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Friday, Oct. 8, 2010

SPORTS SCOPE

Ichiro hampered by poor supporting cast


It's been suggested that Ichiro Suzuki cares about statistics — his stats — and really doesn't care about winning.

Ed Odeven

That's news to me.

Has there been a poll conducted to prove this is true?

Is there clear evidence that a man who has had 10 straight 200-hit seasons — the only player dead or living to accomplish the feat — doesn't care about his team's success?

No, not really.

There were some voices of dissent in the Mariners locker room before the 2009 season, with some Seattle players contending that Ichiro was selfish. Well, I looked at it this way: There will always be team chemistry issues on a bad organization, especially one as unstable as the Mariners.

That said, there have also been a number of compliments dished out about Ichiro's work ethic and his commitment to his craft. But this much is certain: Ichiro is the greatest living batsman, a man who is a genuine artist with the bat in his hand.

Shouldn't we appreciate his unique brilliance rather than focus on the what-ifs?

I'm referring specifically to the suggestion that Ichiro would be better off demanding a trade to a winning club. From what I've observed, every country considers loyalty an admirable trait.

Now, maybe Ichiro is comfortable with the lucrative lifestyle he has while playing for the Mariners.

So what's wrong with that?

He has dedicated himself to become a great baseball player, first with the Orix BlueWave, then with Seattle.

Who says he ought to move again?

As if that would demonstrate he's more of a winner by changing zip codes.

Is it really necessary for a player to rant and rave and demand a trade if he isn't pleased with the direction of his team?

Haven't we seen enough of those sort of self-centered, I'm-above-the-team antics (see LeBron James and dozens of NFL players each season) by those in the public spotlight?

* * * * *

In the past 15 years, I've attended dozens of MLB games in spring training, the regular season and in the playoffs as a member of the press, and in that time there's never been a player quite like Ichiro. And there's something special about a guy setting the standard by which all future Japanese position players will be judged.

In short, his all-out pursuit of excellence has exceeded everyone's expectations.

While he was a guest of the Seattle Mariners during spring training in 1999, I spoke to then-skipper Lou Piniella and asked him to offer his prediction on how Ichiro would fare in the big leagues.

(At the time, he was expected to join an MLB team in two or three years after finishing out the Japanese phase of his career with the BlueWave.)

Piniella said he thought Ichiro would be a "Quinton McCracken-type player," meaning a solid outfielder who would give the team an occasional spark on the bases and a lively bat near the top of the lineup.

That turned out to be one of the understatements of the century. Ichiro's MLB career began in exhilarating fashion in 2001. He batted .350, had 242 hits, stole 56 bases and gave the Mariners a wonderful spark at the top of the lineup and a make-every-catch presence in right field en route to winning AL MVP, Rookie of the Year and Gold Glove honors for a team that ran away with the West Division title, winning a record 116 games.

The New York Yankees, who were the three-time defending World Series champions, beat the Mariners in the ALCS, ending Ichiro and Seattle's dream seasons.

The Mariners have not been back to the playoffs since, though they did place second in the West in both 2002 and '03.

Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, meanwhile, is one of sport's greatest winners. He's also a true leader who sets the right example for his teammates in the way he conducts himself on and off the field.

Would fans have the same impression of Jeter if he played for a perennial loser?

Probably not.

A player's status can get distorted or enhanced when he plays for a winning club and perhaps unfairly overlooked when his team isn't in the playoff spotlight on a regular basis.

"Jeter has been blessed to spend his entire career in a great organization that consistently surrounds him with outstanding players at every position," William C. Rhoden, a sports columnist for The New York Times, wrote in Oct. 2.

No one would accuse the Mariners of fielding a top-level lineup for most of Ichiro's years with the club.

It's not his fault the team has been mediocre, bad or terrible for several seasons.

That hasn't stopped him, though, from producing 10 masterpieces — 10 seasons of unique brilliance.

In a 2001 column for ESPN.com, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam, one of the greatest writers of the past 50 years, gave his thoughts on former Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown.

Halberstam wrote: "I don't think we have ever seen a running back quite like him before, and I an not sure I have since — which is not to say there are no running backs who might be as good, or perhaps better, bigger, faster and perhaps even stronger, but I have never again seen a running back who was so much better than everyone else who did what he did at the time he was doing it."

Change the sport from football to baseball and that'll give you an accurate description of Ichiro's unique, jaw-dropping skill set with a bat in his hands.

* * * * *

Sure, it was late in the regular season and teams have expanded their rosters to 40 players, but the Mariners' talent pool is a joke. There's no commitment to winning in that organization.

Ask any genuine baseball pundit and they'll tell you the same thing, adding for good measure that most of Seattle's front office decisions have been questionable, bad or terrible in recent years.

And yet, there's Ichiro, day after day, going 2-for-5 and making a number of brilliant plays in the outfield and on the bases.

Oct. 1, for instance, the Mariners trailed 7-0 in the third inning against the Los Angeles Angels and ultimately lost 9-0. And at that moment — a snapshot of the team's pathetic season — eight guys in the Seattle lineup were batting .262 or lower, with Ichiro's .315 average being the only respectable one.

Six of those guys were batting .229 or lower, a bold reminder of the true state of disarray for the AL's worst team, which had 101 losses in two of the past three seasons, including the 2010 campaign.

The Mariners have had seven managers — Piniella, Bob Melvin, Mike Hargrove, John McLaren, Jim Riggleman, Don Wakamatsu and Darren Brown — since Ichiro joined the club.

Whenever there's that much turnover at the top, there's little chance of leadership on the field or in the clubhouse.

There's been criticism of Ichiro for not being a hard-nosed guy on the base paths, that he's not someone who'll charge into a fielder with his spikes or barrel over the catcher, a la Pete Rose doing a number on Ray Fosse at the plate in the 1970 All-Star Game.

At the same time, though, Ichiro is one of the hardest, smartest players in MLB history to double up (he's grounded into 46 double plays in 10 big-league seasons; that's simply remarkable). And it's a reminder that he plays the game at such a high-octane level.

Which mean's the pedal's always to the metal.

What's more, he's a super-crafty theft artist, knowing when to run and how to get an advantage on the base paths against all batteries. He has 383 steals in the bigs, while being caught 88 times. Do the math; that's a terrific ratio.

Furthermore, 100 runs scored is a measure of success for any leadoff man, and Ichiro had eight straight seasons of 100 or more runs from 2001-08, including 127 in 2001. The club's offense has declined in the past two seasons, and so, too, have his runs.

He's batted .350 or higher three times since joining Seattle and averaged 158.8 games per season in that span.

Sure, he may be motivated by individual accomplishments — what great maestro in any field isn't? — but there's no overwhelming evidence that his individual decade of dominance has come at the expense of the team's goals.

In fact, without Ichiro, the Mariners have had zero bona fide icons after the departures of Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez.

And the team's other true star, pitcher Felix Hernandez, who led the AL in ERA but had horrendous run support this season (14 runs in his 12 defeats; and he went 13-12 a season after going 19-5).

* * * * *

Every century there are only a handful of athletes whose physical gifts are greatly superior to their peers.

Ichiro is one of them.

He makes everything he does look easy, not unlike Hall of Fame center fielder Joe DiMaggio, the epitome of graceful play, while earning a paycheck from the New York Yankees. Running the bases, Ichiro's burst of speed easily turns singles into doubles and would-be outs into dozens of singles.

No flyball is safe or out of his range in right field — and the same was true when he played center field for the Mariners in 2007 and also won a Gold Glove in that position.

No base runner can believe a throw from Ichiro won't gun him down at the plate. His throws are lasers, usually accurate and among the most feared in the game.

But should Ichiro be compared to Pete Rose, the only other man to have 10 200-hit seasons in the majors?

I don't think so.

Rose played on the Cincinnati Reds, when they were known as the Big Red Machine, with several superstars, including Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez and a legendary skipper in Sparky Anderson. True, he was one of the game's all-time great consistent players and a remarkably versatile fielder. But he is a completely different type of player than Ichiro.

Ichiro, who turns 37 on Oct. 22 and shows no signs of slowing down, is a unique talent but also an enigma.

If he played two or three seasons on pennant-winning teams and had a couple of sensational Octobers to help his club win a few World Series titles, the suggestion that winning wasn't part of his agenda would vanish as quickly as dust in the wind.

In the meantime, New York Daily News sports columnist/cartoonist Bill Gallo, one of the true legends in the business, dished out his own insight on Seattle's No. 51.

"Ichiro is one of the finest baseball players we'll see last as a star for a long time," Gallo wrote in an e-mail. "As I see it, he'll be the first Japanese to enter Cooperstown — the (National Baseball) Hall of Fame. I think that says it all for the man."

And really, what more needs to be said?



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