A window was opened into the reality of the Mariners’ relationship with Ichiro Suzuki when, right before Ichiro wound up being traded to the Yankees, GM Jack Zduriencik stated publicly and somewhat ludicrously that Ichiro was still a franchise player with the unsaid implication that, like it or not, Ichiro was staying with the team beyond his contract’s end at the conclusion of this season. Of course it was over the top, but no one knew that Ichiro had already asked to be traded. Given some of the strange and ethically questionable things Zduriencik has done as GM, there was a very real possibility that he was really going to end up keeping Ichiro beyond his current contract.
Former Mariners’ star Jay Buhner said he would vomit if the Mariners signed Ichiro to a contract extension. Buhner’s planned purge was rendered irrelevant when, in a shocking decision, Ichiro was traded to the Yankees for two moderately warm bodies and the Mariners were finally free of a player who had become an unproductive on-field presence, an off-field albatross, and a spike in the tires of progress to get better. Only people inside the organization know how much pressure from ownership has been exerted on Ichiro’s behalf and sabotaged anything the baseball people wanted to do. Zduriencik hasn’t shown the skills at subtly nudging his bosses in the direction he wants them to go. His reputation was sullied when he somehow managed to give the Yankees the moral high ground in a botched trade that would’ve sent Cliff Lee to the Yankees and backed out of it for what was supposedly a “better” package and got the recently demoted Justin Smoak and simultaneously acquired an accused sex offender Josh Lueke, then was accused of lying as to how much he was told by the Rangers about Lueke’s past. Now, with the way the team has played since Ichiro’s departure, that one deal might have Zduriencik’s job.
It’s absurdly simplistic and a post-trade cheap shot to say that the dumping of one player had this much of an influence on team fortunes especially when they got rid of him just to get rid of him and because he asked out, but players know the difference between someone who’s interested in himself and his own numbers and one who’s doing what he can to help the team win. It’s a fine but easily recognizable line—to a player—when there’s a goal of individualism masquerading as “helping the team” and actually helping the team. Could Ichiro have swung for a few more home runs? Yes. Could he have stolen some bases when it was important rather than to bolster his stolen base percentage? Absolutely. In short, as the team’s fortunes declined and they were in full-scale rebuild, it was known in February and March that the games were going to be meaningless by May and he had nothing to do but build up his Hall of Fame resume.
And that’s what he did.
The diva superstar is tolerated as long as he’s productive and bringing fans into the ballpark. The problem with Ichiro was that he was no longer productive, was making a lot of money, the team was not helped by his presence, and the Mariners are currently 11th in the American League in attendance. Fans will go to watch a loser for so long before finding other activities. They’ll go to the games if the loser is somewhat interesting, but the Mariners weren’t even that anymore. When he was accumulating 240 hits (most of them singles), but was stealing bases, playing great defense and there were power bats hitting behind him to drive him in after his singles, it was fine. But that’s not what the Mariners have been for most of the past decade. What you had was a player who still notched his singles, but no longer did it with the frequency he once did and saw his batting average decline. Since he rarely walks, along with the batting average decline so went his on base percentage. This is not an indictment of Ichiro’s amazing on-field skills, but a legitimate criticism of his application of those skills. He misused his talents in a team sense.
In his final few years as a Mariner, he was essentially useless to them. There’s nothing worse than a fading star who still exerts power over the organization based on what he was. Ichiro’s looming presence had hindered the Mariners for so long that he was entwined with anything the team did or didn’t do. It had gotten to the point where Ichiro was called “great” because he was supposed to be called “great” and if anyone dared imply that he wasn’t a team player or wasn’t as good as his stat compiling suggested, they were chased from the town by a bat-wielding mob. The Mariners are 8-2 since Ichiro was dispatched. That’s more of a function of playing the bad Royals and the mediocre Blue Jays, but wins are wins. There are things for which Zduriencik deserves to be held accountable like the Lueke/Smoak deal and Chone Figgins’s contract, but given the clear interference from ownership with Ichiro and Ken Griffey Jr., perhaps he deserves one more winter and at least half of 2013 to try and get it right without Ichiro and Ichiro’s reputation and relationship with ownership standing in the way.
Ichiro was harming the team’s attempts to get better, but his request for a trade may have saved the GMs job, for awhile at least. What Zduriencik does with the freedom from the shackles of Ichiro will determine his long-term prospects for staying and winning in Seattle, but at least there’s not that shadow hovering over the franchise as he tries to do it.