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Is Ichiro pleased enough to re-sign?

Ichiro taking bp at the All-Star Homerun Derby (kind of a funny photo).

The diseased roots he alluded to at last year's All-Star Game seem to have been magically cured. Ichiro is reveling in the Mariners' success, and enjoying teammates who showed Sunday in Oakland that they have his back. He's even digging playing center field in his first full year at the position.

Is Ichiro pleased enough to re-sign?

By Larry Stone

The Mariners' Ichiro, taking batting practice Monday in San Francisco as a member of the American League All-Star team, can become a free agent at season's end.

SAN FRANCISCO ― To Ichiro, the Mariners' tree is finally healthy and back in full bloom. And that bodes extremely well for his extended future in Seattle.

The diseased roots he alluded to at last year's All-Star Game seem to have been magically cured. Ichiro is reveling in the Mariners' success, and enjoying teammates who showed Sunday in Oakland that they have his back. He's even digging playing center field in his first full year at the position.

Oh, yes ― he's having another monster year, on pace at the break for a statistical tour de force: .359, 244 hits, 116 runs, 74 runs batted in, 44 steals.

In fact, it's fair to say the chances of Ichiro re-upping with the Mariners have never been more favorable. And maybe soon.

At All-Star festivities Monday, Ichiro deflected most questions about where he will sign for 2008 and beyond ― "I will be somewhere in the world," he said ― but he did answer this one: Has the success of the Mariners this year changed your thinking about your future in Seattle?

"It has definitely influenced it," he replied.

Ichiro's buoyant mood is a far cry from spring training, when he appeared resigned, if not eager, to become a free agent after the season.

But that was before a 49-36 first half that seem to have wiped out the gloom that informed last year's All-Star metaphor by Ichiro. His words back then were cryptic ― if not a little tortured ― but unquestionably hinted at a perception by Ichiro that the Mariners were a troubled organization.

"If there is a problem," he said at last year's All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, "we need to notice it, what creates the problem. The problem usually isn't just on the cover. You need to look much deeper.

"For example, if we're talking about a tree, and the tree has a problem, you need to look at the root. But you cannot see the root. The mistake is to keep watering the fruit. That's not going to solve anything. You need to find where the problem is first."

Flash forward to Monday, when Ichiro again sat behind a table during the All-Star media availability session and gave his "state of the Mariners" assessment.

The Mariners sit precisely where they did last year at the break ― 2 ½ games out of first place. But the vibe couldn't be more different. Then, they were in last place, three games under .500 at 43-46. This time, they are in second, 13 games above .500 and possessing a record better than any team in the National League.

"This team is completely different than last year," Ichiro said Monday through interpreter Ken Barron. "The mental state is completely different. And how everyone is taking in the atmosphere is totally different than the team from last year."

In a positive way?

"Of course."

Has the losing culture that developed over three consecutive last-place finishes been eliminated?

"At this point right now," Ichiro said, "I don't see a speck of that kind of mentality with this team we have right now."

Conspiracy theorists have already concluded that Ichiro, in some way, had a hand in the departure of manager Mike Hargrove. That's not supported by any evidence whatsoever, and I don't believe it for a second.

That said, the ascension of bench coach John McLaren to the big chair certainly won't hurt the Mariners' chances to lock up Ichiro.

McLaren endeared himself to Ichiro prior to his first spring with Seattle in 2001 by showing up at the Peoria training complex every day to hit Ichiro fungoes and pitch batting practice.

Their friendship endured when McLaren followed Lou Piniella to Tampa Bay. Ichiro's quotes to Japanese reporters in the last week are said to have been pointedly favorable toward McLaren regarding strategy and communication.

Asked Monday if the managerial change would affect where he played, Ichiro looked incredulous that the reporter had the temerity to make such an indelicate inquiry.

"You only ask bad questions," he scolded. "That's not something someone should speak of in front of a camera."

But what Ichiro would speak of, eagerly, was the Mariners' turnaround, and his appraisal of their growth as a team.

"First off, this team this year has a lot of talent on it," he said. "Each individual player has potential. Not only that, if you look up and down the order, the opposing pitcher doesn't really have a spot he can take a break.

"Also, through the rotation, our starters are balanced. Once you get into our bullpen, we have good relievers. Looking at that as a whole, you can tell we're a good team."

Ichiro also revealed contentment in center field. He had always said he would move from right field only if the Mariners came up with someone he felt would do the job in right as well as him, or was able to hit with power. He acceded last year (when they had neither) and has nary a regret.

"Now I'm happy about it, but when I first took the position, there was, of course, a lot of uncertainty," he said. "I had confidence in myself, but I didn't know how the team would operate once I made the shift to center field.

"Now that I've played the position of center field, I feel I can utilize more of my potential in that position. Not only that, but the left fielder and the right fielder on our team are very understanding of the way I like to play. I'm so grateful and happy about the situation."

Sounds to me like a guy at peace. Like a guy who wants to stay right where he is: part of the Mariners' family tree.

Source: Seattle Times

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