(Andrei Pungovschi/AP Photo)
SEATTLE — Everyone seemed to want Ichiro. In the end, Ichiro wanted Seattle. Mariners center fielder Ichiro Suzuki signed a five-year contract extension Friday, ending days of speculation about the seven-time All-Star’s future in the Emerald City.
The deal, announced by the Mariners on Friday afternoon, goes through the 2012 season, although financial details were not disclosed per club policy. The Associated Press reported the deal is worth $90 million.
The move came with the Mariners 14 games over .500 and challenging for first place in the American League West.
“Now I have the opportunity to be on one team for a long time, and very few players have the opportunity to do that, and I’m very grateful for that opportunity, to at least be here for the next 5 1/2 years,” Ichiro said through an interpreter. “I’m going to do my best to play the next 10 after that.”
Ichiro has proven to be very valuable to the Mariners organization, attracting international attention while achieving numerous honors each season. This year he has already set a club record by hitting safely in 25 consecutive games, eclipsing Joey Cora’s mark set in 1997.
In addition, Ichiro was selected as the Most Valuable Player in this season’s All-Star Game after going 3-for-3 and recording the first inside-the-park home run in the game’s history.
Simply put, he was invaluable to the organization, and Bill Bavasi, the Mariners’ executive vice president and general manager of baseball operations, knew it.
“This is a tremendously important day for our ballclub, the club’s fans and for Ichiro, but more importantly, it’s a real exciting day for us,” Bavasi said. “Ichiro is a cornerstone that you use to build a winning club. He plays hard, he plays the game right, he sets a great example for our younger players, and any players, just based on his dedication and his preparation.”
Ichiro said during Spring Training that he may be interested in testing free agency, something that wasn’t a total shock considering he had never been in the open market as a Major League player.
But as the Mariners started to challenge not only for the Wild Card, but the AL West lead, Ichiro became increasingly in tune with remaining in Seattle, even with opposing fans, and international fans, trying to lure him away, and it was something that caught his attention.
In the end, he decided to keep his American home in Seattle.
“Well, I can’t say there was a particular day that I decided [to stay], but during the season we go to different teams, different places on the road, and the fans from opposing teams always told me, ‘Please come here, please come to our team,’ in many different places,” Ichiro said. “To be honest, I was moved during those times, and also the fans in Japan asked me to come back to Japan to play. But in the end, when I came back to Seattle and the fans here asked me to stay here, that was a moment that meant the most to me, and that’s when I decided.”
Bavasi said, although they would not discuss any of the contract details, that Ichiro’s extension is fair for both parties involved, especially considering the norm for Major League deals.
“Whatever the contract is, it’s a fair deal and this is a great player,” Bavasi said. “When you’re dealing with great players, there’s a lot of ground to cover. From my point of view, everything was appropriate and I don’t think it’s groundbreaking at all.”
Ichiro was happy with the deal as well.
“Those of you who have been around for a while have seen these contracts for many, many years, and what’s generally reported is generally incorrect,” said Tony Attanasio, Ichiro’s agent. “But the nuances within this agreement are exceptionally beneficial to Ichiro and his family, and in my interpretation of the club’s attitude, it’s a win-win deal.”
The rumors around Ichiro’s deal started far before anything was official, none more prevalent than the sudden resignation of Mike Hargrove.
Hargrove’s resignation, which came at the tail end of Seattle’s most recent eight-game win streak, fueled speculation about a possible conflict between Ichiro and his manager. Hargrove insisted, though, that his decision to resign was made solely by him and was not influenced in any way by any player or anyone in the front office.
Bavasi reiterated that sentiment on the day Hargrove resigned, and Ichiro backed it up again Friday, saying Hargrove’s departure had very little to do with his decision to re-sign.
“It’s up to everybody else to think what they want to, but really that was not an influence at all,” Ichiro said, with Bavasi adding, “Exactly.”
The decision was not necessarily an easy one for him to make, especially considering the many distractions swirling around the clubhouse.
But in the end, Ichiro was happy not just for the opportunity to stay in Seattle, but for his teammates’ support as well.
“I think it’s been hard for my teammates to understand the way I think, and the philosophy, and the way I feel about baseball,” he said. “But on this team there are players that appreciate that, and that was a big help to me and I’m very grateful about that.”
Ichiro has set or broken numerous Mariners records already, and was the first Seattle All-Star Game MVP since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1992. He has been awarded Gold Gloves in each season from 2001-06, and has appeared in the All-Star Game in each of his seven Major League seasons.
He also set Mariners records in batting average and triples, and ranks near the top in hits (third), runs (fourth) and steals (second). His .355 batting average prior to Friday’s game against the Tigers ranked second in the league.
Bavasi indicated talks with the star player were fairly smooth, never reaching a point where they felt they needed to find a “plan B.”
More importantly, though, the extension allows the Mariners to focus on their potential playoff push, and allows the front office to focus on other areas of the team.
“If he had gone on the free-agent market, then a lot of our offseason would be spent trying to sign him, he’d be our No. 1 priority,” Bavasi said. “So by doing this, doing this now, he gives us the opportunity to pursue other things in the market.”
So with that, Ichiro’s future remains in Seattle, and the future of the Mariners looks bright, especially from center field.
“If you look at the potential on this team, you can understand why our record is what it is right now,” Ichiro said. “For the past two and three years, we’ve worked really hard, and now we’re in a place where all our hard work is blossoming.”