M’s trade Ichiro, he faces old team on same day

SEATTLE — The Seattle Mariners traded away a franchise icon Monday, sending Ichiro Suzuki to the New York Yankees for a pair of pitching prospects.

Then, in an odd twist, the Mariners faced said icon, who was in the lineup for the Yankees as they opened a three-game series at Safeco Field.

Suzuki, who came to Seattle from Japan in 2001 and quickly established himself as an All-Star and a fan favorite, requested a trade from the Mariners after reflecting during the All Star break earlier this month, and the team granted his request Monday. For Suzuki, 38, the move was about getting a chance to play for a contending team, and also about not being a burden to the Mariners’ rebuilding process.

“When I spent time during the All-Star break to think, I realized that this team has many players in their early 20s, and I begin to think I should not be on this team next year, when I thought about the future of the team,” Suzuki said through a translator. “And I also started to feel the desire to be in an atmosphere where I could have a different kind of stimulation than I have now. If that were the case, it would be the best decision for both parties involved that I leave the team as soon as possible.”

Suzuki, clad in a business suit prior to Monday’s game, fought back tears as he talked about his time in Seattle and the fans who helped make his move to the major leagues so memorable.

“First, I would like to express my gratitude to the fans,” he said. “Thank you for the last 11 1/2 years. Starting in 2001, whether the team played well or bad, whether I did good or bad, I am overcome with emotion when I think about my time and feelings during that time that was spent together with the fans.”

Suzuki won over Mariners fans very early in his career. He came to the majors when Japanese players had yet to make their mark as everyday position players, but quickly became a phenom in Seattle as he helped the Mariners to 116 wins while winning the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year awards. He would go on to appear in 10 All-Star games, win 10 Gold Glove awards and a pair of batting titles.

“Simply put, Ichiro changed Major League Baseball and the game at an international level,” said Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln. “… He will go down in history of this franchise as one of the greatest players to ever wear a Seattle Mariners uniform.”

Suzuki admitted that the thought of taking off the Mariners uniform caused him to be “overcome with sadness,” but he also made no secret of the fact that he is looking forward to the possibility of his first postseason appearance since his rookie season.

“I’m going from a team that had the most losses to a team that’s having the most wins, so it’s hard to contain my excitement in that regard,” he said.

In exchange for Suzuki, the Mariners received minor league pitchers D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar, both of whom will report to Class AAA Tacoma. The trade also involved what Lincoln called “substantial” cash considerations, though he would not disclose dollar amounts. According to CBS Sports, the Yankees will pick up $2.25 million of the $7 million left on his contract, with the Mariners paying the balance.

But more than the prospects Seattle acquired, or the money they save between now and the end of Suzuki’s contract, this trade was about the Mariners fulfilling the wishes of a player who, despite his recent struggles, was one of the best in franchise history. According to team President Chuck Armstrong, the Mariners approached Suzuki, whose contract expires at the end of the year, about an extension several times between the end of last season and as recently as last month. Suzuki told the Mariners he would prefer to wait and see how the year played out, then eventually decided he was ready to move on with his career now rather than at the end of the year.

“My thought was that if we were to refuse that, it would be very selfish,” Lincoln said. “I think he deserves great respect. The fact that he’s played so many years for us, had a marvelous career, it seemed to me it was incumbent upon the Mariners to try to make his wish come through.”

Only hours after the trade was announced, Suzuki was in the lineup playing against his former team as the Yankees right fielder and No. 8 hitter. Suzuki came to the plate for the first time in the top of the third inning, and received a huge ovation from the crowd of 29,911. Suzuki stepped out of the batters box, took off his helmet, and bowed a couple of times to the appreciative crowd. Moments later, Suzuki smacked a single into center field, then stole second base.

The line drive and subsequent stolen base were vintage Ichiro, the type of plays that for the better part of a decade made him one of the most exciting players in baseball, but they were also something the Mariners had seen a lot less of over the past two seasons. After hitting better than .300 and compiling more than 200 hits — including a major league-record 262 in 2004 — in each of his first 10 seasons, Suzuki batted just .272 last year, and was hitting only .261 this season with a career-worst on-base percentage of .288.

Suzuki and the Mariners now hope a change of scenery will revive his career while also helping the Mariners develop young talent.

“He felt that what was best for the team was to be traded to another club to give our younger players an opportunity to develop,” Lincoln said. “Given our high regard for Ichiro, personally and professionally, and knowing that the Mariners are in a rebuilding mode, we agreed to entertain such a trade.”

Herald writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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