Ichiro was about to take part in the 300-yard shuttle run earlier today when Ken Griffey Jr. grabbed him at the start line just as his group got the green light. The Japanese leadoff star howled in protest as Griffey held him for several seconds, not letting him catch up to the others he was running with.
Later on, Ichiro finally did catch up, but Griffey kept hounding him. “He didn’t touch the line,” Griffey can be heard complaining to trainer Rob Nodine in the video footage we show you below as part of today’s wrap up. Later, you can hear Griffey telling a tired Ichiro, as he lies on the ground breathing heavily, “That’s what happens when you get old.”
Ichiro has no problem with the taunts and pranks from Griffey, though. It’s clear this is some of the most fun he’s ever had as a ballplayer, something he alluded to afterwards in speaking to reporters for the first time since arriving in camp.
“Being back in Japan for most of the off-season, I had a lot of guys around me who gave me a lot of good information about about who we acquired,” Ichiro said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “…I followed that very well. Being with Jack (Zduriencik) and (Don) Wakamatsu for, it’s my second year now, I know how they feel about what we need now. I think they look not only at potntial, but also the character of each player. And what we need to fill in when you look at chemistry as well. For the team and in the clubhouse. I believed that he (Zduriencik) would make a good move, and I believe this team right here will be a great team chemistry-wise as well. Not just in the potential of the talent.”
That’s a big change over 2008, when, as we’ve documented extensively, there were a ton of clubhouse problems and a lot of folks pointing fingers at Ichiro. The new regime, under Zduriencik, has purged that club of all but five players — Ichiro, Felix Hernandez, Jose Lopez, Mark Lowe</strong and Erik Bedard — that began the season in 2008. It wasn’t an accident.
And it’s no coincidence that Ichiro just might feel as happy and excited about this team and coming season as any he’s played with since his 2001 debut in the majors.
“That’s hard to say, because that’s how we feel every year,” he said. “That’s the approach we have every year. That’s the mindset we have as well. But before, in the past, I could say that I’ve intentionally tried to have that feeling, whereas this year, I’m more natural towards being very excited, looking forward to this new season. Because of all the new moves and the experience we had last season.”
And of course, Griffey has plenty to do with that. When Ichiro heard Griffey was coming back for another season, he shipped him over a barrel full of Japanese sake wine.
“The main reason why he came back was to joke around with me more and do more pranks with me,” Ichiro said, tongue-in-cheek. “And that’s good for myself and for the team, so that’s probably the main reason he came back. I wasn’t missing it but I was prepared for it.”
Griffey did not take part in the shuttle run for a second straight year. Instead, he arrived in a golf cart just as the groups were beginning their first in a series of two runs. From there, he clapped mock encouragement and even joined some groups in running the final 30 yards or so of their sprints.
“That’s bull—!,” Ichiro called out as Griffey began tagging along for the final few yards of his run.
Ichiro agrees there will be higher expectations on the team this season.
“Of course, because we made good moves and have bigger expectations and that’s what we have to play to,” he said. “And that’s something we’re going to have to be aware of as well. And I’m personally aware of that. So, of course we’re going to have to play to expectations and we need more expectations from here on.”
On the acquisition of Chone Figgins, one of the best leadoff men in baseball last season, Ichiro said: “He’s a great player. Even if he were to hit behind me, I’m just happy that he’s not on the other side of the field.”
Ichiro added: “He could become an infielder and an outfielder and he’s a great hitter as well. When you look at me, I can hit and play outfield but not play infield. So, I think he’s got an edge over me.”
Then, he quipped: “But I can pitch.”