August 3, 2012 in Sports

Ichiro finally goes extra mile for M’s – by leaving

Steve Kelley
 

Listening to the Yankees’ telecasts since Ichiro Suzuki was traded from Seattle to New York, I’ve wondered who the commentators were talking about when they mentioned their new outfielder.

They gushed about how accommodating Ichiro had been. They said that he had told the club he would do anything to help it win. He was fine leading off, or hitting seventh, or eighth.

He was happy playing right field, or if manager Joe Girardi demanded, left field. I almost expected them to say that Ichiro had told Girardi he was willing to catch a few innings in a pinch.

The announcers made it seem as if Ichiro were the ideal teammate. “He speaks perfect English,” one of the broadcasters said.

So this is the new, refashioned Ichiro. And it makes me wonder, where was that guy in Seattle? Where was that anything-for-the-good- of-the-club attitude during his decade with the Mariners?

In Seattle, Ichiro played the game by his rules. Ichi Rules. He bunted when he wanted to bunt, even bunting on numerous occasions with a runner on second base. And many times, he didn’t bunt when the sign was flashed. Ichiro also often ignored steal signs, going when he wanted to go and staying when he wanted to stay.

Too often Ichiro was Ichi-no, and because of that he stalled the Mariners’ rebuilding attempt. Occasionally he made small concessions. A few years ago, after much pleading, he agreed to move from right field to center. It didn’t stick.

And he started this season hitting third instead of leadoff, but he didn’t produce there and was moved back to the top of the order.

Over the years, it became increasingly clear to his managers that Ichiro was playing for Ichiro. He wasn’t a good teammate.

As the Mariners go into Yankee Stadium for a weekend series, they are better without him. Better for this season and better for the future.

Now, finally, the lineup card belongs to manager Eric Wedge. For the first time, he has the flexibility the manager of a young team needs.

And now, as the team goes forward, it has to find productive veterans who also are leaders. Last week, when catcher Dan Wilson was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame, I thought back to the mood in the clubhouse of the 116-win 2001 team. So many of those players in that room loved baseball the way winners do.

Bret Boone, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Mark McLemore, John Olerud, David Bell, Stan Javier, Wilson. Many nights they would linger in the clubhouse long after the game was over, talking baseball and discussing the different approaches pitchers were taking against the Mariners’ lineup.

They shared secrets. They made each other better. Ichiro was a rookie on that team, but he didn’t learn from the veterans’ example. When it became his turn to lead, he didn’t stay around after games and talk hitting with the roomful of young Mariners, who probably would have remained in the clubhouse until dawn if Ichiro had been willing to share some secrets.

I remember Mike Cameron, the center fielder on that 2001 team, standing by his locker stall after losses, waiting for the reporters and willing to accept the blame for that night’s loss. Cameron was a stand-up guy on a stand-up team.

Ichiro never stood up. He never took the heat off Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero or Mike Carp. He never accepted blame, never said, “Don’t put this loss on the kids. They’re learning. They’re going to be fine. This losing streak is on me. I’m hitting .260. I need to step it up. I need to play like an All-Star.”

Imagine the benefit that kind of selflessness could have had on a young Mariners clubhouse. The M’s are 8-2 since the trade of Ichiro. Obviously, a lot of that success has to do with the clubs they’ve played. They’ve feasted on bad pitching.

But they’ve also relaxed and found some confidence, knowing they’re going to get more hacks, more opportunities to grow. The new lineup card doesn’t look hypocritical to them. The elephant in the clubhouse is gone.

The Mariners handled Ichiro’s trade with grace. They honored his service and his accomplishments. They made sure people knew that he asked for a trade to help the team grow.

It’s too bad, however, that he didn’t have that same level of selflessness the rest of his time here.


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