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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 15, 2009 at 11:53 AM

Ichiro revealed: He opens up on Wakamatsu, the clubhouse, and the Mariners’ future

Hope you’re not all Ichiro’d out, but the All-Star Game presents a unique opportunity to delve into subjects that he doesn’t always want to address during the regular season.

As I mentioned earlier, Ichiro spent the bulk of his media availability on Monday speaking with the Japanese press. The English-speaking media had time for maybe five questions before the session ended. In past years, he’s talked at length on the Monday before the All-Star Game and given valuable insights into his mindset. Two years ago in San Francisco, for instance, he gave such strong clues about his contentment in Seattle that I did some digging and wrote this column hinting that a contract extension was imminent. It happened the next day.

This year, we didn’t have enough time on Monday to get many pearls out of Ichiro, which was disappointing. But he was mindful of the brevity of his availability and agreed to talk further on Tuesday to rectify that, granting separate one-on-one interviews with the two Seattle reporters in St. Louis, myself and Doug Miller of MLB.com. As I was talking to Ichiro in the American League clubhouse, with Ken Barron interpreting, other reporters from around the country kept coming up to join the interview, and Ichiro would stop talking until Ken politely shooed them away. Ichiro wanted to make sure this was exclusive. (He gave them some time afterward).

Before I get to his comments — nothing that will stop the presses, but some typically intriguing and insightful thoughts — I wanted to clear up something about last night’s game. Ichiro was originally intending to leave Busch Stadium after he was removed from the game in the fifth inning. This has become a fairly common practice by many All-Stars, who want to avoid the crowds and hassle. For instance, I saw Mark Buehrle dressed and hustling out of the ballpark in the eighth inning. However, none of the other American Leaguers were leaving, so Ichiro opted to stay. He was there for the entire game, I can vouch for that. Not sure how much he watched from the dugout, but he was there. I talked to him in the clubhouse afterwards.

I wanted to delve a little deeper into the earlier comments by Don Wakamatsu, who said that building trust with Ichiro was his No. 1 priority when he was hired as Mariners’ manager.

“Actually, that’s something that’s not needed,” Ichiro said. “That’s something that’s not created because you want it to be that way. Although I’m grateful and thankful the manager had that desire, I think that trust and things like that are built through the season, and through communication, not through trying to make time for each other. Through actions throughout the season each other observes, that’s the way you truly establish that trust. Relationships that you create by thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to make time for this person, I’m going to make time to talk to this person,’ a relationship that’s created in this way, in my experience, is not a strong relationship. I think true relationships are built through places you can’t see.”

I asked him, in light of those words, to describe the relationship with Wakamatsu that has built over the course of the season.

“First of all, he is the type of person that’s able to control his emotions. I’m the kind of person that wants to be able to control my emotions. In that aspect, I think we have similarities. But just through things throughout the season, what is expected of me in the batter’s box, what kind of signals I get, or how the skipper plays me, his stance in these things, I can tell how much he trusts me.

“Through that, I can see his trust. When a player is getting that trust, you want to respond to that. Although there is no language there, trust develops in this way between each other. So there’s that kind of playing catch between player and manager in this way. Players, when they’re told, ‘Do this, you have to do that,’ they tend to want to go against that. This skipper doesn’t do that at all.”

I asked him to reflect on the friction toward him that emerged last year in some quarters of the clubhouse, and contrast it with his contentment and acceptance this year. This is probably his most telling comment of the interview.

“Actually, regarding that subject (clubhouse friction) I don’t know much. What I do know is that from last year to this year, I haven’t changed. I’m the same person. What I can say is, we have different players. We have a new manager. Some things we had last year disappeared. Of course, there are great additions like Junior, Mike Sweeney. But I did not change. If I did not change, and the problem is not there, that’s basic logical math to figure out. What I can say, I like good people, and the more good people you have, the team gets better.”

I asked whether last year was a particularly tough year for him beyond the losing, and he made it clear that the clubhouse tension didn’t cause any sort of personal crisis.

“Just the losing,” he replied. “Actually, I’ve had a lot of experiences in playing. In Japan, just to give you an example, a lot of experiences, My first year coming here from Japan, I’ve had many experiences of different kinds. You guys probably forgot about a lot of them, and there’s probably more than you guys know. I’m able to stick through things without getting swayed, I have that confidence in myself to not get swayed through small things.”

I asked him about the Mariners’ second-half prospects.

“At this point, we have a chance. But you can say that about Anaheim and Texas. Now it’s about how much heart and feeling and desire you have within yourself. No matter how much skill you have, unless you have that, you’ll not be able to win. That’s because if you have that, no matter how things get, you’re able to overcome it thanks to those traits. This applies not only in baseball, but many other things. In the second half, it’s about how much each of us players have that, and how we can bring it all into one.”

Asked to weigh in on the raging debate over whether the Mariners should be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline, Ichiro said, “This is something for fans to talk about, and fans to enjoy. It’s not our jobs as players to throw our opinion to get in the way of their enjoyment.”

With the need for translations of both questions and answers (though Ichiro knows enough English that he begins answering most questions, in Japanese, even before they’re translated), this took about 20 minutes. Toward the end, Ichiro put on his batting gloves and began stretching while he talked, a clear signal that he wanted the session to wind to a close. He then politely dismissed himself to go hit in the cage.

I hope these answers give a little more clarity into The State of Ichiro. There’s no question he has bonded with Wakamatsu, and there’s no question that the clubhouse is a much sunnier place for him, for which I give equal credit to Wakamatsu and Ken Griffey Jr. Griffey has worked diligently to help break down the walls between Ichiro and his teammates, and has also developed a personal relationship with Ichiro that displays genuine two-way affection. I think that’s what Ichiro has needed since Bret Boone and Mike Cameron left the team. I can’t remember if I posted this quote before, but Wakamatsu said of the Ichiro-Griffey relationship, “He finally has someone he respects as a peer, and someone who can really loosen him up, whether it’s the tickling, or the Ichi Ball shirts, or whatever.”

Raul Ibanez had an excellent relationship with Ichiro but in a quieter, less demonstrative way. Griffey has such stature in the clubhouse that the players have no choice but to follow his lead. And as Wakamatsu said Monday, the manager has worked quietly behind the scenes to remind the players that though Ichiro might seem quirky and unorthodox, he produces. As he said he told them, “You might want to cherish that and learn from it rather than mock it.”

I think this group, for the most part, is cherishing Ichiro. I suspect some of the people that might have had issues last year have come around, or have tried to make peace. And some aren’t around anymore. That all bodes well for his, and by extension the team’s, future.

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