The larger issues
If I may, there’s a lot tied up in this whole Ichiro thing today and I think it’s important to tug them apart a little.
First, there’s the blind quote thing. I wish Baker would either name his sources or stop acting all coquettish about it (“You’d be surprised… could be a pitcher… name doesn’t start with a ‘Q’…”). If someone wants to give an incident like that on background, that’s fine, but if it’s important enough to run, it deserves a more detailed exploration. If the situation was so serious that the team thought Ichiro’s physical safety was an issue and called a meeting to work it out, that’s really quite disturbing.
The story’s now been flatly contradicted by at least two people who would have been around for it in Riggleman and Putz. And there will likely be others. If they’re all singing the same tune to protect Ichiro, doesn’t that at least undermine the clubhouse-v-players thing?
Beyond which, if there was a player looking to pick a fight with Ichiro, they’d have been thrown out or traded for John Mabry or something crazy, and it would have looked really weird. Unless it was Brad Wilkerson (hey, Blue Jays-Expos connection!) it’s fair to assume the threat of actual violence didn’t seem too serious.
We don’t know what happened. Some people do who are willing to put their names to it, and others don’t, and they’re probably afraid to shower with the team because there’s a big yellow streak down their spine which if spotted would guarantee at least one player does get in a fight. We can’t weigh that out.
So chalk the “was Ichiro going to get beat up?” to at best uncertainty.
Second, is Ichiro a bad teammate? Does he harm team chemistry? I don’t know. I wrote a whole thing on evaluating team chemistry and the short of it is that team chemistry, if it exists, can’t be predicted, evaluated, doesn’t seem to be significant and — as Riggleman said today — tends to be the product, rather than cause, of winning or losing. And we don’t know Ichiro personally, so I can’t speak to that either. And maybe contributing by quiet example in 2001 ticks the 2008 supporting cast off. But if there’s a real reason that Ichiro’s a bad teammate, we haven’t heard it yet, as Dave pointed out.
Third, is there resentment of the Japanese players? I don’t know that either. But I don’t understand how Ichiro would enter into this. Ichiro’s well-paid for being a good player. He’d certainly have received more on the open market, whether or not you think he’s worth the money. Johjima got a huge contract extension while sucking and then kept sucking. I think Washburn’s public tantrum about Johjima was ridiculous, but it’s still true that he, at least, and Bedard both didn’t like throwing to him for whatever reason. So I understand players might look at that contract deal and think “he only got that contract because the team has Japanese ownership ties”. But that’s not Ichiro. And if the resentment and hostility is really about performance and undeserved contracts, why Ichiro over Johjima?
I realized while writing that I do understand how Ichiro might enter into this. If they’re mad about that and think Japanese players get special treatment, well, Ichiro’s Japanese, why not hate on him, too? And that’s even beyond the general racial issues, which brings me to:
Fourth, is the clubhouse racist? This would hardly be the first time a team fractured along racial lines. Stuff a bunch of vastly talented people from diverse backgrounds speaking different languages into each other’s company for 162 games and crazy things happen. But if that was the case, you’d think we’d have seen symptoms of this a lot earlier. So we don’t know this one either.
Fifth, why Ichiro? There’s a Bill James line Gomez quoted in the comments I like: “Bad teams tend to focus all their frustration at their best players.” Ichiro’s clearly the best all-around position player on the team. Ibanez is by far the more productive hitter, and he’s done exceptionally well in important situations this year, but he’s terrible in the field. Felix can be electric, but he’s not the draw Ichiro is yet. We’ve seen this before, when players like Alex Rodriguez and even Ken Griffey Jr. were criticized for not doing enough to lead.
And yet it seems strange that Ichiro would be singled out for being paid while not performing, when there are other players are equally well-paid, but produce nothing. Silva was supposed to solidify the rotation and instead has been plagued by back trouble, talks trash about players to the press, and has had a season line so bad it’s painful to glance at. Why was there no blanket party held for him?
… unless Ichiro’s a bad teammate, to the point that his teammates find reasons to hate him.
… or it’s because the clubhouse is divided and there’s some portion that doesn’t like the Japanese players
Neither of which we can know.
Sixth, why is this important? Brewer argued that Ichiro being in a bubble was the team’s greatest problem. Which should let you know not to value his baseball analysis, because this is a team that can’t hit, pitch, or field, and a front office that spent vast sums of money on horrible players because they couldn’t tell the difference between good value and bad. They’ve lost a hundred games this year. There is no possible accounting, no matter how much value you want to put on a team “melding” or whatever chemistry term you like, that makes Ichiro or his personality or lack of leadership worthy of this kind of treatment.
The whole thing – the stirred-up controversy, which I certainly bit on angrily, is exactly the sort of baseball coverage that drives me nuts. It’s the focus on the superficial: which players are “accountable” by being media-friendly, or who hangs out with who, the blind-source gossiping and speculation, all at the expense of what’s substantial and to me interesting — and what some of the other stuff Baker’s series is covering. How does an organization go so badly wrong? How do they recover?
It’s a weak story told because it generates a lot of controversy and traffic for the Times. And obviously, since they’re contracting out road beat coverage, they’re willing to run this kind of thing. I wish they hadn’t (bringing us back around to the first point). We’re now in a place where, as scraps put it while I was drafting this,
Itâ€™s coming down on Baker because heâ€™s responsible for it. If the source wonâ€™t take responsibility, then itâ€™s on Baker. We have to take Baker at his word, over Riggleman and now Putz. Iâ€™m not willing to do that.
Moreover, it’s not an important story for that very reason. If it’s Beltre and Beltre’s got something to say, we can talk about that (Beltre, lauded for playing through injury, Ichiro, supposedly resented). Or Silva or Bedard or who the hell ever. We can discuss whether they can deal with him or need to be traded, or if Ichiro has to go. But this is gossip, and common gossip at that.
Riggleman’s right: teams that lose a hundred games, particularly teams that go into a season thinking they’re contenders, have these problems.
I want to know whether or not the team is serious about playing Lopez at first, and whether that’ll affect their off-season strategy, and whether they’ve given up on LaHair (yes). Whether Ibanez might get offered arbitration, what the GM process will look like.
We’re a week away from the end of the regular season, and we haven’t read a good GM article in ages. Who’s on the list? Who’s available, and what other options are out there for candidates? That’s the kind of thing that’ll matter to the franchise. Because when they’re winning again, Ichiro will go back to being the weirdly-dressed, funny and sometimes foul-mouthed leader-by-example, all of this will be forgotten, and we won’t have to wonder which team personnel are fighting a proxy mud flinging contest in the press.
All of which is reason enough to hope they get this ship turned around.