By Art Thiel Special to The Herald
TOKYO — To see Ichiro Suzuki adored in his homeland is a remarkable thing. Which only complicates matters.
Sitting behind the dugout at the Tokyo Dome Sunday were the Mariners’ top executives — Howard Lincoln, Chuck Armstrong, Chris Larson, John Ellis, Jack Zduriencik and others who will be party sometime in the next six months to the decision to re-hire Ichiro or let him go.
Numerous premier players in Seattle’s sports history have been at similar crossroads. Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Dave Krieg, Matt Hasselbeck and Steve Hutchinson are among those who moved on, by choice or by club decision. Edgar Martinez, Steve Largent, Walter Jones, Fred Brown and Nate McMillan, among others, chose to stay on.
None have had the layers of the Ichiro decision.
Ichiro has a personal relationship with the primary owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi, who knows little of baseball but much about Japanese national pride.
Ichiro is the face of the franchise, the only player in Seattle and among the few in Major League Baseball whose presence alone generates revenue.
He represents a nation that MLB thinks is important enough, despite the cost and hassle, to share regular-season games every four years.
He has reached that place where his best years are behind him, and his future contributions will be lessened. Yet he is within reach of career milestones that he savors and MLB values.
He likes it in Seattle.
But there are some unsentimental baseball fans who see a declining skill set and a financial cost that will keep resources and playing time away from players who will bring more baseball success.
Zduriencik, the guy who has to put the baseball decision before ownership, puts it this way.
“All of us will acknowledge he’s been a historical player,” he said before the exhibition game Sunday against the Hanshin Tigers “We keep that in mind when we sit down to talk to him. He’s earned that right.”
So … what price history?
Modern pro sports have had numerous star players whose dwindling careers are compensated much more at the end than they were at the beginning. In the abstract, there is a balance: The team gets the better of things early, the player late — if they agree to stay together.
If Ichiro wanted to play for more successful franchises, he had his chances. Now, based on last year’s declining production, it appears too late, especially at current compensation of $18 million. As a player who puts the value of control at the top of his priorities, the prospect of going to another team where he will not be held in the same regard seems unattractive.
Who else would indulge him a translator when his English is better than many of his teammates?
The problem with retaining a “historical” player beyond his premium years is that a team needs to be set up to accommodate.
That typically means a veteran team that’s already had some success. That’s why Peyton Manning’s decision to choose the Denver Broncos is so high risk for both sides. Besides Manning’s health issues, the Broncos aren’t a team loaded with playoff-savvy vets, and the championship deed has to be done now.
The Yankees for years have been able to carry players such as Don Mattingly and Bernie Williams because they had so much veteran talent. The Celtics are doing the same with Kevin Garnett, the Spurs with Tim Duncan.
But the Mariners, as we will hear endlessly this year, are a young team following a plan.
The plan for the past off-season, according to Zduriencik, included filling four jobs:
“We wanted to acquire a veteran starting pitcher (Kevin Millwood), a left-handed reliever (converted starter Charlie Furbush), a big bat in the middle of the lineup that would be with us as we grew (Jesus Montero) and another infielder (Munenori Kawasaki). We accomplished all those things.”
Perhaps, but none are close to a lock regarding 2012 performance. And most of the rest of the roster is a collection of unprovens. That’s not the kind of supporting cast prepared to carry a big-name player into the twilight.
The desperate hope is a return to form by Ichiro. For whatever it’s worth, his spring numbers have been good, as was his attitude about surrendering the leadoff spot to Chone Figgins, a move more about money than winning.
Zduriencik is convinced about Ichiro’s buy-in with manager Eric Wedge.
“Ichiro was very courteous,” he said. “He said he would do whatever he could to help the team. When we began spring training, we sat down with him and he was very undertstanding.”
If by May 1 Figgins is hitting .200 and the Mariners are 10-18, that understanding may be tested. But since Ichiro doesn’t want to go anywhere, what are his options?
Similarly, for reasons stated, the Mariners probably have little choice but to extend Ichiro’s contract if he produces at about the same level as a year ago, which was about the major league averages at bat and in the field. It probably won’t be for $18 million, but neither will it be for more than the average major league salary ($3 million) because, as Zduriencik said, he’s a “historical” player.
Therein lies the rub. The Mariners, in decline from all aspects of revenue, can’t afford to carry that freight and win.
Unavoidably, Zduriencik demurred on engaging in speculation about options in Ichiro’s contract year.
“None of us has the answers on how things are going to be in June, or in September, or the off-season,” he said. “There are decisions we have to make with other players too. Some of those answers I don’t have for you now.
“Ichiro’s accomplishments are phenomenal. He’s been spectacular, great for our community, for baseball and for his homeland. The concern right now is letting the baseball season unfold.”
As the owners and executives watch the unfolding begin in the Tokyo Dome this week, they will try to avoid speaking of Ichiro in the past tense, but the future tense is elusive. Therein lies the tension of the season.
As does John Elway in Denver, the Mariners bosses are desperate for a season from a star to give them a reason to justify a big gamble.
Art Thiel is a columnist for Sportspress Northwest.