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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.

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6 Mariners – 4 Mariners = 2 Mariners Sunday, March 22, 2009

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The World Baseball Classic is quickly pulling to a close and unfortunately, Venezuela was outed by a superior Korean pitching staff yesterday 2-10.  Many had speculated that Felix Hernandez should have started today’s game, and once again speculation has proved true.  Carlos Silva managed to survive just 1 and a 1/3 innings giving up 7 runs (6 earned), making a throwing error to an uncomfortable first baseman in Miguel Cabrera, and launching two balls out of the park in the process.  One to former Mariner/Rainier Shin Soo Choo for 3 of those 7 painful runs that Venezuela was never able to gain back.

Even the hottest-hitting player in the tournament up till yesterday: Mariner Jose Lopez, went hitless in what was a very frustrating game on all levels for Venezuela.  Endy Chavez did manage to gain a single hit, and looked good in the field all day.  But unfortunately for Felix, his tournament is over without even a shot at the final.  Carlos was willing to talk about his performance but never quite answered a question about why he couldn’t keep the ball down, which was a staple of his poor performances last season with the Mariners.

Interestingly enough, on the four teams in the semi-finals, there were more Mariners represented than any other MLB club with 6.  Detroit, who also had 4 on Venezuela’s squad came in 2nd with 5, but not all of them are major leaguers like Seattle.  And now with team Japan needing a big win against a revived United States squad, there leaves a chance of no Mariners making the finals on Monday night, which I’m certain would put a smile on Wakamatsu’s face.  No other team has had to deal with so many regular players absent from spring training this long and it’s obvious that a little “gelling” couldn’t hurt our spring in Peoria.

But here’s to Ichiro and Kenji and team Japan.  If you win, you have a chance to once again represent your country in a fantastic tournament final against a now-rival in Korea.  If you lose, then you have a chance to finally rush home and become Mariners again.  Best of luck either way.

World Baseball Classic: The Perfect Plan Friday, March 20, 2009

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Today, ESPN’s Jayson “Why is there an insufferable ‘y’ in my name” Stark published an article where he outlined a few possible plans for future World Baseball Classics.  I’d like to begin by saying that this man is a dolt and that the plan that I will outline here is better by far.

Why a new way?  Because there are some problems, mainly here in the United States.  Normally, I’d say forget the U.S. (especially with millions of international fans clamoring for more WBC), but as it’s an MLB-run event, I’ll give in.  The problem mainly involves Spring Training.  Currently, the WBC is set to coincide with spring events every four years.  

This is a two-fold problem:  First, the wimpy American players aren’t ready yet (Japan and Cuba and others play year-round).  I’m sick and tired of journalists whining that the American and other MLB players aren’t at full potential during this tournament, so it’s not a true battle of the best.  As annoying as those statemens have become, there’s a legitimate piece to it.  If we want this tourney to be a true test, everyone needs to be at full potential.  And despite Bud Selig’s insistence that March is the only time to do this tournament, he’s wrong.

And speaking of wrong, Stark’s idiotic plan is to run a play-in tournament and then a final during the All-Star break in July.  When does he want to run the play-in? “Want to play it in October? November? February? March? Whatever works best for all concerned.”  What???!  That doesn’t even address the primary issue of why this tournament isn’t working!  But getting back on track…

The second reason this isn’t working is because MLB teams (and the players) don’t want the players rushing themselves into competitive play that soon before April.  Thus the reason for bizarre pitch count rules and forcing some of the best arms to wait days at a time before they’re eligible to pitch again.  Does anyone remember the 2001 World Series?  Two pitchers, Johnson and Schilling, carried the Diamondbacks to victory on their own!  Pitching back to back and in surprise relief made it one of the most exciting series of all time.  

We need that for the WBC.  We need pitchers to be able to pull off a Dice-K-like high school championship performance (He threw 148  pitches to shut out one game, threw 250 pitches in 17 innings to win the next, took a day off in the one after that to play left field and still pitch relief to get the win, and pitched a no-hitter in the final!).

So what is my brilliant solution?  How can we make this tournament a truly international success?  Here’s the plan:

It’s quite simple, really.  Move spring training up once every four years.  Arizona and Florida are still sunny and warm in February, right?  Let spring training happen as usual.  We only need to adjust 3 weeks to clear room for this tournament.  Which means starting first thing in February.  Do the catchers and pitchers really need that much time to prep before games start?  Please.  These are professional athletes we’re talking about here.  If they aren’t keeping their million-dollar bodies in shape in the off-season, then screw ’em.

As for holding this in July in some sort of massive week of baseball as Stark suggests… are you serious?  We all know the All-Star game sucks, but c’mon.  This tournament is about more than American baseball.  I don’t really think interrupting multiple international league seasons is really the best way to go.  Instead, if we’re moving up spring training, let’s move up the baseball season, too.  March Madness be damned!  So now, every four years, the season starts in the second week of March.  That’s not such a big deal, is it?  Or maybe it’s even easier to just move up the season every year.

And as for the WBC, when does that fit in?  At the end of the season, of course.  The way it’s scheduled this year, if we play a game 7 in the World Series, it will take place in November, which is already ridiculous.  So for those of you who say that football will interfere with the WBC if we play it in the fall, guess what?  We already do!  There’s no way around it.

As for the actual layout of the now mid-October 2013 WBC tournament, let me suggest one thing:  We expand the number of teams to 32, with the 8 that got into round two in the previous tournament getting an automatic bid.  That means that this year, only Japan, Korea, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, United States, Puerto Rico and the Netherlands get to sit out the first few days of the tournament.  The other 24 teams would have to compete in a play-in style to take place over the course of just a few days.  This might include doubleheaders to continue to fit in the successful double elimination method of this year’s Classic.  Once those 24 teams become 8, they play against the already seeded teams from 2009 in the same way we played 16 teams this year (which only took 17 days), with the winners of round one guaranteeing themselves a spot in the 2017 tourney.  Beautiful, right?  But what’s even better is that we drop all rules as to pitch counts.  If one team happens to have a Yu Darvish/Dice-K combination, they can use them all they want.  With no teams worried about players interfering with the regular MLB season development model, all bets are off.

So why doesn’t Selig want to do this tournament that late in the year?  Because he doesn’t want it to seem bigger than the World Series.  Despite how much time he spends touting the merits of the WBC, he doesn’t really want it to be the end-all of baseball competition.  Which basically means, one single man is holding back what could be one of the greatest international sporting events of all-time.  A sporting event that could even eclipse the World Cup!  Give it up, Bud.  This is the future of baseball.  This is the plan that will make the World Baseball Classic a better tournament.

Mariner WBC Update Tuesday, March 17, 2009

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Three games involving Mariners have passed since my last update of the World Baseball Classic as it closes in on the semi-finals, so let’s break it down.

On an incredibly minor note, the Netherlands and Mariner Greg Halman were eliminated from the tournament Sunday when they lost to the United States 3-9.  Halman didn’t play in this final outing for the Dutch.

On a bigger note, Japan managed to small-ball their way to a 6-0 victory over Cuba Sunday.  Johjima caught an incredible game from Dice-K and also managed to continue to thrive offensively, going 2-4 with a run scored.  Ichiro’s struggles at the plate also continued, unfortunately, as he was 0-5 with a failed sacrifice bunt, and an RBI.  Also on display in this game were some oddly racist remarks by an ESPN analysist toward both Cuba and Korea and two errors by our two Mariners in the same at bat on successively missed foul balls.  Otherwise a great game.

And the biggest game of the three was Puerto Rico falling to a great pitching performance by King Felix, which leaves the PR in a rematch with the US and elimination on the line tonight.  Venezuela’s pitching staff was on fire as they shut out the Puerto Ricans 2-0 with Felix pitching 4.2 innings and striking out 7.  Despite his amazing performance so far, Endy was only brought in near the end of the game, but Lopez started again at second base and struggled for the first time, going 0-3 with a walk.  Venezuela and four Mariners are now guaranteed a spot in the single-elimination final.  They will face either the United States or Puerto Rico Wednesday before the tournament moves to Los Angeles on Saturday.