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Originally published March 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 1, 2009 at 3:11 PM

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Ichiro takes leadership role for Team Japan

Recent reports have criticized his perceived lack of leadership with the Mariners. But the level of leadership Ichiro brings to his Japanese team and the way he uses it are unmistakable.

Special to The Seattle Times

KOBE, Japan —

All eyes were glued to the same spot as members of Team Japan circled in front of the first-base dugout. It was just moments before an exhibition game for the World Baseball Classic, and Ichiro was at the epicenter, offering words that had his teammates entranced.

From embracing a leadership role to his spot in the lineup to his offseason workouts, seldom-seen views of Ichiro are on display as he prepares for the WBC, which begins Thursday at the Tokyo Dome for Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan.

Recent reports (which appeared after Ichiro was interviewed for this story) have criticized his perceived lack of leadership with the Mariners. But the level of leadership Ichiro brings to his Japanese team and the way he uses it are unmistakable. He is older than all but one of the 28 players on the roster, and he has played nearly 700 more games in his combined American and Japanese career than anyone else here.

He can be seen imparting wisdom on young players at every turn.

Despite an outfield that includes fellow U.S. major-leaguer Kosuke Fukudome of the Chicago Cubs, Ichiro warms up his arm most days throwing the ball with the youngest outfielder, 26-year-old Yoshiyuki Kamei. While waiting his turn at the batting cage once, Ichiro was advising 27-year-old Norichika Aoki on striding.

Certainly, his records alone over 17 pro seasons give Ichiro's words cachet with players on any team. But his sagest advice might come from his keen grasp of the nuances of competition.

An incident in the 2006 WBC punctuates this. In the eighth inning of a second-round game against Team USA, time was called as Japan's trainer came out to tend to a hit batter. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a 21-year-old player, was on second base. Sensing the restless youngster might give in to a temptation lurking nearby with time to kill during the delay, Ichiro fixed his gaze on Nishioka from the dugout.

Sure enough, Nishioka walked right over and solicited a handshake from Derek Jeter at shortstop. Nishioka, a shortstop himself, had become a Jeter fan by watching him on Major League Baseball broadcasts in Japan.

Ichiro has no tolerance for on-field adulation, believing such behavior contributes to losing, and he made a point to call Nishioka out for it after the game. He also made sure other teammates were around so the message would reverberate.

While there is no way to measure the real impact of his action, the facts are that Japan indeed went on to lose that game, then rebounded to win the tournament.

A forum like the WBC gives Ichiro an unbridled opportunity to lead in a way rarely seen elsewhere. The schedule's structure alone, where one loss in an early round puts a team on the brink of elimination versus the pacing of 162 games, requires different intensity. Equally significant, he knows his countrymen share his values — Japan's rigid hierarchical culture empowers senior-ranking people with authority and obliges junior ones to be deferential.

"Certainly, implicit with a national uniform is the notion that the guys wearing it share a similar culture and value system," he explained. "In such an environment, then, it's easy to imagine that harsh words like that have a good chance of being effective and producing the intended positive results."

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The same is not true in a multicultured environment like a major-league clubhouse. Ichiro is one of only two Japanese with the Mariners, a fact that complicates standing up and taking charge because relationships are blurred and sensitivity toward others' values is necessary. In light of a style that has come under scrutiny recently when he's in a Mariners uniform, these differences help explain why Ichiro isn't as visible or vocal a leader with Seattle.

However, former teammates such as Raul Ibanez and Willie Bloomquist seemed to understand how to tap into the depths of what Ichiro has to offer. They could sometimes be seen huddled with him in the Mariners clubhouse. While he didn't appear to be dispensing advice as forcefully as he did with Nishioka, such scenes did make it clear that Ichiro shares his thoughts with those who seek him out. In fact, he stayed out on the field several times last spring training to share his thoughts on baserunning in lengthy sessions that included lots of demonstration with teammates who asked to hear it.

The way the environment affects his leadership isn't the only thing different about Ichiro at the WBC training camp. The Mariners' leadoff hitter has been batting third in Japan's exhibition games.

Japan's lineup is heavy on speedy players with solid fundamentals who have leadoff experience. None of them can match Ichiro's lifetime .331 average, though, so he'll likely stay in the No. 3 spot where he can also be a formidable threat to drive runners home.

"The possibility is definitely there and, really, in a tournament like this, it should be," Ichiro said. "If you assemble too many players who can only perform in one set position, it complicates the task of constructing a national team.

"You need versatile players who can contribute in multiple ways on both offense and defense. Japan has gone about assembling such a team, and I recognize the various scenarios for me."

He began the 2006 WBC leading off until manager Sadaharu Oh moved him down to third to pick up Japan's sagging offense in the semifinal game against Korea. From there, he went 5 for 9 with two runs batted in against Korea and Cuba to lead Japan to the inaugural tournament's championship.

The Mariners aren't similarly stocked with multiple leadoff candidates like the 2006 and 2009 versions of Team Japan. That, and the fact Ichiro is very content leading off for them anyway, would seem to make moot for now any talk of moving him to third in Seattle's batting order.

While he says the prospect of hitting third doesn't change the way he prepares, Ichiro did make a few curious changes to his offseason training routine. The Mariners' eight-time Gold Glove outfielder took ground balls regularly at shortstop. Ever the perfectionist, he wasn't content chasing after hard bouncers with his outfielder's glove, so he had a smaller infielder's glove made especially for the exercise.

"I could become a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop," he quipped when asked to evaluate his potential. "Not as talented as [Omar] Vizquel, but definitely on par with Jeter."

Yes, he even threw a well-documented bullpen session while still training on his own. While Ichiro never does anything simply for fun, he always has fun with what he does — his mound work included a few menacing stares over his left shoulder as he worked on his pickoff move.

Rest assured, Mariners fans, the infielder's glove, as well as the pitching fantasy, have been mothballed since Ichiro arrived in Team Japan's camp. Those exercises were merely concocted as a way to spice up his rigorous offseason workouts during the long, cold winter.

Ichiro will join the Mariners in Peoria, Ariz., when Japan's WBC run is over, which could be as late as the final week of March. He'll find a team similar to Japan's in that only two players, Miguel Batista and now Ken Griffey Jr., are older than him. While the rebuilding Mariners won't be mistaken for the star-studded Team Japan, Ichiro — in typical fashion — has a philosophical take on how he'll cope from going with a team considered a favorite to win it all to one hopeful of breaking the shackle of a 101-loss season.

"There's no discounting the value of having players who run the fastest or throw the ball the farthest or pitch the ball the hardest, but with that said, it's your disposition and your attitude toward the game that determine how effectively you utilize the tools you have," he said.

"Each individual has it within himself to maximize his potential and, by the same token, to squander his potential. Understanding the control you possess over that is the key. This isn't something that only applies to baseball, it applies to life."

To some, such thoughts may sound as wacky as an outfielder taking ground balls at shortstop and pitching in the bullpen to prepare himself for the season. But as many of Ichiro's teammates in Japan, and even some in America, are discovering, there's a wealth of wisdom in his mind that's there for asking.

Brad Lefton is a bilingual St. Louis-based journalist who covers baseball in Japan and America. He often follows the Mariners for Japanese media and he interviewed Ichiro in Japanese for this story.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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