Bulletin and update: Ichiro Suzuki was traded by the Mariners late Monday afternoon to the New York Yankees for two minor-league pitchers. He will wear a Yankee uniform Monday night when the two teams begin a three-game series at Safeco Field.
The Seattle Mariners are pondering a decision that, it is feared, could alienate the part of their fan base which values a winning team over bobblehead nights, nostalgia events, dancing groundskeepers, and the other pleasant diversions that have come to characterize their games over the past 10 years. The decision: What to do about Ichiro Suzuki, their future Hall of Fame outfielder, whose talents are fading fast at 38 and whose rich contract expires at season's end.
Until recently it was presumed that the Mariners would throw a late-season fiesta for Ichiro, shower him with cheers and appreciation from the team and fans, and then see him return to Japan, either to retirement or a farewell season or two in Japanese baseball.
Over the past week or so, however, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik stated that the Mariners, indeed, would be making Ichiro a new contract offer. Mariners icon outfielder Jay Buhner, on the "Brock and Salk" show on 710-ESPN, said he "would vomit" if Ichiro were given a new three-year $45 million contract such as host Mike Salk said he'd learned the Mariners were considering. (Ichiro is paid $18 milion this year out of a total 25-man team payroll of about $85 million.) Ichiro then told a Kansas City interviewer that he'd like to return but the team would have to want him back. Now the situation is awkward for everyone.
The Mariners, who promote fiercely their oldtime stars, brought Ken Griffey Jr. back in 2009 for an encore season in which Griffey probably drew a few extra fans to Safeco Field but in which his performance was of less-than-journeyman quality. Then, surprisingly, they brought him back again in 2010, and it all ended badly. Griffey's performance was even weaker than in the previous season, he pouted at bench-sitting, and bailed out overnight with a blast at his manager, Don Wakamatsu, which eventually resulted in the manager's firing. Griffey's encore salary was nowhere near Ichiro's $18 million.
Fading stars sometimes leave gracefully, when their skills have not eroded sharply — former Dodger pitching great Sandy Koufax comes to mind as an immediate example — while others hang on until they hurt their teams and tarnish their reputations. Unless something changes, it appears the Mariners and Ichiro are headed in that latter direction.
An X factor is the fact that Ichiro is known to have a personal relationship with the Japanese octogenarian majority owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi, who has never seen a Mariners game, even during the team's games early this season in Japan. A few years back a Mariners catcher, Kenji Johjima, was given a big-pay contract extension at a time when his on-field performance was dismal.
Needless to say, it had a dramatic negative effect among other players. The following season he was back in Japan. No one knew if the Mariners were still paying all or part of his salary there.
Ichiro Suzuki has put up amazing hitting numbers, first in Japanese baseball and then since he joined the Mariners in 2001 with a .350 batting average and 56 stolen bases. He's at the 2,500-hit level in major-league baseball but still distant from the milestone 3,000 level that he would have reached long ago had he comes sooner to the United States. He will be 39 next season and, presuming his performance continues to erode, it would take him another three to four years to get to 3,000. Or maybe he never would.
I attended Mariners spring training in 2000 and saw Ichiro there as an on-field visitor from Japan. He was wearing a Mariners uniform proudly and grinning ear-to-ear in the presence of American major leaguers. The following season he was there as a Mariner.
When I returned to Seattle from spring training in 2001, a friend asked me, 'How do you think Ichiro Suzuki will do?' My assessment then: A good outfielder, good speed, good arm, slap hitter at bat, maybe a .270 hitter with 6-8 home runs for the season. In other words, a possibly useful utility player but not someone to fill a position usually filled by a power hitter. I was right on all counts except for the batting average, which I would never have expected.
The 2011 season would be the first in which his average fell below .300. It was .272 then and is slightly below that now. He still has speed and is a fine fielder but no longer gets hits on infield groundballs as he once did. He never has been a "situational hitter" — that is, someone who bunts, hits the ball to the opposite field, or lofts flyballs to advance a runner or score a run. Often he has foregone walks to swing at balls outside the strike zone, hoping to add to his hit total. Always, though, in superb physical condition, ready to take the field, and with reverence for the game and its Hall of Fame performers.
Now, though, at 38 Ichiro is the player I thought he would be in 2001. If he were anyone but Ichiro, he would be a part-time player earning perhaps $1 or $2 million annually and on the verge of retirement — or trade to a contending team before the July 31 trade deadline.
CEO Howard Lincoln, who worked for Yamauchi at Nintendo, and team president Chuck Armstrong, in particular, will be tested in the weeks ahead. If Yamauchi passes the word to re-sign Ichiro for big money, will they resist? Will they tell Yamauchi a new contract for Ichiro would be a bad investment hurting the team's bottom line? Or will they go along and get along?
Will general manager Zduriencik, who is a professional, resist if Lincoln/Armstrong order him to bring Ichiro back? Will manager Eric Wedge, also a thorough professional, speak up accordingly? Former general manager Pat Gillick and manager Lou Piniella left the Mariners because of their dissatisfaction with just such mandated decisions. Will Jack Z. and Wedge, real Mariners assets, also begin looking for work elsewhere?
Despite their recent on-field inconsistency, the present Mariners team has a promising young core that could make it a winner in 2013 or, at latest, 2014. But it will not get there if a huge chunk of the total team payroll keeps being allocated to an over-the-hill, non-performing veteran.
Ichiro has done well and deserves our appreciation. He and Mariners management need to have a frank and friendly talk about his future. A statue in front of Safeco Field? A street named after him? A permanent plaque behind his right-field position? You bet.
Another rich contract? No.