I haven’t lived in Seattle long enough to know the history of the local media and fan relationships with Mariners icon and future HOFer Ichiro Suzuki, but it has become apparent to me that fans are getting mighty impatient with the Sultan of Slap. So much so, the local airwaves are filled with vitriol for a guy who has done nothing but deliver for the franchise since playing his first game as a Mariner in 2001.
Now, the 37-year-old Japanese legend suddenly has to defend his slow start for the first time in his career. Like many Mariner fans and local media gurus, I, too, find it strange that a player who has rapped out 200 hits and batted over .300 for 10 consecutive seasons suddenly can’t find the Punch to complement his Judy. This is the same guy who led the majors in hits seven times – including the past five years in a row – and only once flirted with a sub-.300 average when he managed a paltry .303 in 2006.
So I have to ask: Ichiro, 何が起こったのですか? (What happened?)
In Tuesday’s post-game interview, Mariners manager Eric Wedge called out his veterans for their lack of productivity – an earth shattering moment here in the PNW after the Don Wakamatsu era of unaccountability and non-confrontation. While Wedge didn’t mention names, it was clear that Ichiro was at the top of the list. Did Wedge’s words work wonders? No. On Wednesday, Ichiro remained in his lead-off position and proceeded to go 0-for-4 with a walk, dropping his average to a un-Ichiro-like … wow, it’s even hard to write … .256!
Not a typo. That’s right, .256. It’s not a mild slump, mind you, Ichiro is sliding into a zone he has never experienced in his entire career – in Japan or the U.S. While there is plenty of time to turn the season around, what’s shocking is how sudden Ichiro’s decline has been since opening day. His batting average for April? A robust .328. For May? A Mendoza-threatening .210. And, so far this month? Ichiro is hitting a Dan Ugglian .167 after mustering four singles and a triple in 30 at-bats.
It bears repeating, 何が起こったのですか?[poll id=”23″]
This is an even bigger story when you look at career numbers from the Japanese Pacific League and MLB. Get this – Ichiro has hit over .300 in every season – yes, every season – since he started playing full-time in 1994 for the Orix BlueWave. Heck, just two seasons ago, he hit .352 – his second-highest batting average since coming to the major leagues. The guy has been nothing but a well-oiled machine since the President Clinton era with nary a sign of slowing down.
Magnificent and untouchable for years – no matter how bad the Mariners performed – Ichiro is suddenly nothing more than pedestrian and fallible. And the sports talk show phone lines are sizzling with much criticism and very little praise regarding his past. All-time single season hits leader? Nope. Anyone for 10 consecutive seasons of 200 or more hits? Nada. The talk is all about what he isn’t doing, and rightfully so.
His lackluster performance has been magnified by the Mariners surprising start and emergence of young talent. Seattle is no longer defined by Ichiro and King Felix; there’s a core of young players, led by Justin Smoak and Michael Pineda, who are showing Mariner fans that superstars aren’t always necessary to be competitive. A funny word, competitive. It’s one that hasn’t been used in the Pacific Northwest in years, and now that it is, there is very little tolerance for aging superstars who aren’t performing. It’s not quite torches and pitchforks time in Seattle, but the unhappiness with Ichiro’s poor start is percolating.
Some of the sports radio discussions focused on benching Ichiro to help him refocus. Others are saying to move him to the three-hole so that Chone Figgins (he of the .187 average) can reclaim his natural position of leadoff hitter. Don’t laugh too hard. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching Ichiro in the cage, the guy puts on quite a long-ball show during BP. So, a move down in the order is intriguing, especially if the power numbers emerge.
In the past, no one was willing to approach Ichiro and suggest a change of this magnitude – and why should they? He has been raking it for a decade. The media and fans in Seattle rarely fling mud Ichiro’s way because the team really hasn’t been good enough. When your best player is surrounded by mediocrity, he looks heroic just walking into the clubhouse.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Ichiro’s trip to the doghouse. All the other mongrels are now gone – Ken Griffey, Jr. was the punching bag last season and Milton Bradley’s dysfunctional sideshow was finally shut down this year. There are no other lightning rods left (although Figgins and Jack Cust are getting plenty of buzz). For the first time in his career, Ichiro is underperforming given what’s expected of him and what he’s paid ($18 million). And for the first time in Ichiro’s career, it appears that the Mariners – specifically Wedge – are not walking on egg shells when it comes to Ichiro’s aura of invincibility. For years, he was allowed to follow his own programs and adhere to a different set of rules simply because he was, well, Ichiro. But that aura is fading fast, and it appears that, like most players who begin to decline, there is a whiff of change in the Puget Sound air.
One of the most exciting players of all-time is starting to Jeter (my new term for superstars we don’t want to see play past their prime). It might not happen this week, this month or this season, but it’s going to happen. Seattle fans, and management, too, are ready to see what the kids can do – and that means only one thing: The Ichiro Era is coming to a close in Seattle. While the time is coming, I, for one, am not quite ready to say “sayonara.”