BY John Hickey 09:21AM 12/08/2010

M’s leadership void: Wedge needs help

As good as M’s top hitter and top pitcher are, the club needs more veterans to provide leadership in ways the club’s signature players can’t.

Eric Wedge Seattle Mariners October 2010

Jack Zduriencik (left) and Eric Wedge want to change attitudes in Seattle / Ben VanHouten

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Two weeks ago, just before he was to leave the town that is soon to become his home for his old abode in Florida, new Seattle manager Eric Wedge tracked down Ichiro Suzuki.

As it happened, Ichiro was also leaving town, in his case for Japan.

Each was leaving the next day, so there was some urgency in the meeting, because the two men scarcely knew each other beyond nodding from opposite dugouts. Come spring training, they will have to rely on each other implicitly if the Mariners are going to put the grotesque images of Seattle baseball 2010 in the trash.

“It was an important conversation, in my view,’’ Wedge said Tuesday at baseball’s winter meetings in the shadow of Disney World. “It’s going to be important going forward to get leadership from our veterans.’’

Wedge had much the same kind of conversation with Felix Hernandez, who although a more than decade younger than Ichiro, is the most experienced pitcher on the Seattle staff, including the last two seasons when he finished second and then first in the American League’s Cy Young Award voting.

Hernandez hasn’t been a leader because he’s young. Ichiro hasn’t been a leader – at least in the classic “hall monitor’’ sense – because it’s not in his nature.

Wedge needs that to change. He’s being asked to turn around a team woefully short on proven commodities. But Wedge doesn’t really want to change anything about either man’s approach to work.

So that’s a problem. And there’s not a quick solution.

“I have been watching Ichiro for years,’’ Wedge said. “I’ve heard about his work ethic and his approach; it’s evident just watching him play.

“You get every bit out of Ichiro that he’s got. He leads by example, and it’s a good example. There’s nothing more important than having someone who does it right all the time. You can count on him.’’

As for Hernandez, Wedge has a pitching coach he trusts in Carl Willis, who was was Hernandez’s coach the second half of last year after Rick Adair was sacked in the purge that saw manager Don Wakamatsu and the coaches closest to him fired. As Hernandez went on to win the Cy Young and was arguably the most effective pitcher in the league down the stretch, Wedge obviously isn’t looking to make over his No. 1 starter.

“I talked to Felix and told him I just want him to continue what he’s been doing,’’ Wedge said. “I’m not asking him to be a mentor to anybody.’’

That doesn’t mean Wedge doesn’t need to have mentors on the team. He needs veteran leadership because the Mariners were such a mess a year ago when the wheels fell off the chassis of a team that was sculpted in the lines of a contender.

Ken Griffey Jr. lost playing time, then lost motivation and quit the game. Mike Sweeney’s role was marginal, his impact also marginal, and he wound up being traded to Philadelphia. Cliff Lee was traded to Texas. Wakamatsu, Adair and bench coach Ty Van Burkleo were fired. Attendance plummeted to two-decade lows.

An epic baseball disaster.

All Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik have to do is turn this 101-loss colossus around with a payroll that has almost two-thirds of its $94 million bulk dedicated for five players.

So when Zduriencik said later in the day that, all things being equal, he wanted to bring in some veterans in the reworking of the roster, the reason is the roster’s two stars aren’t traditional team leaders.

“We have to change the culture here,’’ Wedge said.  “The job as I see it is to establish pathways for what is acceptable, for what is not acceptable and to create a new norm with this franchise.

“We need to play with discipline. We need to play with commitment. And we need players who know those are not just words.’’

At the same time, Wedge is the first to admit that, for a manager at least, there is no such thing as a perfect day at the ballpark. You may win 15-0, but a struggling hitter will go 0-for-5 while everybody else is getting two hits. A reliever who needed the work won’t get it. Somebody will take a foul ball off the foot.
The lack of perfection doesn’t bother Wedge.

‘To play a sport in which you can’t be perfect is actually OK,’ he said. “You adapt and adjust. Baseball is your job. It’s not who you are.’’

Twitter: @JHickey3


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