Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

The Rime of the Traded Mariner

In Baseball, Long form on July 28, 2012 at 9:01 pm

After 10 years as the face of the Seattle Mariners, Ichiro Suzuki became the latest “Mr. Mariner” to leave King County before the end of his career. The Yankees sent to minor league pitchers to Seattle to acquire the right fielder July 23.

Few ballplayers have been able to call themselves “Mariners for Life.” In fact, Seattle has had more baseball talent pass through its clubhouse than it has had players who have stayed for a career. Ken Griffey, Jr. bolted the franchise for a six-figure contract with his hometown Cincinnati Reds. Randy Johnson departed in a trade with the Houston Astros. Alex Rodriguez spurned Seattle to sign the then-largest contract in baseball history. Of the players in the Mariners Hall of Fame, only Edgar Martínez started and ended his career in Seattle. The list of great ex-Mariners gained another name July 23 when Ichiro Suzuki was sent to the New York Yankees for two minor league pitchers. Seattle has had its share of baseball talent — it just doesn’t stick around for long.

2001 was Ichiro Suzuki’s rookie season. He was 27, and 27 was old for a rookie. More often than not, old rookies became old journeymen, and old journeymen became non-roster invitees. But Ichiro was a rookie only in status. True, he had no professional experience in the United States, but he was a nine-year NPB veteran. In fact, he was one of the greatest baseball players Japan had ever seen. He was a seven-time all-star in Japan, a three-time Pacific League MVP and a Japan Series champion. Ichiro may have been a rookie, but he wasn’t a novice.

Ichiro put his baseball skills on display almost immediately. In his first game with the Mariners, he recorded two hits. By the end of the season, he led the American League with 242. He also led the league in stolen bases and won the AL batting title with a .350 batting average, becoming the first player to accomplish that feat since Jackie Robinson. Ichiro’s breakout performance provided a spark for the Mariners, and Seattle went on to tie the major league record for wins in a season with 116. Ichiro could hit anything that year, and the Mariners could beat anyone that year. It looked like Seattle was a shoo-in for the World Series.

But the momentum of the regular season doesn’t always carry over into the playoffs. The Mariners lost their swagger, the offense sputtered, and the pitching gave out. Seattle fell to the New York Yankees in the divisional series 3-2. Despite the team’s disappointing exit from the postseason, Ichiro had established himself as a legitimate MLB star. He was named to the all-star team, won a Gold Glove for his outfield defense, claimed the Rookie of the Year award, and was named AL MVP. The scrawny, 5-foot, 9-inch teenager who had been ignored by teams in Japan had become a larger-than-life figure in Seattle.

Technically, Ichiro slumped during his sophomore season. Technically. His hit total dropped — to 208. His batting average declined — to .321. His strikeouts climbed — to 63. In reality, it was another outstanding season. Ichiro he became just the sixth player in MLB history to begin his career with two-consecutive 200-hit seasons. He finished second in the AL in hits, fourth in batting average and fourth in steals. He received the most votes for the all-star game and finished 17th in MVP balloting. The Mariners slumped that year as well and missed the playoffs, but Ichiro’s reputation had been established. 2001 was no fluke — it was a precursor.

By 2003, Ichiro had transformed from rookie to routine. He recorded another 200-hit season, and finished in the top 10 in the AL in hits, batting average, steals and runs. He made another all-star team and won another Gold Glove. But those statistics were pedestrian compared to his 2004 season. Ichiro’s 2004 season wasn’t just outstanding — it was historic. That year, he started hot and kept on hitting. Every pitch seemed hittable, every grounder seemed to have eyes, and every fly ball seemed to find grass. By the end of the season, he had amassed 262 hits, breaking George Sisler’s eight-decade-old single season record of 256. He finished the season with a .372 batting average and won his second batting title. At the end of the season, Edgar Martínez — the heart and soul of the Mariners for nearly two decades — retired. Ichiro would be the face of the franchise.

But the franchise that Ichiro took over was one on the decline, and 2001 seemed further away with each season. The 2004 Mariners lost 99 games and finished last in the AL West. The next season, they lost 93 games and again finished last. Over the next seven seasons, Seattle finished the season higher than fourth in the standings and lost 101 games in a season the same number of times. The lineup was torn down, rebuilt, and torn down again. Managers were fired, prospects were traded, and games — a lot of games — were lost.

Through it all, Ichiro continued to hit. He had 206 hits in 2005, 224 in 2006, 238 in 2007, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Ichiro’s 200 hits were as reliable an occurrence as the tide or the seasons. He still made all-star teams, he still won Gold Gloves, and he still garnered MVP votes. Seattle fans didn’t have a great team, but they saw greatness in right field for 81 games per season.

But, reliable as they are, the tide and the seasons change, and Ichiro was no different. By 2011, Ichiro was 37 years old, a 10-year MLB veteran and a 17-year professional ballplayer. All of those hits, those outfield assists, those stolen bases and those fantastic catches began to catch up with him. That year was the first in his MLB career that didn’t end with 200 hits. His batting average also dropped below .300 for the first time. There was no all-star appearance, no Gold Glove and no MVP vote waiting for him to collect. Some began to wonder whether Ichiro’s career was winding down: Was one of Seattle’s greatest players ready for a farewell tour?

Baseball fans love the feel-good stories, but general managers love to win. The Mariners traded Ichiro to the Yankees July 23. He has a good chance to win a championship this season, but not with the Mariners. He’s a likely Hall of Famer, but won’t play his entire career with one franchise. Ichiro will continue to hit, maybe even collect 3,000 of them — just not in Seattle. But Seattle will be fine. They always seem to find a gem. Maybe next time they will keep it.

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