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Tuesday, February 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM



Ichiro prepares for WBC — and better season with M's

Special to The Seattle Times

KOBE, Japan — Ichiro's going with a classic look for the World Baseball Classic. When he takes the field this week at the Yahoo Dome in Fukuoka to train for the tournament with Team Japan, he'll be wearing his pants short to just below the knees, exposing his stockings.

The look is a departure from his customary style of wearing his pants long to his shoe tops, but Ichiro insists this will be his look throughout the tournament and maybe even beyond. For now, at least, he's not acknowledging the change as anything more than a fashion statement.

"It's a pretty sharp look, if I do say so myself," he said with a big grin.

A change in fashion isn't the only thing new for Ichiro. He's also representing his country in an international tournament for the first time. That means he might not be in the Mariners' camp much this spring, but he says that won't be a problem because the WBC will offer plenty of competition and intensity. He also says he's looking forward to a happier season in Seattle, after clear-the-air meetings with manager Mike Hargrove and other Mariners officials after the disappointing 2005 season.

Ichiro had declined an offer to join a team of Japanese professionals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but he responded differently to the WBC invitation. Japan will play in Pool A games March 3, 4 and 5 at the Tokyo Dome, against China, Chinese Taipei and Korea. Two of the four teams will advance to the next round, March 12-16, in Anaheim, Calif.

"All my life, I dreamed of being a professional baseball player," Ichiro said. "To me, the Olympics are for amateurs, at least in baseball. It doesn't determine the best pro team in the world. As a professional, I didn't see the value in competing for a gold medal that wouldn't mean my team was the best in the professional world. The WBC offers that chance, so I'm interested in playing."

Through his participation in the WBC, Ichiro takes great pride in the chance to show the world there's more than one way to play the game of baseball.

"There's many different styles of baseball in the world," he said. "The brand people in America are most familiar with obviously is the one they see the most, with powerful and naturally gifted athletes. Japan can't compete playing that game. We have to compensate for our physical deficiencies by relying more on our mind, by figuring out an approach that's best suited for combating physical strength and natural ability.

"Baseball is a sport where the most physically imposing team doesn't always win. If Japan wins this tournament, I think it will underscore that point and validate our brand of baseball."

While the Fukuoka camp officially marks the beginning of training, Ichiro has been working out on his own since Jan. 2. His former team, Orix, gave him use of its stadium in Kobe, where he assembled a personal training camp complete with three batting-practice pitchers and a training partner.

It wasn't unusual for him to take 100 swings off live pitching on a given day — half against a right-hander, half against a lefty. Nor was it uncommon to see him fielding balls in right field and firing bullets back home. It was like a full-fledged spring training for one.

"My training schedule isn't all that different from any other year, but the contents of what I was working on was different. I spent a lot more time getting my arm ready. That's the biggest difference. My arm's already ready to go."

And that goes for the rest of his game, too. He caused a great stir throughout Japan when he accepted an invitation from Orix to play in a pair of intrasquad games at their spring-training camp on Feb. 11 and 12. Appearing in those games dressed in his Mariners home uniform, he showed himself game ready with a 3-for-6 performance over the two days.

Actually, every member of the Japanese team is game ready because players have been in spring training with their respective pro teams since camps opened here on the customary date of Feb. 1.

Many starting pitchers have already thrown more than 100 pitches off a mound, with some topping 200. Ichiro's preparation is impressive because he didn't have the luxury of attending an organized spring camp; as one of only two major-leaguers on Team Japan, along with Akinori Otsuka of the Texas Rangers, he designed his own program and assembled his own staff.

Once Ichiro has committed himself to a competition, he knows no other approach than all-out focus and preparation. His own values, coupled with Japan's overall commitment to preparation, makes Ichiro critical of one of the main rules that will govern the inaugural WBC tournament.

"I can't believe they're imposing pitch limits," he said. "If they're serious about creating a meaningful baseball tournament, how can they come up with a rule like that? If this is really going to be a tournament to determine the world's best baseball team, then they should let us compete with normal rules.

"It should be up to each country's team to prepare for the tournament as they see fit, with no artificial rules designed to make the regular season more important than the tournament. That only compromises the dignity of the tournament. I think it's a real shame they're doing that."

If Japan does advance to the finals, March 18 and 20 in San Diego, it would mean only about 10 days in the Mariners' camp for Ichiro before the season opener on April 3. Some Mariners fans may find that unsettling as the team tries to resurrect itself, but Ichiro was quick to downplay his absence.

"With pride for your country at stake, I expect everyone in the tournament will be playing with the same intensity as if it were a regular-season game," he said. "To be involved in a competition with that level of pressure and competitiveness can only be a positive. Now that's not to say that you take spring training lightly and don't play at a high level in those games, but when you take that level of intensity and add to it the fact that you're now playing for something you've never played for before, there's no way that experience can be a detriment."

Regardless of when Ichiro finally does get to the Mariners' camp, he also left no doubt he's looking forward to that day and that he harbors no ill feelings from the frustration he expressed after last year's disappointing season.

"After the season was over, I had a chance to sit down with the manager and other key people from the organization and express my sincere feelings on a variety of issues," he said. "I may have only worn the Mariners uniform for five years, but I've played professionally for 14 years.

"I've learned there are reasons beyond just good players why some teams are strong and others are not. I expressed my thoughts on why I felt ours was not a strong team last year. I was concerned that if things were just left to drift in the direction they were going without someone stepping up, we wouldn't move forward.

"Mike Hargrove was one of the people I spoke with face to face. Some of the things I had to say were quite harsh, but the manager gave me the courtesy of listening intently and he especially made me feel he understood my feelings.

"Although the issues we talked through were tough ones, I would actually describe it as an overwhelmingly productive dialogue. So much so, in fact, that I think we achieved a new level of mutual understanding, and a far stronger manager-player relationship has emerged between us.

"From a team standpoint, I believe this season we'll be more effective at playing toward a common goal. Every player has his own unique style and approach, but I believe we will all be better focused on a common team goal. If that's the result of our dialogue, then I believe we'll have the foundation for what it takes to be a strong team and a team that I'm looking forward to being a part of."

For Ichiro, a player who wears his heart on his sleeve, this year he may also be wearing his optimism for a fresh start on his stockings.

Brad Lefton is a St. Louis-based journalist who has documented Ichiro's seasons in MLB for Japanese TV. He has spent his career covering baseball in Japan and America and interviewed Ichiro in Japanese for this article.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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