SEATTLE – Two intriguing developments during Week 1 of the 2009 Seattle Mariners season:
•They won. Actually, “intriguing” may be selling that circumstance short.
•The jersey of Ichiro Suzuki, on the disabled list for the first time in his career with a bleeding ulcer and left behind in Arizona to recover, hung limply if symbolically in the dugout during each game.
As displays of jock solidarity, forget-you-not and corny kumbaya go, this may have been the most forced gesture since, oh, anytime Tiger and Phil shake hands.
Even Ichiro himself was dubious.
“It made me very happy,” he said, “but at the same time, I’m not dead yet.”
On the other hand, maybe the Millionaires’ Club needs a little peremptory hand-holding once in a while. What’s the worst that can happen – a dose of clubhouse Stockholm syndrome, but for a positive purpose?
Ichiro was back in uniform Wednesday night, though not in his treasured No. 51, but in 42 – it being Jackie Robinson Day in major league baseball and everyone getting assigned the same jersey by way of tribute. Given the three musketeers mindset the Mariners have been drilling since spring training, it’s amazing they didn’t try that gimmick themselves from Opening Day.
There was actually some sincere concern among the devotees – who dwindled to 18,516 from the first-day sellout – that his return to the lineup might upset the delicate chemistry that was forged during Seattle’s 6-2 start. Apparently, M’s fans have committed the Crash Davis speech from “Bull Durham” to memory. It’s not clear whether they expected manager Don Wakamatsu to sit Ichiro for the rest of the season or just until the next loss.
Turns out all worries were pointless, the M’s dismantling the Los Angeles Angels 11-3.
This was not a chemistry lesson, but math – 15 Mariners hits, six for extra bases. That’s the shortest route to baseball happiness, not postgame s’mores and camp songs.
And Ichiro? All he did was upstage Ken Griffey Jr.’s 400th home run as a Mariner with a 375-foot grand slam in a seven-run Seattle seventh.
In the clubhouse afterward, Ichiro drank in the vibe with shrouded amusement and faux Zen pronouncements, which means things are back to normal on that score. Little else is – which in the context of 2008 is a decidedly good thing.
Wakamatsu tends to lump Junior and Ichiro together as sort of a veteran axis of good feelings, which perhaps they are.
“It’s just their presence in general,” he said. “I think guys are just enjoying being around them.”
Well, that’s yet another intriguing development. When the M’s of ’08 were having their temperature checked this past spring, Ichiro was revealed as a major target of clubhouse discontent – the most damning on-the-record remark coming from former Seattle reliever J.J. Putz, who suggested the right fielder didn’t do more to help the Mariners win, the intimation being that he was more concerned with personal milestones.
Others weighed in off-the-record with similar sentiments, the most hilarious being that at one time a few of the down-with-Ichi mob was ready to crosscheck him into his locker or something.
Problem is, most of the M’s of 2008 couldn’t make contact.
When confronted with these charges in spring training, Ichiro was far above it all.
“This is so silly I hate to be even wasting time with this kind of thing,” he said.
In any case, response of the new Mariners management was instructive. The old baseball saying is that you can’t fire the roster so you have to fire the manager, but general manager Jack Zduriencik apparently didn’t buy it. Eleven of the 25 men on Seattle’s season-opening roster are new, so at least that many have no Ichiro grudge.
Of course, that does leave 14 with some history. Perhaps they were simply issued an order to grow up.
“You guys are professional athletes,” Zduriencik said, shooting for the Cliff’s Notes version of the message that pains were taken to instill in the spring. “You want to win – I know you want to win. So how do you win? How do you get to the point where you trust the next guy?
“Sometimes different personalities help that, the talent level helps that, just producing helps that. But I think mostly it’s guys relying on each other.”
There is a little doubt that Ichiro has been an island unto himself throughout his Mariners career. There have also been occasions when the club has needed him to do things he hasn’t always been willing to do – bunting, for instance, when the M’s were desperate for him to drive the ball for an RBI.
But you have to wonder how much he’s truly been asked to do. The move to center field – since abandoned – might not have been so long-awaited had it been broached to him earlier.
Ichiro is not a vocal leader and refuses to become one. Rather than fight that, Zduriencik went out and got a couple in Griffey and Mike Sweeney. Whatever Wakamatsu can coax out of his best player – yes, still – will be bonus.
As it was Wednesday night. The M’s didn’t need his grand slam to win, but it hardly got in the way of what they have going either.
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