Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and Husky basketball star Tony Wroten have gotten attention over the past week in part because of these talented athletes' abilities to vex us.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge reiterated his post-2011 season statements that Ichiro would not necessarily bat leadoff in 2012.
That has been his place in the batting order since he joined the Mariners in 2001 and began a streak of 10 consecutive seasons in which he got 200 hits or more — until he fell short last season.
During his 200-hit seasons, the almost certain Hall of Famer was pretty much left alone to do his job as he pleased, even though he clearly did not follow longstanding baseball expectations in doing so. Despite his bat control, he did little situational hitting: That is, he seldom took pitches to work the count or to walk, bunted, hit-and-run, or tried to loft the ball into the outfield to advance a runner or get his team a run. Nor would he swing for the fence when a tying home run was needed.None of those things would have added to his hit totals.
Despite his speed, he often chose to attempt a stolen base when it was meaningless to the game outcome while not trying to do so when it could have made a difference. His play in the outfield, though, was uniformly brilliant and his throwing arm superb. His physical condition always was excellent.
Despite grumbling by knowledgeable fans — and no doubt by his managers and fellow players — no one ever told Suzuki he had to play the game his manager's way. Last season Ichiro's 200-hit string was broken, his batting average fell, and his outfield range became more limited. Now, at 38, in the last season of his expensive contract, Suzuki has been told he'll have to do things the Wedge way.
Not only may Ichiro move from the leadoff spot, Wedge has said, but he may be asked to focus at the plate on the parts of hitting beyond the accumulation of singles. Ichiro has always been able to hit a long ball — if he tried. He may even be asked to do that in 2012 and to bunt, move runners along, and otherwise use his bat as lesser players are asked to do.
Suzuki says he is ready to do what Wedge wants him to do. Fans will be watching closely to see if that happens. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has signaled that the team may not extend Ichiro's contract when it ends after the upcoming season. This is the ultimate signal to Suzuki that he no longer will get special treatment. My bet: Suzuki will do as he is asked and rebound somewhat from his indifferent 2011 performance. But he may be getting too old to get another fat contract beyond this year.
Wroten, a former Garfield High School star and UW freshman, has been another puzzlement. He was rated one of the country's top freshman going into this season and expected to be a "one-and-done" player moving to the National Basketball Association after only one college playing year.
Commentators and opposing coaches continue to praise Wroten's talent. He has dazzled with some highlight dunks and drives to the basket. He has great speed and can disrupt opposing offenses and create steals. He is highly competitve and has a strong will to win. But, at other times, he has messed up his team's game, charging to the hoop when there was no route to get there, missing open lay-ups, making turnovers, and playing lax defense.
He is not a long- or even medium-range shooter and thus does not stretch defenses. Most annoyingly, he hits his free throws at a barely 50 percent rate, a real sign of carelessness. All these latter traits can be killers in close games. He simply cannot be trusted with the ball in a half-court game, with the clock running down, or to go to the foul line with the game on the line.
Wroten's fans brush away all these apparent failings, explaining that he is "only a freshman." But they are the same people who say he's NBA-ready next year. In his public interviews, Wroten appears not to recognize his shortcomings. Those who know him say he thrives on praise and is hurt by criticism. In the same interviews, he often expresses himself in ungrammatical street talk, making you think, Hey, this guy has talent but he is still a kid with a playground game. He clearly is paying attention only to some of Coach Lorenzo Romar's coaching.
The Huskies are entering the Pac-12 stretch toward the conference tournament. They have lost some games they should have won and almost certainly will not return to the NCAA tournament this season unless they win the conference tournament outright. To do that, Wroten will have to play under control and within a team concept. My bet: He'll do more of that but still will lose discipline at critical moments.
Ichiro and Tony Wroten, two stars respected for their superior talents in their sports. Both to be closely watched for their willingness to play the game their coaches' way. We're rooting for both of them.