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March 26, 2009 at 6:10 PM

Ichiro: Time to act like “professionals”

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By the way, we’re not doing Geoff Baker Live! today. Sorry, but still too many technical issues. We’ll try again tomorrow.
So, Ichiro joined the team for the first time since he and Kenji Johjima helped Japan win the World Baseball Classic title. Plenty has happened since we last saw Ichiro, starting with these comments by J.J. Putz last month in an interview with Larry Stone. After that, there was this Stone interview about the topic of Ichiro with former manager Jim Riggleman.
And then, as well, Adrian Beltre’s comments about last year’s team, in which he suggested some players weren’t doing the little things needed to win. There are other examples, like Carlos Silva’s rant last summer in which he spoke out against unidentifed players. But you get the drift. There’s been a whole lot said since Ichiro was last here and he had to be asked for a response to all of it. Doesn’t matter whether it makes us feel uncomfortable asking, or whether the timing would have been better two months ago. Ichiro wasn’t here two months ago. He was here today.
So, after a few minutes of him answering some of the easier questions, via interpreter Ken Barron, he was asked about leadership and what it meant to him. Since he’d done so well at the WBC, someone asked whether he could envision taking on a similar leadership role with the Mariners. He gave an interesting answer.
“I did not think or feel that I wanted to be a leader for the Japan WBC team,” he said. “And at the end, I was not a leader for the Japan WBC team. And something I’d felt, this thought of mine, became even stronger after playing with this Japanese WBC team, is that to have a leader — who is a leader? — that’s not important.
“What is, is to try to group together a group of individuals who want to improve themselves for what they do. We’re baseball players, so, who want to improve themselves as baseball players and also want to improve themselves as human beings. That’s what’s important. Although, trying to get a team together and pointing out a leader and saying ‘Everybody follow this leader’ sounds very easy and like a simple thing to do, if you go with this style, there are manholes.”
Ichiro added that leaders have to emerge naturally within a team.
“To want to choose one and appoint one is not the right way of doing things,” he said. “That’s what I’ve learned.”
He’d also mentioned that Ken Griffey Jr. could change some of the “atmosphere” around the team and was asked whether that could lead to more winning.
“We shouldn’t rely on gaining more wins by changing that atmosphere, but in baseball it’s a possibility,” he said.
After a few more easier questions were lobbed his way. I finally decided to ask him what we had to ask: about all that’s been said since last October.
I quoted from Putz’s comments, saying that while he felt Ichiro put up fantastic numbers each year, there was more he could do to help win games. I then mentioned Riggleman’s comments the day after that, when he spoke of gathering a handful of players in the clubhouse that he felt were unhappy with Ichiro and trying to get them to address their beefs.
I then asked him: “When you hear that kind of stuff said? How does that make you feel and is there anything you can do about that to help people see you a different way?”
Ichiro asked for more specifics about what Riggleman had said, in his interview with Stone. We later spoke after the scrum had broken up and he explained to me that he’d heard from a distance at the WBC that stuff was being said by some folks, but added that he really didn’t know some of the specifics.
So, anyway, back to the conference with reporters. After asking me for specifics about what Riggleman had said about the other players, he then immediately asked if I had any specific examples of what he could do differently to make the situation better.
Since he seemed to be waiting for an answer to his question, I shrugged and said: “Talk to them?” (Refering, of course, to anyone with a beef).
Not really my place to be telling anyone in that clubhouse how to go about their business, but he was asking and someone had to fill the void, so I put it out there. Once I did, Ichiro finally did answer the initial question.
“This is major league baseball,” he said. “We’re all professionals here. Is it really at a level where I have to explain to other people what the reasons are that I do some things? We’re all professionals. It makes me feel like..that’s like the level of a Mom telling a child ‘This is why I do things.’
“So, the problem once again is, we were still at that level. Maybe that was the problem. That we were still at that level. Isn’t what a professional is, that you look at other things and you try to steal (I think he meant borrow) other things by watching and learning from others?
“This is so silly that I hate to be wasting time with this kind of thing,” he added. “I’m surprised at this. I’m surprised.”
Fair enough on his complete answer. He doesn’t have to address anyone directly if he doesn’t want to. He may have been surprised that the question was asked, though, as I mentioned, this thing has been written about all winter and Putz made his comments at the start of spring training. Ichiro had yet to speak about an issue that first surfaced in public six months ago. He declined on the day it was first revealed and the season ended right after. So, this was unfinished business. He had his chance to answer the criticisms and this is how he chose to do it. But you’ve got to give him that chance if you’re going to stand around his locker and ask about how his winter went. Now, we move on.
Griffey was hovering nearby while the whole session was going down just opposite his locker. The rest of the clubhouse was nearly empty. Griffey kept repeating: “That’s last year” as the questions were being asked. I couldn’t make out all he was saying, but he was clearly trying to deflect some of the questioning towards more positive topics. I understand how he feels. Mike Sweeney feels the same way and both players have worked overtime trying to ensure a more harmonious clubhouse this spring. So far, it appears they’ve succeeded. We’ll have to see how the season progresses.
Anyhow, I wanted to make sure Griffey understood why these things were being asked now and we had a pleasant conversation.
I chatted for 20 minutes with Griffey after others had left the clubhouse. It was just me and him, with Ichiro dressing nearby. I understand where he’s coming from and I think, after we spoke, that he understands where we’re at as the media in regards to the things we have to politely ask even if the subject matter is unpleasant and the timing less than perfect. In fact, I’m pretty sure that after 20 years in the majors, he knew where today was headed before it all began. But as I said, Griffey and Sweeney are working to improve the overall clubhouse environment and make it a more accountable place.
No one is trying to undo that on this end and that point was emphasized to Griffey. I didn’t plan it so that Ichiro would first set foot in camp on March 26, but that’s the way it worked out and he was owed a chance to respond to all that’s been said. He got the chance and took it. Now, we lay 2008 to rest, unless somebody makes it an issue down the road again. But we’ll worry about that later. For now, we move forward to 2009.
Mike Cameron had a positive influence on Ichiro when he was here, almost taking him under his wing to a degree. Or, so I’m told, because I didn’t get here until 2006. It’s been suggested that Griffey’s presence could help Ichiro, acting as a clubhouse confidant of sorts and also as a buffer so he’s not always singled out — as the lone superstar — when things go wrong.
So, Ichiro was asked the obvious question. Will Griffey’s presence help him?
“I feel like no matter where I go, I’ll be the same,” he said. “I’ll do the same routines. And go about my way of preparing for the game. Just because Ken’s here, that’s not going to change. Although, sometimes, he might (physically) get in the way of me preparing for the game.”
That last part was a joke about Griffey’s size. He’s much bigger than Ichiro, obviously.
“But to have a huge presence like him here may change the atmosphere as a whole. How that is, I can’t answer that. But I have that kind of feeling.”
Just 10 days to go until 2009 gets here for real.



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