point is, that’s more stereotypical that people have that attitude. If he wants to get on base and help our club, that’s not a selfish act. But that is more of a cultural thing than him trying to add to a base-hit total. In the past, I think a lot of people viewed it that way. Or he tried to steal a base. But the bottom line is, he’s sacrificed in situations I haven’t even given him the bunt sign, just because our belief he’s going to get a hit. That’s another side maybe the players don’t understand, either.”

I asked Wakamatsu to amplify on what he said about educating the rest of the team about why Ichiro does what he does.

“You don’t sit there and have a team meeting and say, ‘This is why he does it.’ The coaching staff helps me in a lot of that. I think we’re a teaching staff. We communicate; every day you’ll see us walking around and talking to different players. I think it’s not so much we hold a press conference and say, ‘This is this.’ We do a lot of work behind the scenes. I also entrusted Lee Tinsley to take that whole outfield group. You have some dynamics — you have Japanese players, Latin players. He has to spend a lot of time one on one.”

On top of all that, you can’t under-estimate the impact of Griffey’s presence on improving Ichiro’s comfort-level in the clubhouse.

“He finally has someone he respects as a peer, and someone who can really loosen him up,” Wakamatsu said. “Whether it’s the tickling, or the Ichi ball shirts, or whatever.”

I asked Ichiro why he thinks the team is doing so well this year in contrast to last season, when the Mariners lost 101 games.

“First, you think about new teammates — Junior, Sweeney and Branyan,” he said through interpreter Ken Barron. “They bring a good atmosphere to the team. Also, when you have more wins than losses, things happen. Things come about just from that. We see the influences of that as well this season.

“But besides that, the number-one field commander, our manager. He has been huge. He’s very calm, cool headed, and he prevents the players from panicking. He also has the ability to evaluate things, in an outside looking in way. That has been huge for us as well.”

Ichiro added that this year’s All-Star Game is special because he began the year on the disabled list with a bleeding ulcer, missing the first eight games.

“If you think of it like that, at that point, of all the players in major league baseball, I was probably furthest way from the All-Stars, the possibility of becoming an all-star player that year. For that reason, this is very special. Because of the sickness, it was not in my head for All-Stars to be a goal.”

The only other year he didn’t have making the All-Star team as a goal, he said, was in 2001, his first year.

“From the second year through eight, I did have a goal of becoming an All-Star,” he said.

But here he is, an All-Star for the ninth straight time, as happy and content as he’s been, I’d wager, since that first year.

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