I’ve attended all 10 of Ichiro’s All-Star Games, and the Monday before the game has always been a good chance to probe his state of mind. That’s when players are required to sit at a table for about an hour and answer questions prior to heading to the stadium for the workout and Home Run Derby.
It’s never quite that easy with Ichiro, who spends most of his time addressing the Japanese media — first the electronic media, then the print reporters. Since he’s the only Japanese player to make either squad ths year, there was a huge Japanese media contingent surrounding him today in Anaheim, interviewing him in his native tongue.
The English-speaking media got about 15 or 20 minutes, which really is about 10 minutes because questions and answers have to be translated. But as usual, Ichiro had some interesting things to say through interpreter Antony Suzuki, who was making his first All-Star appearance. Ichiro’s former translator, Ken Barron, left the team following last season to pursue a business opportunity.
Ichiro noted that it was odd seeing his former teammate, Cliff Lee, in Anaheim and realize he’s no longer a Mariner.
“I haven’t seen him in a full uni yet, but it’s definitely odd when you see Cliff Lee on TV the next day (after the trade) pitching for the Rangers,” he said.
I asked Ichiro for his reaction to the trade: “To be honest with you, I was very, very excited when he joined the Mariners. When you face different teams, you see a lot of pitchers. When you see Cliff Lee, he’s something different. He’s a special pitcher, and the No. 1 guy I wanted to pitch for the Mariners. That dream came true, and he did pitch for the Mariners. It’s sad to say he only pitched three months. This is reality. It is what it is. It’s unfortunate he leaves, but it was very good to play with him.”
When I asked Ichiro why he believes the Mariners’ season has gone so drastically off course, he turned the question around and said, “I want to ask you.”
“I have my theories,” I replied. “No one cares about my theories. They want to hear yours.”
He smiled, pondered, and spoke.
“Baseball is a very tough and difficult sport. You never know what will happen until you actually play the game. Many factors, different aspects. We all have to play to our ability, obviously, but to do that, we have to play as a team. Just because you have great talent it won’t get you to become a great team. It’s very difficult. It’s not like other sports. You have to play as a team, and you have to work together. I didn’t expect this to happen, but it is what it is. It’s reality. We have to deal with it.”
Someone asked how frustrating the struggles have been.
“To be honest with you, I can’t even explain in words. It’s very, very tough, hard and depressing. Here being at the All-Star Game, you want to feel motivated, you want to look forward to the game. But when you have to think about what the season is like, here in this position in Anaheim, it’s very tough. The media, everyone, expected a lot from us in spring training, and it didn’t work out that way. You can’t explain it in words. That’s how tough it is, mentally.”
I asked him if he was still optimistic about the long-term future of the Mariners — if he believed better teams are ahead.
“To us players, we can only look forward to a future,” he replied. “That’s the way we need to approach the game, the attitude we need as a team and a player.”
When someone asked if he was worried that his opportunity to be on a competitive Mariners’ team is closing as he moves toward the end of his career, he replied, “That question is a little different, because no one knows exactly what’s going to happen. No one comes to spring training and says, ‘Is this team ever going to win?’ We all need to perform as individuals to become a good team.”
Reflecting on Ken Griffey Jr. and what the past month without him has been like, Ichiro said, “Unfortunately, he’s gone. This is reality. We’re players, we have to move on. He was special. He protected us as a team, he took care of his teammates. He filled a different atmosphere with that kind of aura. He’s a game changer. He made everyone laugh, and he’s the one who motivates us. But we can’t dwell on it because it doesn’t do us any good.”
Ichiro was asked if he ever wondered what it would be like to get three days off at the All-Star break.
“If I took three days off, I would probably come to the ballpark and work out,” he said. “If you think about that, it probably takes more energy at the ballpark than the All-Star Game. I’d probably be tired and fatigued.”