PEORIA, Ariz. – One of the goals that Don Wakamatsu set for his staff this spring was to dramatically change the Seattle Mariners – on the field and in the clubhouse – before Ichiro Suzuki reported to camp.
Now, his World Baseball Classic glory behind him, Ichiro and Team Japan teammate Kenji Johjima arrive in Peoria.
If, as the Mariners believe, there’s been a dramatic change, Ichiro will almost certainly hear it before he sees it.
“I’m gonna have to tell him he’s batting second this year,” Ken Griffey Jr. said. “I’m batting leadoff.”
Griffey, of course, is one of the changes.
“When you go to sleep at night, you still hear Junior and (Mike) Sweeney,” pitcher Brandon Morrow said, laughing. “You can hear them no matter what practice field you’re on. You always hear them in the clubhouse and in the dugout. You always know where they are. It’s awesome.”
There’s a far more important difference in camp than sound level. Wakamatsu and his all-new staff have done more than work on fundamentals in practice this spring – they’ve pushed those fundamentals into the Seattle playbook.
The Mariners have bunted runners along, and bunted for base hits. They’ve used hit-and-run plays, squeeze bunts and straight steals, and not just with the No. 9 hitter.
Veterans such as Jarrod Washburn see a profound change in the way this team plays the game.
“When a team can play small ball, it puts pressure on the opposing pitching staff, not just their infield,” Washburn said. “If you’re pitching against a team with more than one dimensional, a team you know can manufacture runs, it’s a far tougher team to stop. … It’s more fun to play for a team that has that kind of game.”
The WBC all but gutted Seattle’s spring, and Wakamatsu referred to this camp – his first as a manager – as a three-phased operation.
“Phase One was before players left for the WBC,” he said. “We had to introduce ourselves as a staff, introduce a lot of new players to one another and try to set the tone for the season. Phase Two was during the WBC, when we went without seven players – six of them starters.
“Phase Three starts, when we get our full team in camp with 11 days left before the season starts.”
Much of what the Mariners have done, at least in part, has been done with one objective – to convince Ichiro that this was more than a rebuilding team years away from winning.
To Wakamatsu, Ichiro is clearly a player he must reach, the unquestioned franchise star whose team has not advanced to the postseason since 2001 – Ichiro’s rookie year.
“We knew coming in that Ichiro wasn’t going to be in camp until late,” Wakamatsu said. “Since we couldn’t show him along the way what we’re trying to do here, we wanted to change our style of play, our approach to the game, the whole environment, before he got here.
“The hope is that Ichiro will see all that within the first few days he’s in camp.”
These aren’t the Seattle Mariners who Ichiro last saw in 2008. There’s a new center fielder in Franklin Gutierrez. There’s a new-look bullpen. There’s a new 25-man roster, a new manager and, yes, yet another new batting coach.
And then, there’s Griffey.
Ichiro idolized the Griffey he read about as a kid in Japan. He loved the Griffey he met in 1995 and played with briefly a few springs later.
When Griffey signed with Seattle last month, Ichiro issued a statement from Japan saying he couldn’t wait to finally play with Junior, who he said was still a hero to him.
In the years since they met, much has happened on and off the field to both Ichiro and Griffey – not all of it good. During the past few seasons, for instance, Ichiro has drifted away from Mariners teammates, some of whom have been intimidated by him, some mystified.
Ichiro even stays in a different hotel on the road.
“That’s gonna end this year,” Griffey said. “I’m keeping that dude close to me all season.”
He was only half-joking.
Wakamatsu’s “new environment” embraces a team concept, pushing the approach that every player should be willing to do whatever it takes to win any particular game.
Ichiro’s goals each spring always begin with 200 hits. Making outs to help the team could hinder that.
“We want everyone to buy into the approach we’re taking,” Wakamatsu said. “We want Ichiro to be a big part of our offense, we want him to feel like he’s a big part of it. This season we’re going to try to win games, but we’re building something that will mean winning in the future.
“We’re going to be an organization that does the little things well – hitting the cutoff man, always being in the right place, pressuring the other team. What we’re doing fits perfectly with Ichiro’s game. I think it’s going to reinvigorate him.”