STEVE: The Mariners completed Wednesday the 12th 90-plus-loss season (fifth since Safeco Field opened) in their tortured existence. I’ve heard from a source in the Mariners organization, who declined to be identified, that the move some would most like to make as the off-season gets underway is to rid themselves of Ichiro. But it doesn’t appear they will be able to do it, nor has Ichiro given indication he will walk away from the $17 million he’s scheduled to make in 2012.
ART: For a guy who was the franchise core for a decade, it’s amazing how difficult his situation has become. I can’t imagine there is a baseball-only staffer in the organization who thinks it’s a good idea to have a declining 38-year-old singles hitter play right field next season for $17 million, especially including manager Eric Wedge. That is not meant as a disparagement of Ichiro; his contributions to the Mariners have been significant on many levels. But the franchise has been in the doldrums long enough that hard baseball decisions have to be made. The attendance drop to below two million — nearly half of their peak season of 3.5 million in 2002 — indicates many non-bobblehead fans are taking the club less seriously, partly because of irrational decision-making.
STEVE: The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the Mariners front office is at cross purposes with the Japanese ownership.
ART: Majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, who saved the franchise when he stepped up in 1992, has a deep affection and respect for his countryman. But not only has he never seen the Mariners play, he either isn’t being told honestly of the situation, or is too stubborn to care. Regardless of the reason, the personal politics between them, and the execution of it through Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln, Yamauchi’s rep on the board of directors, is impeding baseball progress.
STEVE: I’m not sure that “baseball progress” and “Mariners” fit logically into the same sentence, although some of general manager Jack Zduriencik’s young players seemed to come around this year. In any case, word is that Ichiro not only wants to play in Seattle again next year, but beyond that, into his 40s. Much as I appreciate what Ichiro has done, a player with his skill set should not be the “core” of any franchise.
ART: It’s entirely possible Ichiro could bounce back in 2012 — I’d guarantee it if he went to another team (that is the Mariners tradition) — particularly if you believe his agent, Tony Attanasio. At the end of a long story in the Sunday Seattle Times, Attanasio is quoted as saying the devastating earthquake/tsunami in Japan March 11 deeply troubled Ichiro: “It was an immense weight on his mind this year. It bothered him more than any one thing I’ve ever seen bother him. The area hit was very, very near his home in Nagoya.”
Certainly understandable, but why is that fact disclosed now? Why was Ichiro not forthcoming to the public about the huge distraction? If he were honest with club officials privately, why didn’t they take some relief action? Fergawdsakes, they let Milton Bradley leave the team for counseling, and he was far less valuable and far more hopeless than Ichiro. He should have been granted — or forced to take — time away from the Mariners of his choosing to deal with family/friend/business crises in his homeland, then return when he could be more clear-minded about his baseball job.
STEVE: Since only Ichiro knows the extent to which the earthquake affected him, any connection between that event and his poor season really amounts to speculation. Ichiro has been an incredibly productive player dating his days in Japan (1993). This was the first “bad” year of his career and it was bad only when compared to Ichiro’s other seasons. Even if Ichiro manages to “bounce back” next year with a more Ichiro-like season, he’s inevitably headed, at almost 38, on a slow creep south.
ART: The emotional impact of Japan’s national tragedy is immeasurable, and indeed speculative, although his words and deeds over the years suggests Ichiro is a very emotional guy, even though we Americans equate emotionalism with demonstrativeness (see Piniella, Lou). Remember Ichiro’s stomach distress following Japan’s win in the World Cup? He admitted to feeling almost disabling pressure, although you wouldn’t know to look at him. Ichiro is a brilliant, complicated guy, so much so that he can fool himself. Not trying to be cynical here, but the earthquake distraction could be a reason that screens away an honest analysis of the decline of his physical skills. Even though he may be the healthiest, most fit player to wear a Mariners uniform, he lets few inside to help him discover where there may be physical or psychological reasons for his decline. He adds only darkness, not light.
STEVE: He actually adds more than darkness: he adds to the offense’s lack of productivity. His .310 on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter, terrible by any standard, was by far the worst of his career. Ichiro is a guy who needs 230 hits to get on base 40 percent of the time, because he doesn’t walk much. But his 200-hit years are probably over. Only three players — Sam Rice (1928, 1930), Paul Molitor (1996) and Pete Rose (1979) — had 200 hits in a season after turning 38. Ty Cobb never had more than 175 after turning 38. Historically, 200 hits is an achievement for far younger players. Wade Boggs and Rod Carew had many 200-hit seasons in their careers — none after turning.
ART: What you’re saying is that he is increasingly less likely to play the style of game that enabled him to reach the heights of Japanese and American baseball. There is sadness in that, certainly no shame. Your historical comparatives suggest that his superb play until this season has been at the top of baseball’s actuarial tables. He’s already outlasted nearly all of his peers in the narrow world of singles hitters relying on speed. The feats should be celebrated, not denigrated by a slow on-field fade that is likely to accompany the years after 2012, if not including 2012.
STEVE: I certainly have no wish to denigrate Ichiro. Regardless of the criticisms of him — this year and in the past — that he doesn’t do this or doesn’t do that, I have always found him utterly fascinating, especially from a stats point of view. Baseball Reference has a marvelous tool — Similarity Scores — that compares players based on their raw numbers and by age. Every guy on the list with Ichiro has been dead for 80 years. For 11 years, we’ve been watching a total throwback. Watching Ichiro hit is to watch Sisler-Keeler-Simmons hit. The other thing I’d say in defense of Ichiro’s game is that, except for 2001, the Mariners have not surrounded him with sufficient talent. Frankly, I don’t know how he can tolerate the losing.
ART: You have hit upon the central point of the Ichiro dilemma — what does he truly want? To win a World Series? To reach individual milestones? To demonstrate the values esteemed in Japanese culture, loyalty and responsibility, to fans and his employer by showing up every day for work, no matter the consequences to him and the team? Here’s what I’d like to see happen when Ichiro meets Yamauchi this off-season, which he has done every off-season: Have Yamauchi ask, “Ichiro, what do you want to do for yourself, for your team, and Japan? Please answer honestly and without regard to our relationship.” If Ichiro says he would like to try another team, Yamauchi should grant the desire. If Ichiro wants to stay in Seattle, Yamauchi should demand Ichiro’s undistracted best, as well as his deference to the club’s baseball needs.
STEVE: What are the chances of that conversation taking place, and what happens if it doesn’t?
ART: Small. But not impossible. It would take Lincoln being blunt and assertive with Yamauchi regarding Ichiro’s future, as well as the burden of his contract. Yamauchi needs to know that unless Ichiro and those close to him can diagnose and correct his decline, he will have a loss of face in America, generating some of the resentment that swirled around catcher Kenji Johjima. If the conversation doesn’t take place, what will happen is what happens in any relationship, business or personal, when truths go unaddressed — it gets worse.
STEVE: This story, I’m afraid, will not have a happy ending.