It was at Yankee Stadium in 1928 that Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, at halftime of the Army game, famously exhorted his team to...
NEW YORK — It was at Yankee Stadium in 1928 that Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, at halftime of the Army game, famously exhorted his team to “win one for the Gipper.”
Shortly before the first pitch of tonight’s All-Star Game at the same hallowed venue — which will be abandoned by the Yankees after this season for a sparkling new baseball palace already rising next door — Ichiro will be called upon to rally his American League teammates.
Yeah, Ichiro. The quiet guy who has been criticized by some for shunning a leadership role in the Mariners’ clubhouse.
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Ichiro’s pregame “address” has apparently become an American League tradition during his uninterrupted string of All-Star appearances, dating to 2001.
The AL happens to have won all of those games. Coincidence?
“I’d say it’s over 90 percent [of the reason],” Ichiro said with a laugh.
Boston’s David Ortiz is the instigator, Ichiro said — and the content of his words are not for a family audience. Just call it his “Win one for the bleeper” moment.
Listen to Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau, who was a firsthand witness to Ichiro’s clubhouse oration last year in San Francisco.
“He was sitting in the locker back there, and David Ortiz said, ‘Ichi’s got something to say.’ And then he pops out and everybody started dying. I had no idea it was coming. It was hilarious.
“It’s hard to explain the effect that is it has. You know, it’s such a tense environment. Everyone’s kind of a little nervous for the game. He doesn’t say a lot the whole time he’s in there, and all of a sudden the manager gets done with the speech and he pops out. It’s pretty funny.”
Did Ichiro — who backed his words last year by winning the Most Valuable Player award with three hits, including the first inside-the-park homer in All-Star history — say anything printable?
“No,” Morneau replied. “That’s what gets you, too, is hearing him say what he says. I’ve talked to him a little bit when he gets to first, but I didn’t know he knew those words.”
Ichiro said he takes his inspirational duty seriously. “I’m concentrating more at that moment than I am in the game,” he said, speaking through interpreter Ken Barron.
Ichiro said he can’t remember exactly when or how the tradition started. He believes it dates to his initial All-Star Game at Safeco Field in his rookie season of 2001.
What he does know is that Ortiz, Boston’s perennial All-Star, is the one who keeps it alive. Ortiz, voted by fans as the starting designated hitter, won’t play because of an injury, but he will be in uniform for the game.
“If I don’t do it this year, I want to see if we win,” Ichiro said. “But Ortiz will make sure it happens.”
Ichiro arrived at this All-Star Game in a starkly different position than last year, when the Mariners were in the thick of contention. While he was in San Francisco, news broke of his pending five-year contract extension, which became official later in the week.
Now, the Mariners are in last place, with the worst record in the American League, and Ichiro has his lowest average ever (.304) at the break.
“It has been a really tough year for me individually, and also as a team,” he said.
But Ichiro, who traditionally uses the All-Star media session on Monday to delve more deeply than normal into his psyche, said he is not second-guessing his decision to tie himself to the Mariners through 2012.
“Is any part of me regretting I signed the contract? Not at all. I’m not regretting that at all,” he said. “Am I disappointed in the results? Yes.”
The Mariners’ slide has even prompted some speculation that the team would consider trading Ichiro as part of its rebuilding process, despite a common perception that its Japanese ownership would not allow it. Ichiro has limited trade veto rights.
“Is there a chance [of being traded]? Of course, there’s always a chance, especially when our team is playing like this,” Ichiro said. “In this kind of situation, I feel it’s only normal for people to bring up a subject like that.
“Personally, as a player, if other teams want me, that’s a way of other teams showing I have value. In that way, I’m thankful.
“If the Mariners ever think they don’t need me on the team, then I have to start thinking about this kind of situation. But the fact I signed a five-year contract with the Mariners last year shows I want to play for that team.
“My overall feeling is that I never want to be in a situation where I’m not wanted by other teams. But the other overall feeling I have is, I’m glad everyone around me is having fun with this, and I can contribute to the topic the media are talking about.”
Ichiro was asked to clarify if he wanted to stay with the Mariners.
“I don’t think I even need to say that for you to know that,” he said.
In the midst of answering serious questions about his Mariners future, a television reporter strode up to the table where Ichiro was holding court, and asked, “What’s on your iPod?”
Ichiro burst into laughter and said, “Looking at what kind of questions I was going over right now, and for you to come in and ask that question, I wish I had your boldness. I think I’d be a better baseball player if I was bold as you.”
Tonight, Ichiro will show his own boldness to his AL teammates — even before he steps onto the field.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com