For as long as Ichiro has been a Seattle Mariner, his actions on the field have been scrutinized. Like clockwork, the roars of the masses reach deafening levels any time the Mariners' right fielder falls into a slump at the plate. We've been spoiled by Ichiro's consistency as he churns out 200-hit seasons so reliably that we begin to take his skills for granted. Yet, invariably, there comes a time each season when he struggles, and his dedication, effort and leadership come under fire.
Ichiro is 37-years-old and may be on the decline, whether we'd like to believe it or not. Just about the worst thing he could do is go out and put his body through the wringer, laying it all on the line day-in and day-out. He's at an age where he has to pick his spots, be it on the base-paths or in the field. Because he picks his spots and works to maximize his efficiency, Ichiro has been able to withstand the rigors of Major League Baseball's 162 game season without a significant injury over the 10-plus years he's spent patrolling right field in Seattle.
It's a simple principle, and yet, after painting Miguel Olivo as the picture of hustle and effort while ignoring the Mariners' catcher's inability to expend the effort to properly block a ball in the dirt, local Columnist Steve Kelley took it to Ichiro for a perceived lack of effort. In the third inning of Sunday's game, the following is what Kelley saw, and became the basis for his column on Ichiro's lack of hustle and leadership.
With Mariners starter Jason Vargas struggling Sunday against New York, Yankee Francisco Cervelli sent a lazy fly down the right-field line. Ichiro charged toward the green padding on the short wall in front of the box seats, but pulled up short of the wall and let the ball quietly land in the first rows.
At the time, the Yankees held a 6-0 lead and Cervelli had done nothing of value at the plate, nor did he over the course of the rest of the game. In the at-bat referenced above, Cervelli struck out swinging on three pitches. After a long three innings in which the Mariners' starter threw far too many pitches, Vargas' day was over. That one foul ball meant nothing, but by failing to explain the context surrounding the play, Kelley misled readers.
Making the leap and implying Ichiro isn't committed and needs to atone for his poor hitting by laying his body on the line to feign some kind of leadership is both wrong and misleading. If you've watched and listened to Ichiro during his tenure in Seattle, you've likely noticed he's a thinking man. He takes in the game and the physics that are in play at the plate, in the field and on the base-paths.
And in a quote from 2008 that addresses much of what Kelley said, Ichiro explained why he doesn't dive in the field or slide into first base (via Larry Stone).
"People who say that probably think that sliding into first base is faster than running through it. People who say those kind of things probably get more enjoyment from looking at those kind of plays, but they probably don't know there's a better chance to catch the ball [the other way]."
There are few plays dumber in baseball than diving into first base. Unless a runner is attempting to avoid a tag, diving into first creates more risk than reward. In fact, it's faster to run through the base. And when diving, the potential for injury increases significantly, as Olivo found out first-hand on Saturday while knocking himself silly following his unnecessary dive.
Ichiro is incredibly self-aware and comes off as more of a philosopher than baseball player at times. After many lauded his leadership in the World Baseball Classic, the Mariners right fielder took a different tone when he returned to Seattle. In fact, as the outside world anointed him the leader of Team Japan, Ichiro had feelings to the contrary (via Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times).
"I did not think or feel that I wanted to be a leader for the Japan WBC team,'' he said. "And at the end, I was not a leader for the Japan WBC team. And something I'd felt, this thought of mine, became even stronger after playing with this Japanese WBC team, is that to have a leader -- who is a leader? -- that's not important.
There's no question Ichiro is struggling at the plate. But to take the easy way out and point a finger at his effort or leadership ability is wrong. He doesn't need to be a leader in this clubhouse and the Mariners have done just fine with him continuing to take a backseat while quietly going about his business without causing trouble.
Ichiro may break out of his slump, slap 200 hits and push forward with the same remarkable consistency he's shown for the last 10 years in Seattle. Or he may finally be on the decline after performing at a high-level well past his peak. But no matter what happens, Ichiro's performance will have nothing to do with his heart, hustle or leadership.