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The Disappointment of Ichiro Friday, February 10, 2012

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Photo courtesy mlb.com

Let me preface this article by saying that I’m a fan of Ichiro.  I cannot wait to explain to my kids and grandkids someday that I got to see him countless times live at Safeco Field tugging that sleeve before he got set in the batter’s box.  I’ll never forget a spider-man catch he made a few years ago at a game I was lucky enough to attend, and I’ll always tell the story of his walk-off homer against Mariano Rivera back in 2009.  He’s a hero, as far as I’m concerned.

But let’s face facts: he may have worn out his welcome in Seattle.  Local media has been buzzing with the news that he probably won’t hit lead-off this season.  The phrase “once we get Ichiro’s salary off the books” seems a foregone conclusion when discussing possibilities in 2013.  And all because he hit .272 last year with only 184 base hits.

I understand that you don’t expect to pay 18 million bucks for a guy who hits singles, which is what’s fueling most of the argument for his outright release next season, but what about the consistency?  Aren’t you willing to pay premium for that?  At 184 hits, Ichiro ranked 9th in the American League last year. 9th.  But big money often means big bats, and Ichiro’s shown few flashes of power (batting practice aside) in his 11 seasons.  He averages only 9 homeruns a year.

Reason #2 that people don’t want Ichiro on our team?  He’s selfish.

I hear again and again that former players tell the media (off the record) that he’s a selfish player who doesn’t get along well with the rest of the team.  I can buy that to an extent, but let’s remember that this is a man who lives his life in Japan.  His wife lives in Japan.  His friends and family live in… Japan.  That his quotes often lend themselves to awkward metaphors is largely an issue with how the Japanese language translates to English, but most people just write Ichiro off as odd, because of his “strange” interviews.  We’ve had other Japanese players that didn’t come off in this same manner, but few players in baseball see the same intense spotlight that Ichiro’s international fame brings.

So those are the two big reasons, and it’s hard to argue against either, which as an admitted Ichiro fan I’m loathe to admit, despite the truth in it.  But do you want to know why I’m actually disappointed in Ichiro?  Do you want to know the only legitimate reason to hate Ichiro in my book?

He’s not a leader.

Now, not every baseball player can be a leader.  For many, it’s downright impossible.  There are some players that prefer to lead by example.  They work hard day in and day out and hope that the team works hard solely because of the effort they’re putting in (See Raul Ibanez, Jack Wilson, etc.).  For those of us with lazy co-workers, it’s almost laughable that this would work in any profession, but it does seem to rub off from time to time.  Other players prefer to lead vocally, often pushing guys around, calling them out in front of the media, etc. (See Ozzie Guillen).  This seems to usually get lost in rookie hazing, but also seems to “work.”

Now a true all-around leader that is respected and admired is a truly rare thing.  And the reason I’m most disappointed in Ichiro, really the only reason, is that he has the ability, but  has never shown it in the United States.

He’s done it in Japan.  Twice he’s lead Japan to victories in the World Baseball Classic, even driving in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th in 2009.  After his second WBC victory, the Seattle Times wrote a great piece on his leadership skills and how they’ve failed to find home in Seattle.  Yet the excuses given there (cultural differences) no longer work for a player entering his 12th year of Major League play.  Ichiro made his professional baseball debut in 1992, exactly 20 years ago, and it’s about time he started acting like the veteran he is.

Photo courtesy mlb.com

So you can hate Ichiro because he “sucks” (despite his hall of fame career).  You can hate him because he’s getting old.  Or you can hate him because he’s “weird” and doesn’t play well with others, but I won’t.  I’ll just stick to hating him because it’s long past time he stood up and took control of this team.  That is the only thing that has ever disappointed me about Ichiro, and unless he makes the decision to stop playing, his career ain’t over yet.  Stand up and take charge, Ichiro.  Win us back.

M’s Management Out of Cash: Can’t Convince Fans That Winter’s Over Monday, January 10, 2011

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GM Jack Zduriencik has made some incredible moves the past two seasons, with the acquisition and unloading of All-Star Cliff Lee easily topping that list.  Fans all over the Northwest sport t-shirts with the phrase “In Jack We Trust.”  And despite the abysmal performance of the Mariners in 2010, there’s still a lot of reasons to look for success in the future of this franchise.  The only problem as far as M’s management sees it, is a lack of funding.

“We’re strapped,” said club President Chuck Armstrong on Sunday night.  “I can’t really say where it all went, but we’re down and out financially.  We’ll be lucky if we don’t have to raise season ticket prices again.”

But despite these assertions from various team sources, the average fan just can’t seem to see past that.

“Things are looking up,” said local fan John Bremston from Bellevue.  “We just need to add a big bat, some pitching, and trade for a few prospects this winter, and we’ll be all set to win this year.  I know Jack won’t let us down.”

Other fans are less positive, but still expecting more from this offseason.

“We’re still building for the future, obviously,” said Spokane native Ryan Seeger.  “But there are a number of decent free agents out there that will let us compete this season.  A little more pop and this team’s gold.”

Armstrong can’t seem to get his point across.

“What do they want us to do?  [Milton] Bradley’s eating up 12 million and he’ll be riding pine all season.  We can’t trade Aardsma like we thought.  We already signed Olivo and Ryan to new deals.  Without a sudden influx of cash, we’re done,” Armstrong complained while snacking on a half eaten sandwich he found just outside Safeco’s left field entrance.

Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln had even bleaker view of the situation.

“Not only are we short, but we owe money.  Lots of it.  And Ichiro doesn’t take kindly to a late paycheck” Lincoln shuddered.  “He already took away my Wii.  I can’t live like this.”

(from left to right) Howard Lincoln, Jack Zduriencik and Chuck Armstrong hanging out on Edgar Martinez Drive Monday morning.

The Griffey Thing Friday, November 20, 2009

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Photo courtesy of AP/Lenny Ignelzi

I’m a Griffey fan.  I’ll admit that.  So feel free to take bias against this post on that point.  But I’m not an idiot.  I get what folks are saying about re-signing him in 2010.  And while I won’t deny that those comments have merit, I do have to defend the decision for a few different reasons.

The $$$ Factor:

Griffey’s 2010 contract may not have the same attendance-laden incentives of last year’s, but you can’t deny it’s a factor.  For the same reason our team will never let Ichiro go, we’ve re-signed Griffey.  He puts butts in the seats, so to speak.  He gets people talking about Seattle.  As much as I used to convince myself that Seattle had a real sports scene when compared to the rest of the country, my adolescence is now at an end.  The NBA abandoned us for just that reason.  We’re not LA.  We’re not NY.  We’re not anywhere in between.  So any story that keeps us on the front page of ESPN.com is a good story.  Controversy keeps us alive.  A couple stars on a team of AAA-level offensive statistics managed to keep us afloat.

So for those of you who deny that money was a factor here, you’re either wrong or naive.  I’m certain that Ichiro’s Japanese concern nets Nintendo his 18 million annually, and I’m even more certain that a first-round hall of fame player in Griffey can net a measly 3 here in the states.  Money talks.

The “Clubhouse” Factor:

This is the argument you’re hearing from all the local rags.  This is the argument you’re hearing from our coach and our GM.  This is the “you can’t measure everything in baseball with box scores” piece that really ticks off all the national writers.  Does it have merit?  Maybe.

Let’s face it.  We don’t know all that Griffey did last year.  Certainly we can take a look at statistics.  And those should account for a good majority of what matters in baseball.  Stats count.  But that doesn’t mean that nothing else does.  I’m not buying into this argument completely, because most of those writers are right.  It’s a stupid point.  But to dismiss it entirely is just as stupid.  If you don’t think that certain clubs do research beyond statistics, you aren’t paying attention.

Granted, paying 3 million dollars to a player who is literally a designated tickler is a bit much.  But there is no doubt in my mind that he played a big part in bringing and keeping this squad together all season long.  Wakamatsu’s success is because Griffey and Sweeney bought into what he was doing from the beginning.  And leadership by example wasn’t enough.  Ibanez and Ichiro led by example in 2008, and what good did that do us?  Griffey took the clubhouse by storm.  But is even that enough of a reason to keep him around?  Probably not.  Is that enough of a reason to fill a roster spot where a young player could be learning the game from the bench?  Probably not.  But there was an even better reason to keep Griffey than just to see Ichiro smile more…

The “Thrill of the Grass” Factor:

The Yankees recently won the World Series.  It was a fantastic run.  They were a dominant team that made very few mistakes and capitalized on almost all of their opponents’.  I am not even remotely a Yankees fan, but I have to respect how disciplined they were in the playoffs.  They were one of the most professional squads in baseball history.

But, in my opinion, they weren’t a lot of fun.  I have to admit that I saw A-Rod smiling more this season (and especially this post-season), and there was definitely some team chemistry that hasn’t existed on the island in at least a decade.  In fact, this was probably the most happy-go-lucky Yankees club I’ve ever seen.  But they were so dominant all season long, that I missed some of that underdog excitement that I enjoy when watching a baseball team.  Now, don’t get me wrong here.  I understand how vastly different it is to root for a team like the Yankees.  They are held to a higher standard than most sports teams on this entire planet, and their tradition of winning spurs expectations that we in Seattle have never had to deal with.

But I’ll tell you something: I didn’t see anyone get tickled till they almost peed their pants.  I didn’t see walk-off celebrations that had players chasing eachother through the outfield.  I didn’t see any players drenched in ice cream as they gave a post-game interview.  I didn’t see the most reserved athlete in the sport raise his hands in exuberance after a minor victory during a playoff run that was mathematically out of reach.  I didn’t see a future hall-of-famer lifted on to other players’ shoulders and paraded triumphantly around a field after a third place finish in what many feel is a washed up division.  I didn’t see a team that enjoyed every chance just to be out on the field together as a team.  I didn’t see the dugout rails lined up with players when a loss was assured, just to root on a younger player in a meaningless at bat.  I didn’t see passion and frustration by an ace for every pitch that wasn’t perfect.  I didn’t see a nobody win a ballgame with a homerun in the bottom of the last inning.  I didn’t see a team where every rookie was as important as every veteran.  And I didn’t see a team that was so grateful just to be on the field that they enjoyed every single moment the thrill of that grass gave them.

I’ll tell you one other thing, too.  2009 was a team effort every second.  Griffey didn’t do it on his own.  But re-signing him in 2010 is a commitment to something bigger than statistics and wins.  It’s a commitment to the game the way it was meant to be played.  And anyone who says that Griffey doesn’t make the grass greener at Safeco is full of it.

Felix, Felix, Felix Wednesday, September 16, 2009

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As we approach the offseason essentially out of this year’s pennant race, and post-Ichiro record time, Felix will get to play in the limelight.  The first reason is the Cy Young race.  Most interesting is that writers are fighting over the chance to cover this year’s race, but only the National League portion.  However, according to this year’s Cy Young Predictor Seattle fans have a lot to get excited about.  Felix currently tops the “standings” according to ESPN and if he keeps things up at this pace, he may just finish with 18 wins with only Greinke challenging him in ERA (and let’s face it: KC’s assistance toward a 13-8 record leaves him well short of this award).

The only thorn in his proverbial paw could be Sabathia, whose Bombers have catapulted themselves to a possible 20 win season with CC on the mound, even if he hasn’t pitched at Felix’s level.  A Cy Young Award to a pitcher who might just win the World Series this year has to be tempting for sportswriters everywhere.  And with the M’s just a stone throw away from .500…

But what does it really matter?  If Felix had already inked a deal, you’d be hearing a little more about Cy other than just here.  And until he becomes a Mariner for the long-term, expect the Seattle media circus to downplay his shot (at least until he wins it, if he does).  So what does that mean?  And as many of you long-time Marination fans must be wondering, where do I stand on the signing of our young king?  Because let’s face it, he’ll certainly earn his royal bounty soon enough, even if it’s not out of Nintendo’s pocket.

I think that no matter what decision we come to, I have to echo an opinion I’ve heard infrequently over the last month: it has to happen now.  If we’re going to sign him long term, it needs to happen this offseason.  And if we can’t get it done on our terms, then we need to cash in.  I’ve heard many say that we need to cash in because he’s at his peak, or that spending that kind of money is an abomination.  I disagree with both reasons.  If he’s at his peak at 23, then I’m Ken Griffey Jr.  And while I’m in agreement with any notion that we shouldn’t offer him 6-10 years, I disagree about paying him what he’s worth.  Give him 20 million a season for all I care.  We can afford it if he’s holding our rotation together.  But please, please, please don’t give him more than 5 years.  4 would be even sweeter.  I don’t want another Zito or Hampton situation to happen anywhere, let alone Seattle.

Next up is why it has to happen this winter.  Because trading a guy this good, with 2 free years to whatever team wants him is basically forcing another team (or teams) to write us a blank check.  Did you see what they were offering Halladay for just a single year’s worth of contract?  Did you see what people gave us for Jarrod Washburn when everyone knew he was playing beyond his ability?  Just imagine what a team would pay for someone who not only has amazing potential, but is a Cy Young candidate without growth into that potential.  And he’s 23.  And he would have two full years left on his contract.  And he’s 23.  And he’s freaking amazing!

If Bavasi was still running things, I would be terrified at this trade prospect, but with Z at the reigns, I can only imagine what sort of team he might assemble if given a chip as big as Felix.  With that said, though, the thought of Felix pitching the next 15 years for some other franchise on his way to Cooperstown is absolutely heartbreaking.  I guess when it really comes down to it, as long as we do one or the other this winter (and no later), I’ll be happy with our future.

Go, M’s!