Ichiro: Try exiting the Edgar way
Midway through the 21st year of a baseball career that has found him winning nine batting championships on two continents, Ichiro Suzuki doesn’t need much in the way of advice.
But he might think about sitting down for a talk with Edgar Martinez.
On Aug. 10, 2004, Martinez announced he was retiring at the end of the season. The decision shouldn’t have required a soul search that wrenched his gut – he was 41, with a contract scheduled to expire – but the thought of never again swinging a bat in a big-league game had to be harrowing for the one of the best hitters of his generation.
Martinez wasn’t consumed by statistics, but surely he realized that his .258 batting average in August was well below (54 points, to be precise) a career batting average that turned out to be .312.
Ichiro, on the other hand, can recite the statistical splits of each of his 12 seasons with the Mariners, and has to know his .270 batting average is well below (54 points, to be precise) his career batting average of .324.
Ichiro turns 39 in October. Although durability isn’t an issue, he’s lost a step essential for somebody who thrives on beating out infield grounders, and he’s not getting it back. Ichiro’s decline from 2010, his last All-Star season, mirrors Martinez’s decline after his last All-Star season, in 2003.
Martinez retired with the same regal style that distinguished him as a player. Will Ichiro follow Edgar’s cue?
It’s a delicate question for an organization whose majority owner lives in Japan, and rightfully regards Ichiro to be a national treasure. But as the skills of Japan’s national treasure continue to diminish in Seattle, it’s a question that will linger.
The Mariners, it seems to me, have four choices:
• Sign Ichiro, who is in the last year of a contract that is paying him $18 million this season, to a new deal through, say, 2014, when he’ll be 40. Such a contract would represent a sort of parting gift for a player who figures to become the first Hall of Famer to have worn a Mariners uniform exclusively.
One problem with this choice? As a corner outfielder who doesn’t hit for power, and a leadoff man who doesn’t take walks, there’s no way Ichiro is worth two more years at anything approaching $18 million, or $5 million, or even $1 million. And an offer of less than $1 million per season would be perceived as an insult.
Another problem with this choice? Whatever Ichiro settles for on the bottom line, he’d expect to play every day, and thus take at-bats away from such younger, more productive outfielders as Michael Saunders and Casper Wells.
Put simply: The last time the Mariners renewed a contract with a franchise icon on the cusp of retirement, the recipient of the parting gift was Ken Griffey Jr. I trust you recall how that went.
• Trade Ichiro to a pennant contender before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. This would require his approval, of course, but the possibility of participating in the World Series for the first time might mitigate any misgivings he has about hooking up with another team.
The problem with this scenario is, well, it’s not a realistic scenario. What kind of prospects do the Mariners acquire for a corner-outfielder with four home runs – a leadoff man with a .293 on-base percentage – who is 38 and, oh, by the way, still will be owed about $9 million?
They acquire a few kids who project as longshots to advance to the big leagues, and wouldn’t be worth the headache-inducing drama of trading the face of the franchise.
• Go into a stall mode with Ichiro, waiting for him to acknowledge the inevitable. No negotiation, no conversation, no attempt to assure his final days with the Mariners are spent gracefully. After the season, on some bleak, drizzly midweek day in November, the team could inform Mariners fans that Ichiro isn’t returning in 2013.
Baseball is a business, and pragmatic business decisions can be cold-blooded, but, yikes, an organization with the public-relations acumen of the Mariners can do better than that.
• Ask Edgar to reminisce with Ichiro about the experience of a retirement weekend. During a season-ending series against the Texas Rangers in 2004, the Mariners honored Martinez on a Saturday night, in front of full-house crowd at Safeco Field. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig showed up, informing fans that the annual prize for best designated hitter would henceforth be known as “The Edgar Martinez Award.”
Afterward, Martinez told reporters about the “sense of peace” he’d achieved about retiring “and not wishing I could have played one more year.
“That is very important,” Martinez emphasized. “I thought I could do better than I’m doing right now. But I feel that I have proven to myself that I have exhausted everything I had in me.”
Ichiro has indelible impressions from that weekend. On the night before his teammate’s farewell was celebrated with the grace and dignity the occasion deserved, he tied George Sisler’s single-season hits record in the first inning, and broke it in the third.
As Ichiro was making history, Martinez was making memories, showing how an orchestrated retirement can culminate a wonderful career.
Edgar isn’t big on talking, and Ichiro isn’t big on listening, but the conversation might turn a thorny conundrum into a classic storybook conclusion.
The one where everybody lives happily ever after.