Past The Press Box

Timing and strategy of Ichiro trade underscores the constant influence of the casual fan

As a fan, I want to influence my team. I want to make them better. It isn't easy to do, it may well be impossible in most cases. And while I may be the minority, I can't be the only one who thinks that way, that maybe if I yell enough, try to explain the team enough to my circle of friends or even just nag enough on Twitter maybe it'll make the smallest of differences. But the thing is, it's never fans like us, the fans that want to, that actually make the difference.

As evidenced by this Ichiro trade, events that have happened throughout sports history and happen each and every day, most times it's the the casual fans who collectively hold the most influence.

Let's look first at the timing and reasoning in the Ichiro deal. As was reported recently and even before that, the Mariners were either considering or already had offered Ichiro a contract extension, but he wasn't having it. And while the quote from Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln is that Ichiro's camp requested a trade "several weeks ago", Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone confirms that it was indeed "months ago." This may well be the same thing, but funny—and expected—that Lincoln would prefer the ambiguity.

See, Ichiro was making the team worse. It made no sense to have him on the roster. In 2011 he ranked (by WAR) as the sixth-worst outfielder in the game. He had one more year on his contract, so he was of course in Seattle's camp come spring, asked to alter his approach and bat third. It didn't help. He remained almost entirely ineffective.

It's puzzling then that, even though he explicitly asked to be removed from the team and was blocking other younger (and better) players from playing, the Mariners intentionally kept him on the team and in the lineup everyday. Hell, just a few weeks ago, before Franklin Gutierrez's concussion, the Mariners were wondering how they could fit Michael Saunders, Casper Wells and Gutierrez (all better players than Ichiro) into the lineup when Ichiro had to play everyday.

Not just that, but you have to wonder what effect Ichiro wanting to be elsewhere—and waiting months for it to happen—had on him. Think about being in the office at 3:30 on a summer Friday. How much are you really getting done when your mind is already at the beach or the bar or home on the deck? Just this past weekend in Tampa, Ichiro air-mailed cutoff men on multiple run-scoring plays. At one point he was asked to bunt a man over and knocked the first pitch right back to the pitcher for an easy out at third.

Even if you ignore that, Ichiro's been bad for a while. Jon Paul Morosi on it:

Because Ichiro had to play right field every day, the Mariners have been playing with what amounted to a National League lineup for the past two seasons. They punted on the chance to get any power production from a position normally associated with sluggers. Seattle had the lowest right-field OPS in the AL last year (.639) — and this year (.654).

And former Seattle Mariners outfielder Mike Cameron, via KJR 950's Mitch Levy:

In years after I left, I heard there may have been a few clubhouse problems because he became a little more selfish player.

So why keep him, an old bad player on a losing team, around after he requested to be traded presumably sometime in May? This of course is speculation but, as the Mariners marketing team—who of course had no say in the matter—described it, the Mariners played the "hottest June on record" in 2012: home series against the Dodgers, Giants and Red Sox. That was followed in July by home series against the Rangers and now the Yankees.

If there are series when you expect those who don't normally come out—the casual fan—to make it to the ballpark, these would be them. Families, tourists, what-have-you, to all of whom Ichiro is the most recognizable player. Would it be unfair to assume Mariners management, not including General Manager Jack Zduriencik, wanted Ichiro around to appease those casual fans and take what they still could from their wallets?

With those games out of the way, the Mariners made this move with those fans still in mind, but now hoping to avoid their wrath further down the road. Anthony Witrado of the Sporting News:

The point of the deal was to alleviate the pressure Ichiro's pending free agency was placing on the organization and general manager Jack Zduriencik, who said he was preparing an offer for the 38-year old future Hall of Fame outfielder. With his declining skills and the price it would have taken to re-sign him, it wasn’t worth it for the Mariners to bring back Ichiro, and that would have caused quite the circus within the team’s fan base, which has a strong and loyal Japanese representation.

I don't know about the last part of that, how much "Japanese representation" played a role in this, but the front office seemingly wanted to avoid a situation like that which played out with Ken Griffey Jr. in the fall of 2009, when he signed on for one last year only to retire two months into the following season because he was terrible.

In my mind, the Ichiro situation compares to what happened in Green Bay with Brett Favre, the standard to which these types of situations will forever be measured. Though Favre led the team to the NFC Championship game in 2007, he was growing ineffective, was somewhat selfish and lacked the leadership ability he once had so the team kicked his ass right out of town. Based on Favre's performance with the Vikings in 2009, the Packers may well have won one more Super Bowl with Favre but because they let him go they're set up for more sustained long-term success.

The lesson in all of this is simple, and one evident in countless other situations. The Mariners allowed their environment to shape their choices, instead of the other way around. Regardless, better that they make the right move a little late than bring Ichiro back for yet another fan-appeasing season.

Ichiro was amazing in Seattle, and I'll never forgot that Rookie of the Year/MVP 2001 season—but the Mariners made the move they had to make, and now they can finally move past the Ichiro era, and grow the organization in a way they could not previously.

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The American Sportswriter_