Wakamatsu to end clubhouse fighting
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Don Wakamatsu took the job as manager of the Seattle Mariners knowing he'd have to start his turnaround of the 101-loss team in the clubhouse, where bickering and jealousy plagued the squad last season.
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"I did my homework. I talked to several players from last year," Wakamatsu said Monday. "I am fully aware of the rumblings, or people's perception of it."
Just three days into camp those perceptions came to the surface, when former All-Star closer J.J. Putz was quoted in the Seattle Times on Monday saying, "There were just some guys that just weren't really team guys."
When asked if the Mariners can win with such players, Putz said: "It depends if they hold everyone accountable equally, or some guys just get special treatment like it's been in the past."
The most prominent name mentioned for Seattle, which became the first team with a $100 million payroll to lose 100 games, was superstar Ichiro Suzuki, who has been known to stay in different hotels on the road than his teammates.
Asked specifically about Suzuki, Putz told the Times: "It's hard to argue with 200 hits every year. ... I just think there's so much more he can do that doesn't happen."
Suzuki was not immediately available to directly respond Monday as Japan's team assembled in Miayzaki to begin training for the World Baseball Classic.
It's hard to argue with 200 hits every year. ... I just think there's so much more [Ichiro Suzuki] can do that doesn't happen.” -- Ex-Mariner J.J. Putz told The Seattle Times
He told the television network NHK in Japan after the national team's first practice: "I'm a little tired, you can feel the excitement building. I'm just trying to stick to my usual [preseason] routine. I wanted to give the fans a performance today."
Wakamatsu said he talked with Suzuki in November when he was taking indoor batting practice in Seattle and recently exchanged text messages with him.
In fact, Wakamatsu plans on talking with all of his players. The first-time manager is trying to change the caustic environment by fostering trust through one-on-one meetings with every player that go beyond just baseball.
"I want to focus on creating that environment where maybe we bring the favoritism a little bit close to equality," Wakamatsu said.
Adrian Beltre, a clubhouse favorite who wouldn't single out Suzuki or anyone else, arrived earlier than most position players. He'd like to accelerate that change.
"It's going to be a long run if we start dividing early in the season," he said.
The Gold Glove third baseman is respected by teammates for fielding hundreds of groundballs each day and for playing through pain, such as a persistent thumb injury he had surgery on last September.
Seconds after Beltre walked into the clubhouse for the first time Monday, burly pitcher Carlos Silva, who complained last season some unnamed teammates were selfish, lowered his shoulder into Beltre's chest and playfully drove Beltre back out the door. A parade of hugs from teammates followed.
Last season, Seattle collapsed after expecting a first postseason appearance since 2001. Now there's a new front office, new coaching staff and new focus on rebuilding that has Beltre wondering if he will remain in Seattle. His contract ends this year.
"There's some players here who played differently than how we play, than how you are supposed to play," Beltre said.
He gave examples of outfielders who fielded hits when there were runners at first and second and threw home while the run was about to score easily, instead of throwing to a base to keep the other runner from advancing.
The Mariners currently have only three players who saw time in the outfield for them last season: Suzuki, raw prospect Wladimir Balentien and Mike Morse. And Morse played in just five games before having season-ending shoulder surgery.
"Take a walk if you need it. If you can run ... just little things like that," Beltre added. "Then your teammates can see that you are playing the game to win, not just for numbers or your stats."
Suzuki was one of 16 players with at least 700 plate appearances last season. Of that group, only Boston's Dustin Pedroia (50) had fewer walks than Suzuki (51). And Pedroia was busy doing everything else in becoming the AL's MVP.
The speedy Suzuki's career success rate for stolen bases is 82 percent -- last season it was 92 percent. Yet he hasn't stolen more than 45 bases in any season since a career high 56 in 2001, when he was the AL MVP.
Wakamatsu has dealt with the ego of elite players before, as Buck Showalter's bench coach in 2003 with Texas, when Alex Rodriguez was there.
How does he create the perception of equality with a superstar around?
"Obviously they understand there is a hierarchy in this game by what you've done before," he said. "It's whether you communicate with those [other] guys or you invest in them just as much. Can there be equality? Yes and no. But the communication ... that helps."
So there is a plus to Suzuki, and catcher Kenji Johjima, being with Team Japan until perhaps as late as March 25. Wakamatsu can institute his new culture before Suzuki arrives.
"What we are trying to do up until that point is create the environment that we want," Wakamatsu said, "create some trust that when they get in here, they feel the change."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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