It is no secret that at times Ichiro Suzuki has stirred angst in the Seattle Mariners clubhouse. There have long been whisperings that he's not a team player, that he lives by one set of rules and his teammates by another, that he could have been more of a prolific base-stealer and run producer, driving the ball into the gap to help out the offense-challenged Mariners -- particularly during last year's woeful 95-loss season.
Last September, as the dreary 2011 season limped to a close, ESPN's Jim Caple lit into the Mariners' slap-hitting All-Star, whose skills appear to have measurably eroded.
"Earlier this summer," wrote Caple, "Seattle hosted a fake Ichiro, an actor from Japan who dressed in a full No. 51 Mariners uniform and posed for photos, to the delight of fans. Before he returned to Japan, Fake Ichiro briefly ranked with the Space Needle, the Pike Place Market fish throwers and the cheeseburgers at Dick's Drive-In as the city's top attractions.
"Fake Ichiro also showed up at Mariners games and even got his glove on a baseball, lunging his body over the fence to scoop up the ball as it bounced toward the stands down the right-field line. There was one problem: The ball was fair.
"The question for Mariners fans, meanwhile, is whether the actual Ichiro they have seen at the plate and in the field this season was also an Ichiro impersonator or what the real Ichiro has become in his late 30s."
Ichiro, who turned 38 in October, spoke with the Japanese media recently about his decline last year, when for the first time in his 11-year big-league career he failed to bat .300, didn't make the All-Star and didn't add to his trophy case his usual Gold Glove.
"I felt desperate last season," he told Nikkan Sports. "That doesn't happen to me very often."
Tacoma News Tribune's Larry LaRue wrote yesterday about Ichiro's confessional. Writes Larue: "After the final game of the Mariners' 67-95 season, Ichiro bridled at any suggestion by local writers that he'd felt pressure to continue his 10-year streak of piling up 200 or more hits a year.
'It's little strange because this year I've never mentioned about 200, ever, during the season or during spring training. Nor did I mention that during last year ...' Ichiro said then. 'I feel communications is very tough because I have never mentioned that nor have I thought about that.'"
To Nikkan Sports, Ichiro offered this: "Sometimes I feel I'm getting older, or more sensitive to what they say on TV. Yes my skin gets dry, but it's a lame conclusion to blame everything on age. People are quick to point to age. Those kinds of people don't interest me.
"In many cases, those people can't even take care of themselves."
The upcoming season, one that will pay him $18 million, is the final year on his contract, and for the first time there is serious talk about moving Ichiro out of the leadoff spot.