A phone call the Mariners received shortly after the All-Star break seemed to come out of left field. . er, better make that right field.
At the other end of the connection was Tony Attanasio, the agent who represents right fielder Ichiro Suzuki.
The message: “Ichiro wants you to consider trading him.”
We’ll probably never know if club executives gulped and said, “Oh no!” Or whether they exhaled and said, “Oh yes!”
Regardless, the process of trading Ichiro to a contender began immediately and a deal was consummated Monday afternoon when the Mariners sent him to the Yankees for two minor league pitchers.
The deal also removed a potential super-sized headache for the Mariners down the road.
Let’s face it. The only way the 38-year-old Ichiro could be traded had to be on his terms. If he had said he wanted to stay with the Mariners until death do them part, believe me it would have happened. My guess is that there are about as many fans who wanted this to be Ichiro’s final season with Seattle as there are that want him to finish his career here several years from now.
But for him to make the decision to move on couldn’t have worked out any better for the (still) rebuilding franchise. It was obvious to everyone, even Ichiro, that the playoffs are a long way off — perhaps four, five or more years.
He is making (not earning) $18 million in the final year of his contract with the Mariners. There has been talk of bringing him back next season and rumors that he could land another multi-year deal, but for considerably less than $18 million per season.
But even half that would, in my opinion, be way too much.
This sudden turn of events will give general manager Jack Zduriencik more financial room to improve a team that is heavy on youth, strong on pitching, and woefully short on offense. The players Seattle received won’t help score runs, but it does remove any future debates on whether or not to keep Ichiro for one, two, or three more seasons.
Even so, there were sad eyes at the podium on Monday afternoon in the Safeco Field interview room when the trade was discussed by CEO Howard Lincoln, club president Chuck Armstrong and Ichiro, whose comments were translated by his former interpreter Ken Barron.
Ichiro spoke at length in Japanese (longer than the English version at least) before Monday night’s game.
“When I imagine taking off my Mariner uniform I’m overcome with sadness,” Ichiro said through Barron. “It’s made this a very difficult day.”
Well, at least until he looked at the AL standings.
“I’m going from a team having the most losses to a team with the most wins,” he said. “It’s hard to contain my excitement in that regard.”
The Mariners did the right thing by trading the “me-first, team-second” Ichiro. Sure, he had a lot of hits, scored a lot of runs, and set a lot of records. But, for the most part, he was never comfortable with the idea of being a team leader, something the club has desperately needed the past two seasons, especially.
As usual, club executives took the high road.
“As we moved forward with this thing, for us, you have to look at what this player has meant to the Seattle Mariners and this city, this franchise and where he’s at in his career,” Zduriencik said. “So you just had to do the right thing. And for the player, this is the right thing to do.”
As usual, Ichiro made light of a question tossed his way. Not from a reporter, but from former Mariners second baseman Harold Reynolds, who now works for the MLB Network.
Harold suggested that the crowded interview room was a harboring of things to come as a Yankee, especially in New York, and was he using this stage for future reference. Ichiro snidely said the question wasn’t worth answering.
I guess he could have said, “That’s a clown question, bro,” a sentence Nationals rookie sensation Bryce Harper recently came up with.
From a sheer numbers standpoint, Ichiro was superb. He was selected to 10 All-Star Games and is the franchise leader in hits, runs scored, triples and at-bats. He won both the American League Most Valuable Player Award and Rookie of the Year Award in 2001.
He broke an 84-year-old MLB record in 2004 with 262 hits and collected at least 200 hits for a record 10 consecutive seasons.
As the team began to lose regularly after the 2003 season, Ichiro often said the fans were his primary incentive and he tipped his cap to them on Monday.
“I would like to express my gratitude to the fans. Thank you for the last 11 1/2 years,” he said. “Starting in 2001, whether the team played well or bad, whether I played good or bad, I am overcome with emotion when I think about my times and feelings when that time was spent together with the fans.
“During all those times, the fans were a big foundation for me. When I think about this long period, it is hard for me to concisely express my feelings. When I think about the last 11 1/2 years, about the time and feelings of the last 11 1/2 years, and when I imagine taking off a Mariner uniform, I was overcome with sadness. It has made this a very difficult decision to make.”
Entering Monday, Ichiro had a .322 lifetime batting average and has compiled 2,533 (mostly soft) hits in his career.
Sure, there is sadness in Seattle regarding Ichiro’s departure. But I feel worse for several of the Japanese reporters who were informed that they, too, would be moving to New York ASAP, perhaps without their families. Most of them have called Seattle home for the past 11 1/2 years, as well.