Is There a Different Set of Rules for Ichiro?

This column first appeared in the June 2011 issue of The Grand Salami.

By Jon Wells

There appears to be an undercurrent of dissent within the Seattle Mariners fan base about the team’s star right fielder this year. We’ve received a number of emails of late wondering about Ichiro Suzuki, who’s made some very questionable decisions so far in the 2011 season.

In the third inning of the Mariners game at Detroit on April 28th, Ichiro, who was on second base at the time, broke the cardinal baseball rule of running to third on a ground ball to shortstop and was easily thrown out by Tigers shortstop Ramon Santiago.

Echoing the statement of M’s play-by-play man Ron Fairly that day, we’re not sure what Ichiro was thinking, but this was not the first time he’s done this, nor the last. On May 12th, exactly two weeks after his blunder in Detroit, Ichiro pulled the same stunt in the 12th inning of a scoreless tie in Baltimore, running to third on an Adam Kennedy grounder to short. Only this time the other team’s shortstop, Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy, was apparently so stunned that a perennial All-Star would try for third in that situation that he froze and threw to first base even though he clearly had a play on Ichiro.

Every Little Leaguer learns these kinds of rules well before they’re old enough to shave and every Major Leaguer is expected to follow them—every Major Leaguer, that is, except Ichiro. If a typical player made this kind of mistake, on most teams he wouldn’t be in the starting lineup the next day. Make that same mistake twice in two weeks and most managers would yank the player out of the game at the end of the inning. And if you’re a fringe player making that kind of mistake, you might well find yourself on the unemployment line the next day.

But there were no consequences for Ichiro after either of these games, which concerns us on two levels. First off, new manager Eric Wedge has preached accountability this year, but his rebuilding program can’t work if 24 players are held accountable and one player is allowed to play by his own set of rules. Secondly and more importantly, what is Ichiro thinking? Has he been so beaten down by years and years of losing in Seattle that he just does whatever he wants, figuring that it won’t make much difference if he costs the team a game here or there because the team isn’t contending for anything anyway?

We bring this up in part due to Ichiro’s questionable decisions, but also due to some odd comments Ichiro made during spring training this year. Ichiro is currently in his eleventh season in Seattle and every season except his first (the M’s 116-win season of 2001) has ended with the M’s out of the playoff picture. This has led to reasonable speculation in some circles that Ichiro, who’ll turn 38 this November, might want to play elsewhere when his Mariners contract expires at the end of next season, lest he miss out on playing in a World Series before he retires.

Ichiro himself appeared to downplay the possibility of moving on to a team with a better chance to make the World Series when he told Sportspress Northwest this spring, “For me it’s about going to the playoffs with the Mariners. It’s about all the time you’ve spent getting there…being in the playoffs with this jersey on is different than being in the playoffs in a different jersey.”

While we appreciate the loyalty, one has to question Ichiro’s competitive juices when he makes comments like that. Ichiro doesn’t let the media or the fans into his life too much so at times we’re left to guess what really motivates him.

Does he remain with a perennial loser in Seattle because the Mariners organization celebrates each and every one of his individual achievements as if the team has won the World Series? If that’s the case, then Ichiro is surely aware that if he played in Boston or New York that nobody there would give a damn about his consecutive streak of 200-hit seasons if the team wasn’t winning.

Does he stay in Seattle because he knows that the Japanese ownership here provides him the special treatment that he wouldn’t receive anywhere else? Ever since Lou Piniella left after the 2002 season, one Mariners manager after another has become frustrated with the things Mariners management lets Ichiro get away with.

In fact, one of those managers, Mike Hargrove, had the nerve to challenge Ichiro to do more to help the team win (i.e. take more walks, play center field when the team needed him to, bat third in the lineup) and we all know who won that battle. While Hargrove’s abrupt departure on July 1st of 2007 (with the team riding a seven-game winning streak) was officially termed a “resignation,” word behind the scenes is that Ichiro, then just three months away from being a free agent (the closest he’s gotten to free agency since joining the M’s), gave the M’s an ultimatum: Fire Hargrove or he’d leave at the end of that season. Interestingly, Ichiro signed a five-year extension with Seattle less than two weeks after Hargrove left.

Ichiro’s countryman, Hideki Matsui, has been a free agent in the off-seasons leading up to both the 2010 and 2011 seasons, but the M’s didn’t make Matsui an offer in either year and he ended up signing affordable, one-year deals with Seattle’s division rivals in Anaheim and Oakland. Some have questioned why the Mariners didn’t show any interest in Matsui, who’s been a top run producer since coming over from Japan prior to the 2003 season (topping the 100 RBI mark four times) and instead went with less productive players to fill their DH spot. We checked into this and our sources say that the Mariners didn’t sign Matsui because Ichiro didn’t want them to, as he and Matsui have apparently had a long-standing feud that’s existed since the pair were teenagers back in Japan.

With Ichiro’s selfishness apparently costing the team a shot at a proven run producer and the team lacking legitimate options (other than Justin Smoak) for the middle of the team’s batting order, one would think Ichiro, if he’s the team player he should be, would be open-minded about the possibility of moving down in the order, He has, after all, been the team’s best hitter with runners in scoring position for many years, with a career average of .338 (and .441 on-base average) with runners in scoring position. It’s surely no coincidence that the only year of the last seven that the M’s contended into August was in 2007, when Ichiro hit .397 with a .485 OBP with runners in scoring position. With Jack Cust (.200 BA with RISP through mid-May) and Miguel Olivo (.167 BA with RISP through mid-May) clogging up the middle of the M’s order on most days, the M’s are clearly missing out on a lot of scoring opportunities.

There’s no doubt that moving Ichiro (hitting .389 this year with runners in scoring position through mid-May) into the third spot in the order would help the M’s score more runs. And it might also snap Chone Figgins, one of the top leadoff hitters in the league when he played for Anaheim, out of the funk he’s been in since joining Seattle last year. With the M’s wasting a lot of great pitching this year, moving Ichiro to the number three spot is definitely worth a try to see if it might be the spark to help turn the Mariners into a contender again.

But it apparently isn’t going to happen this year and it may never happen, simply because Ichiro doesn’t want to make the move. While some have speculated that he won’t move down in the order because he’s comfortable in the leadoff spot, what if he doesn’t want to move down in the order because it might cost him a few at-bats and a chance at continuing his streak of 200-hit seasons, which is apparently so important to him?

Ichiro should make this move for the good of the team, regardless of whether it costs him any of his individual achievements, but word is that due to his relationship with the team’s Japanese ownership group, Ichiro has so much power within the Mariners organization that the team’s manager has apparently been put on notice not to even discuss the possibility of moving out of the leadoff spot with Ichiro.

It’s instructive to hear the reaction from people close to the Mariners when the subject of Ichiro hitting third is brought up. When callers or show hosts broach the subject on the team’s flagship station, KIRO 710 radio reporter Shannon Drayer, who is a Mariners employee and travels with the team on the road, immediately dismisses such talk, often with words to the effect of “not going to happen, not worth talking about,” and starts mentioning phrases like “Ichiro’s comfort zone” and the like. Regardless of whether such a move might help the team win more often, it’s as if discussing the topic is taboo for anyone connected to the Mariners because Ichiro has made it clear that he doesn’t want to do it and won’t do it.

Similarly, when M’s manager Eric Wedge was asked after the release of Milton Bradley about the possibility of Ichiro hitting third, Wedge quickly dismissed such talk as if he knew this was a topic he should not discuss, lest he say something he might later regret.

Against this backdrop of special treatment for Ichiro, what should the Mariners be thinking when it comes to his future? The team’s owners make a lot of money off Ichiro and we’re sure they’re aware that attendance at Safeco Field might decline to new levels without the diminutive right fielder. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the team’s ownership wants Ichiro in a Mariners uniform when he gets his 3,000th hit in the Majors. Through mid-May he had 2,294 career hits. Barring injury he should have in the neighborhood of 2,450 hits by the end of the season, which could put that 3,000th hit sometime in the 2014 season, when Ichiro will be 40 years old.

There’s been a lot of talk early this year about the possibility of the Mariners signing Brewers slugger Prince Fielder (who’s averaged 38 HRs and 105 RBI in his five full seasons in the Majors) next winter when Fielder is due to become a free agent. But it seems unlikely to us that the Mariners will be willing to pay Fielder (or any other player) $20 million or more a year when they already have two players close to the $20 million a year threshold (Ichiro and 2010 Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez). Having three players taking up $60 million of the team’s payroll seems unlikely given the M’s propensity to cry poor.

Ichiro’s current contract pays him roughly $18 million a season, which is much too much money for a singles hitter, especially one that will be 39 years old in the first year of his next contract. If Ichiro is truly sincere about wanting to finish out his career in Seattle, we’re hoping that he understands that in order for him to have a chance at getting to a World Series here, that he’ll have to compromise. He’s already made upwards of $111 million since joining the Mariners. Would it be too much to ask him to play for a mere $10 million a season in the final years of his brilliant career?

While such notable Mariners as Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson, and Jamie Moyer all took pay cuts in the last few years of their careers, there may be more at play here in asking Ichiro to stay in Seattle for less coin. The Japanese have some interesting customs and it’s quite possible that asking a player as important to the team as Ichiro to take a substantial pay cut would be deemed an insult. If that’s the case, we’re sure the team’s Japanese ownership would never allow such a thing to happen.