ICHIRO GOES TO THE YANKEES: A JUMPSTART FOR HIS CAREER?

ICHIRO TRADED TO THE YANKEES IN THE MIDDLE OF THE 2012 SEASON

In July 2012, Ichiro was suddenly traded to the Yankees. At the time he was in the midst of another middling season, according to MLB.com, before he asked the Seattle brass for a trade, sparking a conversation between Yankees president Randy Levine and Seattle counterpart Chuck Armstrong that led to a July 23 trade to New York for a pair of prospects. Yankees officials believed Ichiro grew tired of playing for a team that was focused on developing for a future that may not have included him, considering his impending free agency. They felt that returning the outfielder to a postseason race would give him the spark with which he has played most of his career. Ichiro insists that even in Seattle, he entered Spring Training every year prepared to fight for a playoff spot, but he cannot deny the positive effect that playing for a postseason berth again had on him. [Source: Steven Miller, MLB.com, October 6, 2012]

On the day the trade was announced AP reported: “In a surprising deal about 3½ hours before a game between the Yankees and the Mariners, “Seattle sent Suzuki to the Yankees for a pair of young pitchers. After leaving the only major league team he'd ever played for, the 10-time All-Star held an emotional news conference and then joined his new teammates in the other clubhouse. Just like that, Suzuki went from last place in the AL West to first in the AL East. And he helped New York beat his former club by going 1 for 4 with his 16th stolen base. [Source: Associated Press, July 24, 2012]

Suzuki showed up in Seattle's clubhouse in the early afternoon wearing a fine suit with thin pinstripes. By the end of the day, he had a different sort of pinstripes on his mind. "I am going from a team with the most losses to a team with the most wins," he said. "It's hard to contain my excitement for that reason." The Yankees also got cash in the deal that sent 25-year-old righties D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar to the last-place Mariners. [Ibid]

"Several weeks ago, Ichiro Suzuki, through his longtime agent, Tony Attanasio, approached (team president) Chuck Armstrong and me to ask that the Mariners consider trading him," said Howard Lincoln, the team's CEO. "Ichiro knows that the club is building for the future, and he felt that what was best for the team was to be traded to another club and give our younger players an opportunity to develop."

The Yankees made the deal a few days after learning that speedy outfielder Brett Gardner would likely miss the rest of the season because of an elbow problem, and manager Joe Girardi said Suzuki will mostly play left field. "We're really pleased to have him. This is a guy we think can do a lot of things for us. He's a very accomplished player. Our guys were really excited to see him."

Girardi believes change is good. "I think it can help a lot of guys," he said. "He's used to high expectations. Every year he's expected to get 200 hits, score 100 runs. Slipping into our lineup maybe he won't feel all those expectations as much." Suzuki said he did feel relaxed in among his new teammates. "It's an atmosphere that's really comfortable," he said. "It's an atmosphere I love to be around."

Suzuki was given No. 31 because the number he wore his entire career with the Mariners, No. 51, has not been worn by a Yankee since four-time World Series champion Bernie Williams last played. "No. 51 is a special number to me, but when I think about what 51 means to the Yankees, it's hard for me to ask for that number," said Suzuki, who holds the major league record for most hits in a season. [Ibid]

Disappointments in Ichiro’s Career

Despite Ichiro's string of 10 consecutive seasons with more than 200 hits and a .300 batting average or higher, which ended in 2011, the Mariners have enjoyed only four winning seasons since setting a Major League record with 116 wins in 2001, when Ichiro won the AL Most Valuable Player and AL Rookie of the Year Awards. [Ibid]

AP reported: “For all the records he's obtained and barriers he's dismantled becoming the most successful position player from Japan, Suzuki does not have a large amount of postseason appearances on his resume.That lack of team success has been a criticism of Suzuki's time with the Mariners. The only time Suzuki ever reached the playoffs was the 2001 season, his first with the Mariners when he was the AL MVP and rookie of the year. The last time Suzuki was in a pennant race was during the 2003 season---his third in the majors---when Seattle won 93 games, but finished second in the AL West behind Oakland. Since then Seattle has won more than 70 games just three times: 2006, 2007 and 2009. [Source: Associated Press, July 25, 2012]

Ichiro's contract with the Mariners went through 2012. It promised him $17 million but provided no guarantees beyond that year. On the status of Ichiro in 2012, Tim Booth of AP wrote, "It's a touchy spot for the Mariners. They have the most popular Japanese player in the majors, playing for a team with a majority owner who is Japanese, yet are in the process of going young to rebuild a franchise that has just two winning seasons since 2003 and hasn't made the playoffs in 10 years. "He hasn't given in to anything," Seattle manager Eric Wedge said in August. "He's had his struggles this year. It's a little difficult for me to sum it all up because I've never been here for a full year when he was having those types of years he had. I think in the past, some of the balls he's hit have found holes. I think he's probably been a little more aggressive some times in the past, which has helped him." Until this season, there was never a question that Suzuki would finish his career playing in Seattle. In 2010, Suzuki hit .315, racked up his 10th straight 200-hit season and won his 10th consecutive Gold Glove. This season could not have gone any more different, leading many to ponder if Suzuki is on the downside of his career or if 2011 will be just a one-year blip. [Source: Tim Booth, AP, September 27, 2011]

Ichiro’s First Game as a Yankee

On Ichiro’s first game with the Yankees, AP reported: “Suzuki switched teams at Safeco Field after a momentous trade and singled his first time up with New York during its 4-1 victory over the Mariners. "Obviously, it looks different being over here," Suzuki said through a translator. "I was worried about my first at-bat. I was really relieved with the standing ovation. It was a special day today." [Source: Associated Press, July 24, 2012]

The crowd of 29,911 gave Suzuki a 45-second standing ovation when he came to bat for the first time in the third inning. He doffed his helmet and bowed twice before hitting a single and stealing second base. "My 11½ years here is a long time and I was thinking what I would feel like in my first at-bat," Suzuki said. "I really didn't think anything. Nothing came to me. It was just a wonderful day to experience that."

Suzuki, in the final year of his contract, started in right field in place of injured Nick Swisher and batted eighth. It was the first time the 2001 AL MVP and Rookie of the Year started a game batting anywhere other than the top three spots in the lineup. "He looked good," Girardi said. "He hit the ball right on the screws twice. He stole a base, made a good throw to home. Kind of what we expected. [Ibid]

When Suzuki trotted out to right field in the first, fans stood and applauded. He tipped his hat and waved it in a half-circle. The Mariners scored in the third on John Jaso's RBI single to right. Suzuki's hard throw to the plate was too late to get Dustin Ackley. The Yankees responded with three in the fourth. Rodriguez ripped a one-out double high off the right-field wall and Robinson Cano walked. Teixeira doubled to right, scoring Rodriguez and sending Cano to third. [Ibid]

Ichiro’s Regular Season with the Yankees in 2012

Ichiro hit .322 in 67 games for the Yankees, was one of the team's most consistent hitters and played a major roll in the team’s run for the pennant in the latter part of the season. After the trade, Ichiro hit 73-for-227 with 13 doubles, a triple and five home runs, scoring 28 runs and driving in 27 while stealing 14 bases -- enough to lead a team with which he spent little more than two months of the season. "Taking myself out of this, I just came in the middle of this," Ichiro said. "I just wanted to contribute. I just wanted to come help this team, and I just feel like we've made that first step and were able to make the playoffs." [Source: MLB.com]

Steven Miller wrote on MLB.com: “The atmosphere of a home crowd witnessing the Yankees hold off the Orioles for the final month of the season en route to an AL East title forced Ichiro to focus even more during every trip to the plate, he said. "Playing in September in the past has been tough," Ichiro said. "Coming here, it was a whole new experience."[Source: Steven Miller, MLB.com, October 6, 2012]

Ichiro began playing right-field, his position in Seattle. After Nick Swisher returned from an injury he was used mostly in left field, with the option of using him in center or right and also potentially as the designated hitter. Girardi told AP that Ichiro made the switch easily. "There's always a concern and a little bit of risk involved, the ball is going to come at a little different angle and it's a little different feel, but you have to trust his experience as an outfielder is going to help him in that situation," Girardi said. "It's probably harder than most of us imagine in a sense. Saying he's a good outfielder, he'll be a good outfielder anywhere. But it's different."

Ichiro agreed to hit toward the bottom of the Yankees' lineup and move from right field to left upon arriving in New York, with the Yankees expecting to receive an aging complementary player, albeit one with the potential to rediscover his youth. Ichiro proceeded to force himself into a regular role, moving to the top of the order at times during a final month that rivaled any from the first 10 years of his Major League career. [Ibid]

Ichiro hit .272 (36-for-132) with seven runs scored, 12 RBIs, three stolen bases and nine extra-base hits in his first 40 games as a Yankee. But starting on Sept. 4, the day the Orioles pulled into a tie atop the division, he hit .390 (37-for-95) with 19 runs scored, 13 RBIs, 10 steals and nine extra-base hits in 27 games. Ichiro's batting average rose from .261 at the time of the trade to .283 at the end of his 12th big league season. "I've been watching him play since I first came up," Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher said. "This guy's a magician with that bat."

Ichiro Goes Seven-for-Eight in a Double header with the Yankees in 2012

A high mark was when he had seven hits in a doubleheader against the Toronto Blue Jays as the Yankees were making the run in the final weeks of the season. AP reported: “The chants of "Ich-i-ro" swelled in the eighth inning as the wiry batter with the slashing swing walked to home plate. With six hits already in this doubleheader, fans expected something special from the Japanese star. Surprising even himself, Ichiro Suzuki delivered. [Ibid] Suzuki had a go-ahead single in the eighth inning to help the New York Yankees complete a doubleheader sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays with a 2-1 win that ensured they remained atop the AL East. [Source: AP, September 20, 2012]

The 10-time All-Star's performance helped New York win its fourth straight and guaranteed it will end the night with at least a half-game division lead, pending on the outcome of Baltimore's game against Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners. "I haven't done anything different today so I don't know what the difference was," Suzuki said through a translator. [Ibid]

The 38-year-old Suzuki made a difficult catch with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of the opener to preserve a lead for Andy Pettitte in a 4-2 victory. He went 7 for 8 in the two games and stole four of New York's seven bases in the finale. "I came in the middle of the season and I always wanted to contribute, wanted to help in this pennant race and today is a great day that I was able to help," said Suzuki, who was acquired in a trade from Seattle in late July. "I'm very sad the day is over."

He had three hits in the opener batting leadoff in place of Derek Jeter, who rested his sore ankle in the first game of the day-night doubleheader. "That's tough to do," Jeter said. "Doubleheader. I don't think I've ever done that in a doubleheader. I've been on the other side of it maybe an 0 for 8."

Ichiro’s Unfinished Business in the Postseason

Steven Miller wrote on MLB.com: “Ichiro Suzuki heard the Yankee Stadium crowd chant his name countless times throughout the 34 home games he played since a July trade reinvigorated his season, but the most enduring memory of a serenade in the Bronx came in 2001, when his first and only Major League postseason ended with taunts of "Sayonara, Ichiro." "That was a tough moment," Ichiro said. "That's what I remember about 2001." [Source: Steven Miller, MLB.com, October 6, 2012]

Ichiro is back in the postseason for the first time since the Yankees advanced to the 2001 World Series with a 12-3 win over the Mariners in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, ending the outfielder's historic first season in the United States. Ichiro hit .421 (16-for-38) in his 10 career playoff games, scoring seven runs and driving in five.

The now-38-year-old captivated fans in the regular season and playoffs that year, as well as through the first 10 years of his career before his statistics began to decline last season. AP reported: “Ichiro Suzuki last played in meaningful games in the final weeks of the regular season more than 10 years ago. Now he's playing for a team that is disappointed when it doesn't win a World Series title. "Obviously many of the Yankees here have been there, have experienced it and obviously I need to be to that level where I need to be there with them," Suzuki said through interpreter Allen Turner. "I just got here and I'm just learning, but I need to get there. That's what I need to work on to be able to be at their level." [Source: Associated Press, July 25, 2012]

His long spell without a playoff appearance made him hungry for the opportunity to try and capture a championship with his career heading into its final stages. "When a team is in contention the biggest thing is you're going to be really happy because you did it or you're going to be really disappointed because you were there and couldn't do it," Suzuki said. "Obviously on a team that doesn't have that chance you don't have that feeling you don't even have that possibility."

Ichiro in the 2012 Playoffs

The Yankees were knocked out the American League Championship Series in just four games and failed to make it the World Series. "It's nothing but disappointing," Suzuki said after the New York Yankees lost 8-1 on Thursday night, completing a four-game sweep by the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS "But it has been a long time since I've experienced this feeling," he continued. "Even though it was over fast, I feel like I gained a variety of things and it brought me back to my basic feelings." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 20, 2012]

Although Suzuki went 0-for-3 in the final game, he was one of the few productive Yankees in the series. He batted .353 (6-for-17) on a team that hit a pitiful .157 in the series. The 38-year-old outfielder played in the AL championship series in his first season with the Seattle Mariners in 2001--losing to the Yankees--but never made it back. [Ibid]

To make it to the ALCS the Yankees beat the Orioles in the American League Division Series. Perhaps Ichiro’s greatest moment---one that went for naught as the Yankees lost the game but was memorable nonetheless was when Ichiro did an awkward-looking gymnastic move around a well-positioned catch er to score an early run.

AP reported: “The Yankees used the deft footwork of Suzuki to take a 1-0 first-inning lead, and it had nothing to do with his speed on the basepaths. Jeter led off the game with a single and Suzuki reached when Reynolds fumbled a bare-hand pickup at first base for an error. Alex Rodriguez hit a low line drive at Andino, and the second baseman caught it and doubled up Jeter. Robinson Cano followed with a drive to the base of the right-field wall for a double. The relay from Davis to Andino to Wieters beat Suzuki to the plate by plenty, but he dodged the tag coming toward home. Suzuki then circled around the batter's box, juked around the catcher's desperate lunge and touched the plate an instant before Wieters' glove found its mark. Suzuki also got an infield single in the third inning, extending his hitting streak at Camden Yards to 21 games. [Source: David Ginsburg, AP, October 8, 2012]

Ichiro opts out of 2013 WBC

In November 2012, Ichiro Suzuki told Japanese baseball officials that he has decided not to take part in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. ''I appreciate being asked to play for Japan again at the WBC,'' Suzuki said. ''But after the second tournament in 2009 I never considered playing in the third event. My feelings have not changed to this day, and it's where things stand.''[Source: AP, November 19, 2012]

The 39-year-old Suzuki, who was instrumental in helping Japan win the WBC in 2006 and 2009, joins fellow Japanese major leaguers Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Norichika Aoki in opting out of the March 2-19 tournament. [Ibid]

Suzuki Re-Signs with Yankees for 2013 and 2014 for $13 Million

In December 2012, Ichiro and the Yankees agreed to a two-year, $13 million deal for 2013 and 2014. Jorge Arangure Jr. wrote in the New York Times: “Not much was expected. His best days had seemingly passed. Yet in a 67-game stint, Suzuki hit .322 with five home runs and became one of the Yankees--- most reliable players down the stretch. Suzuki, 39, will most likely become part of a platoon in right field as the Yankees look to replace the free agent Nick Swisher, who was expected to sign elsewhere. [Source: Jorge Arangure Jr., New York Times, December 19, 2012]

“The Yankees are the kind of team that I always envisioned being a part of,” Suzuki said. “Everyone in the world of competition has a strong desire to win, but the Yankees also have an atmosphere where losing is not an option. These two observations may sound similar, but I believe it is a rarity to find both coexisting in the same organization.” [Ibid]

The Yankees do not expect Suzuki to be the same player who surpassed 200 hits in 10 consecutive seasons, and perhaps not even the same player he was last season. But as part of a platoon and as someone who can play all three outfield positions, he adds value. Of Suzuki’s 56 starts for the Yankees, 26 were in left field, 24 were in right field, and 5 were in center. [Ibid]

“I believe the Yankees organization appreciates that there is a difference between a 39-year-old who has played relying only on talent and a 39-year-old who has prepared, practiced and thought thoroughly through many experiences for their craft,” Suzuki said. “I am very thankful, and I will do my best to deliver on their expectations.” [Ibid]

Suzuki is 394 hits away from 3,000 hits in American baseball; he also accumulated 1,278 hits in Japan. Realistically, Suzuki would need more than two seasons to get there. Last season, Suzuki had 178 hits between playing for the Mariners and the Yankees. In 2011, Suzuki had 184 hits. Optimistically, Suzuki, a career .322 hitter with a .784 on-base plus slugging percentage, could get 150 hits in each of the next two seasons, which would leave him less than 100 short of the mark. Would the Yankees, who always seem keen on having players reach milestones in pinstripes, be willing to bring back Suzuki in 2015?

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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