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

January 4, 2012 at 10:54 AM

Ichiro looks back on difficult season

ichiarticle.jpg

(Photo by Associated Press)

I learned a long time ago to take English summations of articles from the Japanese media with a few grains of salt, because often something gets lost in the translation. Like nuance. And context. The classic case came in 2005, when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a big story with the headline, “Ichiro unhappy with M’s. Star player decries lack of leadership and commitment.”

The article cited a list of grievances by Ichiro, citing a translation of a story in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper. Not surprisingly, this caused a big stir, and a lot of consternation from the reporter who wrote the story upon which the P-I was basing it’s article. That reporter was Keizo Kenishi, who had covered Ichiro in Seattle for the Kyodo News Service since his arrival in 2001 (and still does to this day) . In fact, Keizo wrote a piece for the Seattle Times in which he tried to set the record straight about what exactly Ichiro had said — which was quite different than what the original article conveyed.

I bring this up because a few articles are emanating from Japan this week in which Ichiro is reflecting upon his difficult 2011 season, one in which he failed to reach several milestones that had become obligatory for him. No .300 batting average. No 200 hits. No All-Star appearance. No Gold Glove. Ichiro turned 38 after the season, and will face considerable scrutiny in 2012 as he tries to prove that last year was an aberration, not the beginning of a rapid decline. He will be doing that as he enters the final season of his five-year, $90-million contract, which will create a whole other set of intrigue.

In this story from Reuters, which is attributed to quotes from Nikkan Sports, Ichiro says he felt “mental stress” after seeing his streak of 200-hit seasons ended at 10:

“I felt desperate last season. That doesn’t happen to me very often. Mental stress is a lot worse than physical stress.”

This is quite a different answer than the one he gave to me and other Mariners media, when we talked to him at his locker after the final game of the season. Here’s a transcript of that interview:

On whether he felt pressure to get 200 hits: “It’s a little strange, because this year I’ve never mentioned about 200, ever, during the season or during spring training. Nor did I mention that during last year, too. I feel communication is very tough, because I have never mentioned that nor have I thought about that. Psychology is very interesting from my standpoint, because you never know what people think about you when you don’t show that. So this year I felt like I learned a lot, as a human being, not just as a player, because that’s a part of being who I am, knowing how people around me think, psychologically.”

Asked if we (media) were wrong to think he was feeling that pressure: “Yes, wrong by a lot. That said, I don’t think you guys have enough imagination.”

Perhaps Ichiro was parsing the difference between feeling “stress” and “pressure” — which wouldn’t surprise me — or perhaps he wasn’t ready to reveal his emotions, which is perfectly understandable. Or perhaps something got lost in the translation.

Interestingly, the article also says that Ichiro has been linked to the general manager’s job with Orix, his former Japanese team. That’s the first I’ve heard about that, but I’d be shocked if anything is imminent on that front. I believe Ichiro badly wants to get 3,000 hits in MLB, and he’s 572 hits away. That’s three seasons away if he resumes a 200-hit pace, obviously longer if he drops off that pace. I don’t see him walking away to take a front-office job, unless his skills really start to decline precipitously.

Here’s what ichiro said about aging in the Nikkan interview, somewhat crypically: “Sometimes I feel I’m getting older, or more sensitive to what they say on TV. Yes, my skin gets dry but it’s a lame conclusion to blame everything on age. People are quick to point to age. Those people don’t interest me.”

He added, “But if you are a professional, you need to put up results.”

Ichiro said his troubles began last year when he had successful April statistically, hitting .328, even though he reveals now he didn’t feel good at the plate. In May, historically his best month, he hit just .210.

“I didn’t feel good at the plate but I continued getting hits in April,” he told Nikkan Sports. “It was the most difficult start (to a season) I could think of. It’s hard to judge in April if what you’ve been working on in spring training was right. I thought I was right because I was getting hits, but it takes time to work out what went wrong. There was a gulf between my stats and the way I was feeling. It’s almost impossible to tell yourself ‘This is wrong!’ when things are going so well.”

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