If Mariners know what's good for them, this should be Ichiro's last year
Time should be just about up for Ichiro, the ultra-talented but shockingly influential Mariner star.
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Mariners international superstar Ichiro Suzuki ripped a long home run for the second straight game Wednesday and is batting .400 this spring as the team heads to Japan to start the season.
But let's hope the Mariners and owner Hiroshi Yamauchi decide to bring an end to the Ichiro era after the year. Let's hope they aren't snowed into believing he has more big years left or that Yamauchi doesn't feel obligated to reward his close friend and longtime baseball adviser Ichiro with more time in Seattle.
Mariners people are saying they are giving it the year to decide at Ichiro's suggestion, and if that's the case, that's fine. He has one year left on his $90-million deal. But this should be it for him there.
Undeniably, Ichiro's been a brilliant performer, and his Hall of Fame credentials should be secure, even after only 11 seasons in the big leagues. But Ichiro is part of the past with Seattle, where the future is all about ace pitcher Felix Hernandez and the quartet of heralded young pitchers on the cusp -- Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez.
The Mariners don't need an interenational superstar with an entitled air about him when they are trying to build a team around their superb recent drafts, certainly not when the superstar's on-field usefulness is significantly in decline. Ichiro's career-low .645 OPS last year made it two straight seasons where it's dropped by about 100 points, from .851 in 2009 to .745 to 2010 to something beneath mediocrity last year.
Ichiro had an "absurd'' (the word of one former Mariners person) amount of influence with Yamauchi of Nintendo in the past, but let's hope that influence will stop at the decision about him. Ichiro is known to have pushed for the signing and eventual extension of Kenji Johjima, who it turned out wasn't very good, and several more personnel preferences, and his tight relationship with Yamauchi and unwarranted influence helped sour a clubhouse for years. Ichiro turned out to be a far better player than he was baseball scout.
Current Mariners people suggest Ichiro is nothing but positive, and perhaps his over-influence has indeed lessened in recent years. That may well be so, but of course there's no percentage in saying anything negative about an interenational star who happens to be the owner's buddy.
"Everything's been good,'' Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said. "He has a good relationship with (manager Eric Wedge), and he's got a very good relationship with all of us. I think he sees what's going on here. Nobody works harder. Nobody prepares better.''
The hard work and preparation never were the question with Ichiro, the influence was. Longtime Mariners manager Mike Hargrove quit his job of his own accord during a long winning streak, but others close to the situation say Ichiro's uber-influence was a factor. The new manager was John McLaren, who was originally pushed to become the team's bench coach by Ichiro and selected by Hargrove because McLaren, a man known for getting along with all kinds, "could absorb all the Ichiro BS,'' according to the former Mariners person. "Mac is really good at handling all the (tough personalities) on a club. He did a great job with Ichiro and (Jose) Guillen that year.''
Ichiro's "absurd'' influence was either unknown, underestimated or deemed unimportant when Mariners longtime stars like Jay Buhner were on the team. But according to the Mariners person, "Gradually, the clubhouse figured it out. Some guys can shrug it off, some get real bitter. Most understand Ichiro is Ichiro but are annoyed at the (ownership) fawning over the guy.'' (Zduriencik said he "wasn't here'' then and couldn't answer about that.)
Hopefully, the fawning has subsided a bit with Ichiro hitting .272 last year and generally being a well below average corner outfielder in terms of offense. But he still carries himself like a superstar. Asked for a few moments yesterday, his interpreter said "Ichiro doesn't talk pregame'' and offered that he might be available the next day (when the team took off for Japan).
At least on this day it didn't appear Ichiro had much interaction with teammates, either. Even if we take Zduriencik's word that it's all positive now with Ichiro, it is clearly time for the Mariners to turn the page.
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