Commentary

Ichiro, Junior speak the same language

After tension-filled '08 season, Griffey's presence could help keep M's clubhouse loose

Updated: March 27, 2009, 12:22 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

PEORIA, Ariz. -- At long last, the two best outfielders in Mariners history took their positions as Seattle teammates Thursday afternoon. And in doing so before one inning, they revealed their distinct personalities and styles. His eyes focused directly ahead, Ichiro Suzuki trotted businesslike to right field in a path so straight it could have been laid down by a highway-surveying crew in Kansas. Ken Griffey Jr., meanwhile, casually ambled toward left field, stopping his indirect route to chat with third-base umpire Brian Reilly.

Perhaps a better indication of the outfielders' positions with the team, however, was revealed later in the clubhouse when reporters surrounded Ichiro for his first interview since his return from winning the World Baseball Classic with Team Japan. Griffey positioned himself behind the media, listening in throughout and dropping such remarks as, "For a guy who is 35, he's got more gray hair than I got." When a reporter questioned Ichiro on critical comments made about him by former Mariners, Griffey complained audibly, "What are you trying to get at? Goddamn, that was last year."

[+] EnlargeKen Griffey Jr.
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezKen Griffey Jr. is back with the Mariners for the first time since leaving Seattle after the 1999 season.

Yes, indeed. Last year. A season the Mariners would like to forget, a season when Seattle led the league in losses, backbiting and finger-pointing.

The Seattle Times quoted an unnamed clubhouse insider last season as saying there was so much animosity toward Ichiro that the source worried teammates might attack him. Former Mariners closer J.J. Putz hinted to the paper this spring that Ichiro was not a team player and could do more to help the club, while ex-manager Jim Riggleman said he was surprised that so many players considered Ichiro selfish.

Just imagine the criticism had Ichiro not led the team in batting (.310), on-base percentage (.367), runs (103) and stolen bases (43) while winning another Gold Glove and playing in the All-Star Game.

"This is Major League Baseball," Ichiro said through the Mariners' interpreter in response to the criticism Thursday. "We're all professionals. So is it really at a level where I have to explain to others why I do something? That's at the level of like a mom telling a child, 'This is why I do things.' Maybe that was the problem last year, that we were still at that level."

Ichiro is not the sort to sit around stuffing his face in the team dining room and competing to see who can break wind most often during the final half of "Happy Gilmore." But does packing his own rice meals to eat at his locker make him aloof? Kansas City outfielder Jose Guillen, whose locker was close to Ichiro's when he was with Seattle in 2007, said that teammates in search of the right fielder would be better off looking in the batting tunnel, where they would find him taking extra batting practice and otherwise preparing for the next game. Guillen neither confirmed nor denied that he grabbed a teammate who was critical of Ichiro in 2007 and shouted at him that if he'd had a problem with the outfielder, he should be a man and discuss it with him face-to-face.

"I love the guy," Guillen said of Ichiro. "Trust me, if I had something negative to say about him, I would."

Still, Ichiro interacted more with the team in the days when Mike Cameron was flanking him in the outfield and sharing adjoining lockers in the clubhouse. The Mariners hope Griffey will have the same effect.

"I don't think anyone is off-limits to Ken, so I'm sure he'll be getting on Ichi, and maybe he'll loosen him up and hopefully get him speaking a little more," pitcher Jarrod Washburn said. "It can't hurt. That would be a good thing for the team."

Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said Junior might "take some of the pressure and focus off Ichiro," but Griffey downplayed such a role. "He's 35 years old. He's not 19," Griffey said. "He plays each and every day and gets 200 hits a season. There's not much to say to him."

Meanwhile, Ichiro denied he played a leadership role with Japan's WBC championship team -- would anyone else deny being a leader of a world champion? -- stressing that a leader is not important at this high a level. "What is important is to lump together a group of individuals who want to improve themselves as baseball players and improve themselves as human beings," he said. "That's what is important -- trying to get a team together. Pointing out a leader and saying everyone should follow this leader sounds very easy, but if you go in this style, there are manholes.

"People who believe this fundamental process of choosing a leader and getting a team to follow them should change their thought process."

In other words, if you want Ichiro to assert himself as a leader, it isn't going to happen.

[+] EnlargeIchiro Suzuki
Kyodo/AP ImagesIchiro joined the Mariners in 2001, and has hit better than .300 in each of his eight seasons in Seattle.

Because of the WBC, Thursday marked the first game Griffey and Ichiro have played together this spring, but this is the second time they've been in spring training together. When Ichiro still was with the Orix BlueWave in Japan, he worked out with the Mariners for a week in 1999 as sort of an exchange student.

"It's been 10 years now since I practiced with him for the first time in Peoria," Ichiro said. "And he's the exact same guy he was back then. That makes me very happy. Just like he was 10 years ago, he's like a kid. His personality and his character, something about them, he has the ability to change the atmosphere."

Physically, though, Griffey has changed much since he last wore a Seattle uniform a decade ago. Like most everyone else, he's heavier and has wisps of gray in his goatee. He also is slower, has less range and is coming off many injury-plagued seasons. Having reluctantly made the switch from center field to right two years ago, he's switching to left field and DH this year. But he's focusing on the former role.

"I want to play every day in left field," Griffey said. "I want to play every day. That's just the way I am."

Fans who worry Griffey will get hurt playing in the field may not like hearing that. He hit 18 home runs with 71 RBIs in 490 at-bats last season, but if he can maintain his health, the Mariners hope he'll once again provide desperately needed power in the lineup. Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu said the Mariners will monitor Griffey's leg strength to see how much he can play in the outfield. "We've talked about trying to manage it so that he'll be with us all year," he said. "Whether that's DH and certain days in the outfield."

Armstrong says that when he first met Ichiro in 1997, the outfielder said it was his dream to play on the same team as Griffey. Now they do, and Ichiro described Griffey's play as "beautiful and smooth and almost flowing. … Also today, when I was on second base, he came up to bat, and that view of him in the batter's box was something I really enjoyed."

At 35 and 39, respectively, Ichiro and Junior are old enough that neither is likely to change much at this stage. But they might rub off just a little on each other. Griffey could draw out Ichiro's personality a bit more. And who knows, maybe Ichiro will teach Junior the importance and joy of pregame stretching.

We'll see, but Thursday was a decent start.

"I'll be ready for you to take me to dinner in an hour," Griffey shouted at his new teammate.

Ichiro replied, "Bring a tie."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com