Jay Buhner’s passion for the Seattle Mariners required him to play hurt, and he was hurt more often than he was healthy. Although Buhner retired in 2001, he’s still susceptible to the occasional baseball-related malady.
The other day, Buhner told ESPN 710-AM Seattle that he doesn’t have the stomach to watch Ichiro Suzuki play several more seasons under a generous contract extension. Asked how he’d react if Ichiro were to agree to a three-year deal with the Mariners in the $35 million to $40 million range, Buhner said: “I’d vomit.”
He quickly added a disclaimer: “No offense.”
I’m sure none was taken. C’mon, really, how could you be offended by a guy who says your contract would make him vomit?
Buhner’s words were a little harsh, but he was only pointing out what a lot of us have been thinking. A fundamental premise of baseball economics holds that a contract should be awarded on the potential for productivity, and not as a reward for past achievements.
Ichiro, at this advanced stage of his Hall of Fame career, is not worth $35 million over three seasons. For that matter, he is not worth $3.5 million over three seasons, or even $350,000 over three seasons.
But every day that passes without clarity on Ichiro’s future with the Mariners is a day that thickens the quandary about what to do with a slap-hitting right fielder who has lost the step needed to beat out slap hits.
Ichiro could have made it easy by following the example of another certain Hall of Famer, Chipper Jones, who announced during spring training that 2012 would be the last season of a 19-year career spent entirely with the Atlanta Braves.
Jones’ solid first-half stats made him a worthy selection for the All-Star Game, but that retirement vow only enhanced the sentimental value he brought to the event. Jones, by the way, made a plate appearance and came through with a hit. Ichiro stayed home for the second time in two summers.
As Ichiro has remained mum about his future, so have the Mariners. They’re caught between a rock and a hard head: If they announce that their plans for 2013 don’t include Ichiro, the front office comes across as heartless. If they announce their plans for 2013 are predicated on the return of Ichiro, the front office comes across as mindless.
A trade is always an option, but this just in: playoff-contending teams are not clamoring for 38-year-old outfielders hitting .264 in late July, with four home runs.
It’s time to think out of the box, folks, and here’s my out-of-the-box solution to this mess:
Propose a contract offer to Ichiro for, say, $500 million and however many seasons he wants to make it. Three? Five? Whatever. He’s got a shot at finishing with 3,000 hits, and if he needs five seasons to reach that coveted milestone, give him five seasons.
Heck, give him 10 seasons, so he can chase Pete Rose’s career hits record of 4,192.
The idea of paying Ichiro $500 million over 10 seasons will turn Jay Buhner’s stomach. And let’s be honest, the breakfast appetite of almost all Mariners fans would be ruined by waking up to the headline: “Ichiro, M’s Agree on $500 million Deal.”
Except here is where some out-of-the-box thinking is necessary.
Instead of the Mariners paying Ichiro $500 million to hang around and collect a hit here and there, Ichiro pays the Mariners $500 million to hang around and collect a hit here and there. With $500 million added to his roster payroll, general manager Jack Zduriencik could get very creative.
I know, the MLB Players Association would boo and howl and raise a general stink because only in fantasy camps do the athletes pay for the privilege of wearing a uniform. But players association executives need to remember that the actual players are its first and foremost priorities.
Ichiro craves the opportunity to retire with 3,000 hits, and he needs 411 to get there. So let him pony up $500 million. Let him go for the gusto. Offer Ichiro a contract that enables him to play as long as he wants – it would contain lots of great-grandfather clauses – and everybody wins.
Ichiro wins because he either accumulates 3,000 hits, or is still active at the age of 60. The Mariners win because they enjoy the $500 million booster shot enabling them to fulfill their destiny as the New York Yankees of the Pacific Northwest. Fans win because a sense of closure is realized about the former franchise face who has devolved into the franchise’s most polarizing figure.
Even Jay Buhner wins. When Ichiro goes 0-for-5 the 2015 season opener, “The Bone” will resist any urge to spill his guts.
Then again, the thought of Ichiro going 0-for-5 in the 2015 opener makes me a bit queasy myself.