(Ichiro and Barry Bonds are honored as the top All-Star vote-getters in 2001. Seattle Times staff photo).
It’s weird not having Ichiro at the All-Star Game.
It was weird yesterday when Ron Washington unveiled the American League’s starting lineup and read off “Curtis Granderson” in the leadoff spot, which had always been reserved for Ichiro. He’s started there in nine of the last 10 years, and even the one time Ichiro didn’t get voted in as a starter, in 2005, he still made the team.
It will be weird for the AL players, I’m sure, when they gather for their pre-game meeting and Ichiro doesn’t unleash his comic obscenity-laced pep talk.
Some of the most memorable Ichiro moments have occurred at the All-Star Game — his infield hit off Randy Johnson at Safeco in 2001, his inside-the-park home run en route to the MVP Award in San Francisco in 2007, a leaping catch to rob Albert Pujols in 2003.
But mostly it was weird not having Ichiro partake yesterday in what I came to think of as “The State of the Ichiro” address. Every year, on the Monday before the All-Star Game, the players are gathered in a hotel ballroom, put in front of a table, and face the media for an hour. In my opinion, Ichiro always used this occasion to give his most revealing and insightful interviews of the season. It was at the media gathering event in Pittsburgh in 2006 that he gave his famous “diseased roots” spiel that hinted of his dissatisfaction with…well, that was subject to interpretation. And the next year, in San Francisco — a few weeks after Mike Hargrove’s resignation — he spoke glowingly of his contentment. The very next day, his five-year contract extension became public.
I’ve been lucky enough to cover each of the last 10 All-Star Games, so I’ve listened to each of the “State of the Ichiro” addresses except the first. Since that game was in Seattle, we had virtually the entire Seattle Times sports staff on hand, and someone else was assigned Ichiro.
But I’ve listened to him in Milwaukee (when they played to a tie), Chicago, Houston, Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, New York, St. Louis and Anaheim. At the All-Star Game in St. Louis in 2009, Ichiro felt bad that he had spent so much time with the Japanese media contingent that he short-changed the English-speakers. I was sitting in the press box during NL batting practice when his interpreter, Ken Barron, called me on my cell phone and said that Ichiro wanted to make it up, and he’d grant me a a one-one-one interview in the clubhouse. We spoke for about 20 minutes. When other reporters came up, Ichiro shooed them away. He had promised one-on-one, and that’s what it would be. He gave some great insights into the Mariners’ surprising success that year under first-year manager Don Wakamatsu.
Since Ichiro’s not here in Arizona to offer his pearls of wisdom, I thought I’d present some snippets from past “State of the Ichiro” addresses.
2001, Seattle (from a piece by former Seattle Times columnist Blaine Newnham)
“I don’t worry about what you write,” he said through an interpreter, his sense of humor nonetheless showing through. “The fact I don’t understand it probably helps.”
For someone who has an athletic life of being on a media stage he shuns, he handled himself perfectly.
Asked whether he now considers himself one of the world’s great baseball players, he said, “I don’t think I can say that. It’s been such a short time that I’ve been here, three months. The All-Star Game might be a starting point for me.”
Of his season so far, he said, “I’m not satisfied or unsatisfied. I had no expectations. In terms of the feel of hitting, this season is close to what I’ve done before. But I don’t think about numbers, I can’t think about numbers.”
Because he’d always been busy this time of year playing baseball in Japan, Ichiro said he had looked forward to seeing this All-Star Game as a fan.
“That’s true,” he said. “I would be very happy to be here as a fan.”
Ichiro hopes he won’t be affected by the Sports Illustrated jinx, a phenomenon with which he was not familiar until it was explained.
“Don’t tell me that,” he said with a mock grimace.
When the reporter apologized, Ichiro smirked and said, “Too late.”
Ichiro, the lone Mariners All-Star, is living out the frustration, and is devoid of explanations.
“I really don’t know, but there’s been a lot of ways we’ve lost games this year, ” he said through interpreter Allen Turner. “Like in Toronto … we’ve had some terrible bad luck and been in bad situations.
“Maybe we could get someone to pray for the field or something, and get it cleaned up, get it pure.”
Ichiro, who arrived at his Detroit hotel at about 2 a.m. Monday after flying from Anaheim with Angels All-Stars Garret Anderson and Bartolo Colon, did not participate in the Home Run Derby, despite what seems to be the strong urging of baseball officials.
At one point last week, Ichiro had left open the possibility of representing Japan in the new eight-nation format. But in the end, he declined, and Korea’s Hee Seop Choi was the Asian representative.
“It’s not that I was thinking about entering, but there was more pressure of them wanting me to enter the contest,” he said. “It was a difficult thing to do, but I never thought about it.”
Why not, considering that Ichiro’s entry would have undoubtedly added spice to the event — which observers have predicted for years he had the potential to win. It’s not, Ichiro said, because he worries about messing up his swing.
“I think there’s a little bit of that, but for me, I respect the Home Run Derby,” he said. “That’s why I felt I shouldn’t enter.”
Ichiro turned a question Monday about the Mariners’ inconsistent first-half performance into something of a Zen riddle that hinted of underlying issues.
When asked what the Mariners needed to do to rid themselves of the tough times, Ichiro who hit several balls over the right-field bleachers during batting practice went deep.
“If there is a problem,” he said, “we need to notice it, what creates the problem. The problem usually isn’t just on the cover. You need to look much deeper.
“For example, if we’re taking about a tree, and the tree has a problem, you need to look at the root. But you cannot see the root. The mistake is to keep watering the fruit. That’s not going to solve anything. You need to find where the problem is first.”
Anticipating the expiration, after next season, of the four-year, $44 million contract Ichiro signed after the 2003 season, he was asked if there is anything he would like to see the Mariners do before he began talking about a new deal.
“No way I can answer that,” he said. “No matter what I see, you guys [the media] will make it into a problem, make it bigger and bigger, and create a big mess.”
The reporter replied that he was just trying to find the roots under the tree.
“If I answer that, basically, what I’m doing is ruining the fruit,” he replied.
2007, San Francisco
“This team is completely different than last year,” Ichiro said Monday through interpreter Ken Barron. “The mental state is completely different. And how everyone is taking in the atmosphere is totally different than the team from last year.”
In a positive way?
Has the losing culture that developed over three consecutive last-place finishes been eliminated?
“At this point right now,” Ichiro said, “I don’t see a speck of that kind of mentality with this team we have right now.”
Asked Monday if the managerial change would affect where he played, Ichiro looked incredulous that the reporter had the temerity to make such an indelicate inquiry.
“You only ask bad questions,” he scolded. “That’s not something someone should speak of in front of a camera.”
But what Ichiro would speak of, eagerly, was the Mariners’ turnaround, and his appraisal of their growth as a team.
“First off, this team this year has a lot of talent on it,” he said. “Each individual player has potential. Not only that, if you look up and down the order, the opposing pitcher doesn’t really have a spot he can take a break.
“Also, through the rotation, our starters are balanced. Once you get into our bullpen, we have good relievers. Looking at that as a whole, you can tell we’re a good team.”
Ichiro also revealed contentment in center field. He had always said he would move from right field only if the Mariners came up with someone he felt would do the job in right as well as him, or was able to hit with power. He acceded last year (when they had neither) and has nary a regret.
“Now I’m happy about it, but when I first took the position, there was, of course, a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “I had confidence in myself, but I didn’t know how the team would operate once I made the shift to center field.
“Now that I’ve played the position of center field, I feel I can utilize more of my potential in that position. Not only that, but the left fielder and the right fielder on our team are very understanding of the way I like to play. I’m so grateful and happy about the situation.”
2008, New York
Ichiro arrived at this All-Star Game in a starkly different position than last year, when the Mariners were in the thick of contention. While he was in San Francisco, news broke of his pending five-year contract extension, which became official later in the week.
Now, the Mariners are in last place, with the worst record in the American League, and Ichiro has his lowest average ever (.304) at the break.
“It has been a really tough year for me individually, and also as a team,” he said.
But Ichiro, who traditionally uses the All-Star media session on Monday to delve more deeply than normal into his psyche, said he is not second-guessing his decision to tie himself to the Mariners through 2012.
“Is any part of me regretting I signed the contract? Not at all. I’m not regretting that at all,” he said. “Am I disappointed in the results? Yes.”
The Mariners’ slide has even prompted some speculation that the team would consider trading Ichiro as part of its rebuilding process, despite a common perception that its Japanese ownership would not allow it. Ichiro has limited trade veto rights.
“Is there a chance [of being traded]? Of course, there’s always a chance, especially when our team is playing like this,” Ichiro said. “In this kind of situation, I feel it’s only normal for people to bring up a subject like that.
“Personally, as a player, if other teams want me, that’s a way of other teams showing I have value. In that way, I’m thankful.
“If the Mariners ever think they don’t need me on the team, then I have to start thinking about this kind of situation. But the fact I signed a five-year contract with the Mariners last year shows I want to play for that team.
“My overall feeling is that I never want to be in a situation where I’m not wanted by other teams. But the other overall feeling I have is, I’m glad everyone around me is having fun with this, and I can contribute to the topic the media are talking about.”
Ichiro was asked to clarify if he wanted to stay with the Mariners.
“I don’t think I even need to say that for you to know that,” he said.
In the midst of answering serious questions about his Mariners future, a television reporter strode up to the table where Ichiro was holding court, and asked, “What’s on your iPod?”
Ichiro burst into laughter and said, “Looking at what kind of questions I was going over right now, and for you to come in and ask that question, I wish I had your boldness. I think I’d be a better baseball player if I was bold as you.”
2009, St. Louis
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.”
Some call it “The State of the Ichiro” address, and Monday’s revealed a sober, subdued player who, like his teammates, is struggling to come to grips with a season gone sour.
“To be honest with you, I can’t even explain in words,” he said, speaking through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “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.”
Ichiro said it was odd seeing former teammate Cliff Lee in Anaheim and realizing 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,” Ichiro said.
Asked his reaction to the trade, he said: “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.”
The Mariners reached the All-Star break with a 35-53 record, 15 games out of first place. That explains why Lee is no longer in Seattle, but Ichiro was at a loss to explain how a season once filled with so much promise has gone so far off track.
“Baseball is a very tough and difficult sport,” he said. “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.”
Asked if he was still optimistic about the Mariners’ long-term future, he said, “To us players, we can only look forward to a future. That’s the way we need to approach the game, the attitude we need as a team and (as) a player.”