Ichiro finally held court with the media after refuting prior interview requests down the stretch in this, his most difficult of seasons. His Mariners had just dropped a 2-0 decision to the Oakland A’s to finish the year being shut out in back-to-back games.
Overall, the M’s lost 95 games. Last year, they’d dropped 98 heading into their final series of the season, so there isn’t much separating the two from a win-loss perspective. Mariners manager Eric Wedge held court with his players pre-game and told them he wants that bar raised higher — saying he expects players to deal with heightened expectations that include “working to win our division” next season.
Ichiro has dealt with heightened expectations throughout his career. This season, he fell well short. It wasn’t so much the 184 hits — leaving him shy of 200 for the first time in his career — but more a .310 on-base percentage among the worst of any leadoff hitter or regular player with his number of plate appearances.
In talking after the game, Ichiro seemed to bristle when asked by reporters whether he’d thought often about extending his own major league record and reaching 200 hits for an 11th year in a row.
“This year, I’ve never mentioned about 200 – ever – during the season, nor in spring training,” Ichiro said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “Nor did I mention that last year, too.”
That actually isn’t quite accurate. He may not ever mention it prior to attaining the mark, but he’s admitted after the fact that it weighed heavily on his mind throughout.
Last year, upon reaching 200 hits in Toronto, he told radio reporter Shannon Drayer he’d felt pressure to attain the milestone.
“I think you can imagine how happy I am,” he told Drayer. “I know how tough it is to accomplish 200 hits every season and it has been another tough one again this season so that is how happy I am inside.”
He then added: “Mentally it is totally different because when you look at my rookie year nobody expected me to get 200-plus hits. I think if I was .260, .270 with 160-180 hits they would say ‘good job’. Now being in my shoes, I have to accomplish this because if I don’t people will say ‘how come you are not hitting anymore?’ That is a lot of pressure you have on your back and that is how I look at it.”
I wasn’t in Toronto for that. But I was in Texas in 2009 when Ichiro notched his 200th hit there. He talked then of feeling tons of pressure from fans back home in Japan, for whom his failing to reach 200 was not an option.
“For me, it’s not allowed for me to not accomplish this,” he said.
That pressure Ichiro felt pre-dates my arrival five years ago in Seattle. Back in 2004, he talked about the pressure he’d felt to reach 200 hits in 2003.
“About the time I reached 180 hits, I began feeling a pressure that was like butterflies in my stomach,” he said. “I wasn’t sick, but I wanted us to win and I wanted 200 hits,” Ichiro said. “As a hitter, I’d had 200 hits each of my first two seasons, and I wanted to accomplish it again. I wasn’t sure it could happen, but I wanted it.”
He added: “It’s a team sport, and the team must come first. But at the plate it’s an individual game, too. If we got to the World Series and I had 190 hits, there would be people who said I’d had a bad year.”
So, yes, Ichiro has indeed felt, by his own admission, plenty of pressure to attain 200 hits every single year. It may have been others putting that pressure on him, but it was pressure nonetheles. If he wants to insist now that he never even thought about 200 hits in 2011, that’s his right since none of us can read his mind.
But to express confusion as to why people would think the 200 hits were on his mind strikes me as somewhat disingenuous given his past statements.
“I feel the communication is very tough because I’ve never mentioned it, nor have I thought about it,” he said tonight. “So, the psychology is very interesting from my standpoint. Because you never know what people think about you when you don’t show them. So, this year I felt 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.”
OK, now that we’ve straightened all that out, I think it’s best for everyone — the media, Ichiro, the team, the free world — that we move on past the whole 200 hits thing for good and get back to the issue of winning games. The Mariners haven’t done much of that the past two years and getting back to it will involve tough decisions.
Some will involve Ichiro and others the young players around him.
“You see a lot of raw kids with decent talent and potential,” Ichiro said. “They all look positive. That’s something I like about their attitude. Obviously, we haven’t spent time through the course of a season and spring training, so it’s hard for me to evaluate how good they are.
“But I like the way they stay positive.”
Some of those young kids might need to be looked at in right field next season, especially if Ichiro can’t up his game from a .310 on-base percentage and an OPS of .645 that was the worst by any right fielder in baseball.
The Mariners have already said that Ichiro’s leadoff spot is not guaranteed for next season. I’ll believe that when I see it. Frankly, I haven’t seen too many candidates emerge as sure things to replace him. It’s not all that tough finding a .310 OBP guy anyplace, however, and realistically — outside of stolen bases — that’s what this boils down to.
So, Ichiro will need to up his game. Need to raise the bar, so to speak, and not just to please me. To please the paying customers, the fans, who have patiently waited for this rebuilding plan — now three years in — to start taking shape.
You don’t do that with a .310 OBP guy hitting leadoff. I’d argue that Chone Figgins should be given a shot at that spot next spring if he’s still with the team and if Ichiro can’t offer up more than he did this season.
Will that happen? Probably not. But this team needs better production than it got, especially if it plans to extend Ichiro beyond 2012 without at least waiting most of next season to see whether he can rebound.
That’s my take. You don’t have to agree. I’m just telling you what I think needs to happen if this team is to stop playing games and start winning again.
Wedge addressed the young players a lot down the stretch. Told them this could be the biggest off-season in the history of the Mariners in terms of how the young guys prepare for 2012.
“There have been a lot of times this year where we’ve put individuals ahead of the game because that’s where we are in this process,” he said. “This will be the last year for that. Because as you’re building this and you’re trying to figure out about guys, you want to answer questions as quickly as possible. And sometimes that can be painful and sometimes I’ve got to make tough decisions with that.”
Yes, he does. Because, to be honest, I like the talk from Wedge but talking time is just about done when it comes to Seattle baseball and its future.
We’ve heard lots of talk from lots of managers in the five years I’ve been here. Plenty of talk from a variety of players about accountability, playing meaningful games late in the season, turning the corner from one year to the next and so on and so on.
Most of those players — almost all of them in fact — have since left. As have the managers and entire staffs of coaches. They all talked the talk, then walked the walk out of town.
I like what Wedge is attempting here and this franchise needed a strong guy to try it where many good men before him had their hands tied and failed.
It’s time for the players to listen. For the folks upstairs to listen as well. Enough with the politics, with the payroll budgets that guarantee yearly surpluses but woeful, historically inept offenses. There’s a time for everybody to protect investments and even make a buck, but this ballpark wasn’t built entirely with private money and there is a degree of public trust at stake here too.
Without Safeco Field, the M’s today would not exist. And without local taxpayers, the ballpark would not have been built.
As of right now, the trust of fans in this franchise is sinking to perilous depths. There is still time for the team to pull back out of this nosedive into irrelevance but it has to act quickly. A near .500 season probably won’t be enough to totally turn the trick. There has to be a clear sign given — at some point soon — that this team is committed to being relevant again.
Well, it won’t involve me.
Look at attendance. It dropped 9 percent this year and has fallen 29 percent since the end of the 2007 season. You know? Jose Guillen and company? Not that long ago. At this rate, the M’s will lose many of these fans for good.
I don’t want to see that. Neither do you. I guarantee you the M’s probably don’t either.
This will be a big off-season. It’s been an interesting campaign on the blog with all of you. Some very high points and some crushing lows to chronicle. We’ve tried to keep it interesting, as always. In this day and age, when people don’t always “communicate” — as Ichiro would put it — it’s nice to have a way to see generally civil discourse about baseball.
It’s only a game. Not real life triumph and tragedy. But it’s a big part of all our lives and this is the way we’ve come to share it. Looking forward to more good times between us.
And for this ballclub, time for everybody — young, older, in-uniform and in suits — to raise the bar higher than what we’ve been seeing. There are far too many people who care enough to write in here every day about this team — in one of the best blogospheres in the country — to short-change them any more.