PEORIA, Ariz. – Uh, oh.
Ichiro Suzuki is still in Japan. Yet three days into spring training, perceived preferential treatment of the superstar is already an issue with the Seattle Mariners.
Don Wakamatsu knew before he took the job as Seattle’s manager that this 101-loss team’s chemistry was toxic. It’s been polluted by issues with and jealousies of Suzuki, Seattle’s All-Star and Gold Glove outfielder and most marketable asset.
The first-time manager is trying to change that environment by fostering trust through one-on-one meetings with every player that go beyond just baseball.
“I did my homework. I talked to several players from last year,” Wakamatsu said. “I am fully aware of the rumblings, or people’s perception of it.
“I want to focus on creating that environment where maybe we bring the favoritism a little bit close to equality.”
Adrian Beltre, a favorite of teammates who won’t single out Ichiro or anyone by name, has arrived earlier than most position players. He’d like to accelerate that change.
“It’s going to be a long run if we start dividing early in the season,” he said.
The Gold Glove third baseman is renowned by teammates for playing through pain, such as a thumb injury he had for years before surgery last September. He is respected for his dedication to fundamentals, such as fielding hundreds of ground balls each day.
Seconds after Beltre walked into the clubhouse for the first time on Monday, burly pitcher Carlos Silva, who complained last season that some unnamed teammates were selfish, lowered his shoulder into Beltre’s chest and playfully drove Beltre back out the door. A parade of hugs from teammates followed.
No Mariner has ever tackled Suzuki. Some may have wanted to.
Former Seattle All-Star closer J.J. Putz was quoted Monday in the Seattle Times from Mets camp in Florida, saying of the 2008 Mariners: “There were just some guys that just weren’t really team guys.”
When asked if the Mariners can ever win with such players, Putz said: “It depends if they hold everyone accountable equally, or some guys just get special treatment like it’s been in the past.”
Suzuki has been known to stay in different hotels on the road than his teammates.
Asked specifically about Suzuki, Putz told the Times: “It’s hard to argue with 200 hits every year. … I just think there’s so much more he can do that doesn’t happen.”
Suzuki was not immediately available for comment Monday as Team Japan assembled in Miayzaki to begin official training for the World Baseball Classic.
“I’m going to support everyone here,” he said. “Even if he is or is not (a good teammate), I’m not going to tell you, because I think that should be addressed in the clubhouse, not outside.”
Last season, Seattle went from expecting a first postseason appearance since 2001 to enduring 101 losses. Now there’s a new front office, new coaching staff and new focus on rebuilding that has Beltre wondering if he will remain in Seattle. His contract ends this year.
“There’s some players here who played differently than how we play, than how you are supposed to play,” Beltre said.
He gave examples of outfielders who fielded hits when there were runners at first and second and threw home while the run was about to score easily, instead of throwing to a base to keep the other runner from advancing.
The Mariners have only three players on their roster who played outfield for them last season: Suzuki, raw prospect Wladimir Balentien and Mike Morse. It’s doubtful Beltre was talking about Morse. He played in just five games last season before season-ending shoulder surgery.
“Take a walk if you need it. If you can run … just little things like that,” Beltre added. “Then your teammates can see that you are playing the game to win, not just for numbers or your stats and stuff.”
Suzuki was one of 16 players in the major leagues with at least 700 plate appearances last season. Of that group, only Boston’s Dustin Pedroia (50) had fewer walks than Suzuki (51). And Pedroia was busy doing everything else in becoming the A.L. MVP.
The speedy Suzuki’s career success rate for stolen bases is 82 percent – last season it was 92 percent. Yet he hasn’t stolen more than 45 bases in any season since his career high 56 in 2001, when he was the A.L. MVP.
Wakamatsu said he talked with Suzuki in November when he was taking indoor batting practice in Seattle and exchanged text messages with him recently. He has dealt with the ego of elite players before, as Buck Showalter’s bench coach in 2003 with Texas and Alex Rodriguez.
How does a manager create the perception of equality with a superstar around?
“Obviously, they understand there is a hierarchy in this game by what you’ve done before,” he said. “It’s whether you communicate with those (other) guys or you invest in them just as much. Can there be equality? Yes and no. But the communication … that helps.”