- Phil Rogers
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Faithful New York Yankee Hideki Matsui is skipping the World Baseball Classic. Ditto Tadahito Iguchi, the second baseman who says he can't afford the time off, not with the White Sox intent on getting back to the World Series.
Yet the greatest Japanese star of them all, Ichiro Suzuki, has told Sadaharu Oh -- Japan's manager -- to count him in.
Few, if any, of the major leaguers participating could benefit more from an extended run of March madness than Suzuki. Because once Japan is eliminated, the proud global warrior must report to Peoria, Ariz., a spring-training destination that has lost its buzz.
With the Seattle Mariners in decline, and no real end in sight, the Bud Selig Classic (aka the WBC) is the best shot he's had in three years to satisfy his competitive juices.
"It's been a long time since I've played in a game which excites me," Suzuki told the Tokyo Shimbun this offseason. "It is a sad situation that I have had to create my own motivation from inside of myself for such a long time."
One wonders, how much is that impacting Ichiro's hitting?
Throughout the 2005 season, the decline of Ichiro was a popular subject around baseball.
Even though he got off to the best start in his career, he looked little like the hitting sensation who piled up a major-league record 262 hits in 2004. His batting average dropped 69 points, to a seemingly pedestrian .303. He was voted onto the All-Star team by his peers, who no doubt appreciate his all-around game, but for the first time wasn't in the starting lineup selected by fans.
While Suzuki is only 32, he's put on a ton of mileage since 1994, when he won the first of his seven Japanese batting titles as a 20-year-old rookie for the Orix Blue Wave. So, is it the beginning of the end for one of baseball's greatest hitters?
After all the time talk radio devoted to his downfall last season, Suzuki still piled up 206 hits, the second-highest total in the majors (behind Texas' underappreciated shortstop, Michael Young). It made him 5-for-5 in 200-hit seasons, equaling the third longest such stretch in major-league history, behind only Wee Willie Keeler (eight straight, 1894-1901) and Wade Boggs (seven, 1983-89).
Suzuki also set career highs with 15 home runs and 12 triples -- totals he attributes to trying to entertain the Safeco Field crowds rather than getting on base for his teammates -- and finished with numbers (.303/.350/.436) almost identical to ones he put up in 2003 (.312/.352/.436).
Suzuki has two years left on the four-year, $44 million contract extension he signed after the 2003 season. He's only halfway to the 10-year requirement for enshrinement in Cooperstown's Hall of Fame -- an arbitrary guideline that seems likely to keep him based in North America through 2010. At that point, he would be 36 years old, an age at which Tony Gwynn hit .353 and Boggs batted .342.
Don't the Mariners wish Ichiro were their biggest problem? He's not even in the top 50 for this well-run franchise.
The question isn't whether Suzuki can still hit. It is whether he still fits in Seattle. Can he be comfortable playing the role of Sammy Sosa while the Mariners impersonate the Cubs?
Some teams, including the Cubs, inquired about Suzuki's availability via trade after the 2005 season. Their interest was rejected out of hand, both because of Suzuki's tie to the Mariners' Japanese ownership and because of his popularity with Seattle fans. Despite a second consecutive 90-loss season, the Mariners drew almost 2.7 million, the fourth-highest total in the American League.
Nothing would test the faithfulness of the fan base more than a Suzuki trade. But Suzuki is right to wonder whether his team is worthy of having him at the top of his lineup, and if the doubts he voiced in a November interview in the Tokyo Shimbun persist into next summer, the Mariners could find themselves at enough of a crossroad to listen to teams interested in him.
The past two seasons are only the second and third losing efforts of Suzuki's 12-year career. The first was in 2000, when the Blue Wave finished only three games below .500, and that was enough to seal his desire to come to America.
In the Shimbun interview, Suzuki said he is "worried about the team's future." And it's not just the Mariners' winning 69 games and finishing 26 games behind the Los Angeles (for now) Angels of Anaheim that bothered him. It was how they lost.
Suzuki says he was disillusioned by the 8-3 loss to Oakland that ended the season.
"The last game of the season reflects the team situation clearly," Suzuki told the Shimbun. "I had always felt that the value of a player really depends on his spirit in the last game of the season, just as the player would approach the first game of the season. On that last day I couldn't find anybody warming up on the field, and nobody said anything about it. We lost that game without spirit. What's worse, 35,000 fans came to see it, spending their money."
Suzuki, who loved playing for Lou Piniella, does not appear to be a Mike Hargrove man. He complained to the Shimbun about Hargrove's giving him a take sign for the first time in his career. It happened in a game against Minnesota in early August, with Carlos Silva (65 percent strikes, the most in the majors) on the mound.
Hargrove apparently wanted to make Silva throw more pitches, with the hope of tiring him out. Suzuki figures his .377 career on-base average suggests he should make his own decisions at the plate.
"It makes the pitcher throw more pitches, but after all I think we have to hit safely," Suzuki said. "Besides, if we refuse to hit the first pitch from a pitcher who throws strikes, we get cornered easily."
That was just one sequence in one game, but it was still on Suzuki's mind at the beginning of the offseason. "It is very hard for me to know the manager seriously believes in his own way," he told the Shimbun.
This wasn't like Sosa's ignoring Jim Riggleman's take sign, but it raises the same kind of question about a superstar feeling he might be above his team. Given human nature, it's a natural dilemma in difficult times.
(Hargrove, by the way, was right to want Suzuki to be more cautious with the first pitch. A prolific first-pitch hitter in previous seasons, he batted only .200 the 65 times he put the first pitch in play in 2005. The lack of success first-pitch hitting accounted for almost half of the drop in his average).
Suzuki attributes the overall drop from .372 to .303 to timing issues relating to the raising of his right foot, the trigger mechanism he has used to win his nine batting titles. He makes the art of hitting look so easy it's almost refreshing to know that he sometimes questions himself. And because he's human, he must sometimes grow discouraged, too.
No American League team has scored fewer runs over the last two years than the Mariners, which had plated an AL-best 927 runs in 2001 -- Suzuki's first season in Seattle. That was a balanced team, with 21-plus homers and 95-plus RBI from four of the men hitting behind Suzuki. Even after ownership showered Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson with a combined $114 million commitment, the Mariners' lineup has remained a work in progress.
Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima and outfielder-DH Carl Everett were the top additions to a lineup that has questions in center field (how good is Jeremy Reed?) and at shortstop (Yuniesky Betancourt/Michael Morse) and second base (Jose Lopez/Willie Bloomquist). The pitching staff should improve with a full season from Felix Hernandez and the addition of Jarrod Washburn. But Oakland is loaded, the Angels are used to winning and Texas is finally addressing its pitching void.
If Seattle stumbles out of the gate, will Ichiro be able to see light at the end of the tunnel? Or will he quietly let the Mariners' ownership know he wants to go somewhere he can win again?
But if he's willing to stay in Seattle, how will salary inflation affect his next contract? A three-year deal would give him 10 seasons in the majors, making him eligible for enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi must eventually weigh that question against another one: What would a contender pay for a hitting machine? That's what Ichiro is, and the guess here is that he only slowed down to catch his breath in 2005.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.