Mariners All-Star outfielder Ichiro was traded Monday to the Yankees for two minor-leaguers and cash considerations.
Mariners players were sitting around the clubhouse Monday afternoon when they heard jaw-dropping news on television: Ichiro, the franchise’s icon since coming over from Japan in 2001, had been traded to the Yankees.
“I was shocked when I saw the TV. I think the whole clubhouse is — the whole baseball world,” Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders said. “When you picture Ichi, you always picture him with No. 51 in a Mariner uniform.”
But now he’ll be wearing No. 31 for the Yankees. And by remarkable coincidence, the Yankees are in Seattle for a series at Safeco Field, and Ichiro wore a New York uniform for the first time Monday night in a start against his former team.
When he came to bat in the third inning, the crowd of 29,911 gave him an extended ovation. He stepped out of the batter’s box, took off his helmet and bowed twice to the crowd. Ichiro then lined a single to center field, the 2,534th hit of his major-league career and the first when he wasn’t wearing a Mariners uniform.
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Earlier, his eyes glistening at a hastily called news conference, Ichiro began by thanking the fans and said, “When I think about the last 11 ½ years, about the time and feelings of the last 11 ½ years, and when I imagine taking off a Mariners uniform, I was overcome with sadness. It has made this a very difficult decision to make.”
But he admitted the prospect of moving from the last-place Mariners to the first-place Yankees — and a chance for his first-ever World Series appearance — was enticing.
“I went from a team that’s had the most losses to a team having the most wins, so it’s been hard to maintain my excitement in that regard,” he said through interpreter Ken Barron.
In exchange for the 38-year-old Ichiro, who reaches the end of his five-year contract at the end of the season, the Mariners received two minor-league right-handed pitchers, D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar. Both players were assigned to the Mariners’ Class AAA team in Tacoma.
According to numerous reports, the Yankees also will pay $2.25 million of the remainder of Ichiro’s 2012 salary. He is owed approximately $6.7 million of his $17 million, leaving the Mariners to pay about $4.5 million.
Few saw the trade coming, but it had been in the works since shortly after the All-Star break, when Ichiro’s agent approached the Mariners to say his client was interested in being traded. Tony Attanasio said Ichiro first broached the possibility “months ago.”
“We were just looking to see what the right time was, and when the kids coming up were able to carry the club,” Attanassio said. “He knows the club has to grow. He knows the younger players need more playing time. The only way he knows how to do that is to move on, because he doesn’t want to stop playing.”
Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said the team agreed to Ichiro’s request.
“… He deserves a chance to play for a contending team before the end of his magnificent career,” Lincoln said. “The Mariners certainly should not stand in his way.”
Lincoln lauded Ichiro’s contribution to the Mariners. He won two batting titles, was a 10-time All-Star, won 10 Gold Glove awards, set the season hit record with 262 in 2004, and was the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2001.
One of the few athletes whose last name — Suzuki — is unnecessary, Ichiro was the first position player from Japan in the major leagues. He also remains enormously popular in his home country and paved the way for several Japanese position players to follow.
“Simply put, Ichiro changed Major League Baseball and the game at the international level,” Lincoln said. “I’ll miss watching the most exciting all-around player I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. I hope one day to be in Cooperstown, N.Y., to watch Ichiro be inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor he clearly deserves.”
Ichiro had full trade veto rights because has played 10 years in the majors and the past five with one club. Team president Chuck Armstrong said this transaction was so unique that he became involved, though general manager Jack Zduriencik negotiated the players with Yankees GM Brian Cashman.
“Jack handled the player end of it,” Armstrong said. “We talked to several clubs, all of which Ichiro approved and authorized me to talk to. … I only talked to the teams he asked me to talk with.”
Lincoln said the Mariners had been planning to talk to Ichiro at the end of the season about a contract extension. He had signed a five-year, $90 million deal July 13, 2007. Armstrong added that the Mariners broached the possibility of extending Ichiro “last offseason, spring training, as late as May or June (this season). … He (Ichiro) said, ‘Let’s wait and play out the year and see where we all are.’ We said we’d like to talk to him. He said, ‘Let’s not. Let’s wait until the end of the season.’ “
Team officials declined to comment when asked if they would pursue him as a free agent, citing tampering rules.
Lincoln said retired Nintendo chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi, the Mariners’ principle owner, was on board with the decision to trade Ichiro.
“Mr. Yamauchi was perfectly fine when I advised him what Ichiro wished to do,” Lincoln said. “He indicated he was fine with it.”
Lincoln also strongly denied speculation the Mariners are for sale.
“I’ve read this and heard this and can tell you it’s absolute nonsense,” he said. “There are no plans by this ownership group to sell the Mariners, and this decision today and any other decisions we make stand on their own and have nothing to do with a sale.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146