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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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February 16, 2009 10:18 AM

Beltre talks of clubhouse tensions

Posted by Geoff Baker

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UPDATE (1:08 p.m.): Larry Stone just posted large excerpts of his interview with Jim Riggleman today on his The Hot Stone League blog, in which the former manager talks about the problems a group of players had with Ichiro. Riggleman said he took players into his office and tried to get them to work through their complaints and feels some progress was being made before his dismissal. Interesting stuff. For those wondering, I was asked by Stone to keep linking to his blog this long weekend because our technical staff did not provide online links to it before the holiday period began. Hopefully, by tomorrow, they will provide links and you can reach his stuff on your own without having to hunt for it. Anyway, here it is again.

Might as well get all this out in the open at the very start of spring training. Adrian Beltre walked in today, looking in great shape and eager to start camp. Right off the bat, Beltre was asked about J.J. Putz's comments about divisions in the Mariners clubhouse last season. Beltre is one of the team's best players and one that teammates tend to follow with a fervor. As he walked in the room, he was immediately seranaded by one player after another, then congregated in a corner with Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Carlos Silva and Felix Hernandez.

So, his words mean something. And here is how he responded to Putz's comments when surrounded by reporters this morning. Listen to the entire audio file right here.

"There were some things last year that...some players played differently than how we played and how you're supposed to play,'' Beltre said. "I cannot myself say that (they) are not team players, they might be. But I think probably, it was not the way that probably people should play the game. But it's something that happened last year, I think this is a new year. We have to look forward and try to make it work.''

Beltre was asked what he could do -- as one of the team's most obvious leaders -- to change this problem.

"It's not what I can do,'' he said. "It's whoever was the guys that didn't play the game right that should join the other guys that want to play and want to do the little things to win. I try every year to do my part. It's not just what I can do out there on the field. I try to guide the guys, how, even if we're struggling, how we can score some runs, how to play the game and try to win as a team. Not just as individuals.''

Beltre was asked for his definition of playing the game "the right way."

"My understanding is, you do the little things,'' he said. "If you have a man at second, you move him over. Give up the at-bat. If you're losing by two or three runs, don't go up there and hack. Because if you hit a home run, you're still going to lose by a run. Play the situation game. If you know you're winning by two or three runs and they have men at first and second and you're sure the guy is going to score at home plate, don't throw home because you can try to cut the other guy off. Just the little things you can go over.

"Just do the little things. Take a walk if you need it. If you need a guy on base, bunt if you can run. Just the little things like that, where the team can see that you're playing to help a team win. Not just numbers or your stats and stuff.''

Sounds familliar, no? There are only a handful of guys he can be talking about when he mentions hitting cutoff men from the outfield and I know it isn't Raul Ibanez because Beltre was an admirer of how he plays the game. I also don't think he's picking on Jeremy Reed or Wladimir Balentien, guys still breaking into the majors in many respects.

I've talked to a few people -- not players -- who worked higher up in the organization the past few seasons, and they spoke of lingering tensions between Beltre and Ichiro the past few years. The issue, they say, has been a problem the team tried to address in group settings because players follow Beltre's lead.

I wanted to put the question to Beltre directly rather than begin speculating on it this past winter without offering him a chance to respond. This was the first opportunity to ask Beltre face-to-face about Ichiro, so I did.

I told him Putz had said he felt Ichiro could do more, then relayed it to Beltre's comments about some guys not doing what it takes to win. Putz, by the way, is a huge Beltre fan, which you can read about in today's The Hot Stone League blog from colleague Larry Stone.

I asked Beltre: "Is he (Ichiro) one of those guys you think can do more?''

Beltre initially said he didn't have issues with any one player.

"I don't single out anybody,'' he said. "You're never going to hear that out of my mouth. I think that it's wrong to single out your teammate. If I'm a good teammate, I'm going to support everybody here. Even if he is, or he's not (playing the right way) I'm not going to tell you. Because I think that should be addressed in the clubhouse, not outside.''

Hardly a ringing endorsement. But if Beltre wants to keep all such commentary in-house, that's his right. Ibanez, a player Beltre says he's going to miss for his leadership qualities, operated in identical fashion. But the question had to be asked. It's been talked about for years in this organization and now it's out in the open.

I asked Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu whether he was made aware of any specific Beltre-Ichiro tension and what he planned to do about it. First off, Wakamatsu said he was not caught off-guard by any of Putz's comments. He said he had done his homework prior to interviewing for the Mariners job, had spoken to players who were here and had a pretty good idea of what had transpired. Beltre, by the way, feels too much is being made of the tensions, but a whole lot of people -- like Wakamatsu -- seem to have been made aware of them and Putz (no longer employed by the organization) feels they were a big deal.

So, we'll give you what everyone is saying and let you decide.

By the way, I'm told former manager Jim Riggleman weighed in with some choice comments down in Florida today, where he now is in spring training with the Washington Nationals. We'll update you on those quotes later today, but it's worth noting that Riggleman, who played down the tensions last fall, is also no longer drawing a paycheck in Seattle.

Back to Beltre-Ichiro specifically, Wakamatsu said: "I've heard a lot of rumblings. Again, I don't want to comment on anything in the past. There's a lot of new guys here. And I just want to focus on creating an environment where maybe we bring a lot of that favoritism closer to equality. I think it's important that that 61st guy in camp, that he feels we're there for him.''

I asked him whether Beltre can help get that message across.

"You're looking for leadership but...I'm not going to make anybody a leader,'' he said. "What I'm trying to do is get them to understand their actions. Some guys are vocal, some guys aren't. But younger players are going to look at veteran players and say 'What's he doing?' Or 'Is he getting away with that?' So, it's our job to try to make sure and bring that to those guys' attention and say 'Hey, set the example.' ''

Wakamatsu said he had "a great conversation" with Beltre over the winter and that "he cares and he wants to win.'' He did text message with Ichiro briefly, but hasn't spoken to him since he saw him in Seattle.

So, once again, back to Beltre-Ichiro.

"When I get both those guys in camp, we'll see if we have a problem,'' he said. "But for now, I don't forsee anything.''

Fair enough. We'll see what happens going forward.

Wakamatsu was asked whether winning can change everything. "Absolutely, it helps,'' he said.

Then again, the team won 88 games in 2007, but tensions were still there. Enough to call a team meeting at Tropicana Field that season. And those tensions lingered around long enough over the ensuing winter for the clubhouse to fall into disarray the moment the team started losing the first few weeks in 2008.

Wakamatsu said it goes beyond mere winning and that he and his coaches have to lay out a process of communication to let the team know what's expected. Things like wearing numbered uniforms on the field during spring training instead of mere pullovers -- something several players did the first day here but were quickly told was not acceptable.

Beltre told us he felt the 2008 team was talented enough to win. So, I put this question to him: "What was the biggest reason you didn't win last year when you had all that talent?''

"That's a good question,'' he said. "That's a good question because we had a good lineup. We had a good lineup one through nine. We had five solid starting rotation guys and we had a good bullpen. We probably didn't have a veteran presence in the eighth inning , a set-up man, in the beginning. But we did have a good team and I don't really understand why we did so badly. I think it's just baseball. Sometimes, maybe we didn't click right, or we didn't give ourselves enough time. A couple of guys were released early after a couple of weeks and maybe we started panicking. I don't know. It can be so many different things but I can't point my finger and say what it was. I still can't believe that we lost so many games last year.''

Let's see whether the Mariners figure some things out this spring.

Photo Credit: Getty Images


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