07/12/2004 7:18 PM ET
Ichiro has mixed emotions
All-Star outfielder puzzled by Mariners' lack of success
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
HOUSTON -- The contrast between his first All-Star Game experience and his latest one couldn't be much starker for Ichiro Suzuki.
The Mariners were on top of the world and hosting the All-Star Game in 2001, and Ichiro was the hottest star among eight Mariners on the roster that year. Ichiromania and Sodo Mojo were in full bloom with the Mariners rolling on their way to a record 116-win season.
"In 2001, you're playing at your home field and you're there with your teammates," Ichiro said through an interpreter during the American League's media session Monday morning. "It can't get better than that. You can't top it."
This year's Midsummer Classic certainly can't.
The Mariners have struggled mightily in the first half, and at the All-Star break they're looking up at the rest of the AL West in the standings with a 32-54 record, 17 games behind the resurgent Rangers. That being the case, Ichiro is the lone representative for Seattle, not part of an army.
In fact, there's only one way Ichiro seems to think there's a comparison between 2001 and this year.
|Ichiro Suzuki says he's surprised by the Mariners first-half struggles. (Daria Debuono/MLB.com)
"In 2001, we had such a great year and I was surprised at that, just like right now I'm surprised we're not doing well," Ichiro said.
Ichiro will experience another change when he takes the field as an All-Star starter for the fourth straight year -- he'll be playing center field this time, leaving right field for the Angels' Vladimir Guerrero, making his first appearance for the AL All-Star squad after making four appearances for the NL.
He figured on that switch, but now Ichiro has the challenge of figuring out Tal's Hill, the grassy slope that's in play in dead center field against the fence.
"When it was first announced, I knew I would be in center," Ichiro said. "In Houston, center field is unique, so I'll have to be careful and make sure I do a good job out there. I don't know what the reason is to have that there, but maybe they could take it out for tomorrow's game."
That's not going to change, but Ichiro was disappointed in one change in center field: his counterpart in center field for the National League squad.
"This year, I was really looking forward to playing on the same field as Ken Griffey Jr.," Ichiro said. "He's a baseball hero of mine."
Griffey, the former Mariners star who joined the 500 Homer Club earlier in the seasons was putting together a stirring campaign with the Reds, earned the starting nod from in fan voting but suffered a hamstring injury last weekend and will be unable to play.
It could be said baseball's landscape has been altered since Ichiro's arrival in 2001 as the first position player from Japan to play in the Majors in the U.S. Next to him in the media session was Hideki Matsui of the Yankees, and Kaz Matsui has embarked on his transition to the Majors with the New York Mets.
But, looking back, Ichiro says he didn't come to the U.S. to pave any roads or break any barriers. He came to play baseball, which he has done at an All-Star level for four years now.
"I really did this for myself when I first came over," Ichiro said. "It's a personal thing. I wasn't here to carry the Japanese flag with me or prove something.
"If that's going to have an influence on other people, that's good. As for me, I just wanted to come here and do this for myself."
Along the way, he's done some pretty great things for the Mariners and for baseball in general. But it seems whatever he might have done this season wouldn't have been enough to help the Mariners out of their funk.
Naturally, the Orix Blue Wave -- Ichiro's team in Japan for nine years -- had its rough times.
"Not like what we're in now," Ichiro said.
He didn't have to come to Houston to find out that things are much different than they were in 2001, but Ichiro hopes that after he leaves Houston he and his teammates make the second half of the season much better than the first.
"We had a great three years in Seattle," Ichiro said. "Of course this year has been frustrating, but there's still half a season left. Everybody wants to win, and of course everybody gets frustrated when they're not winning. But hopefully we can turn things around and play better in the second half."
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.