SEATTLE — Out on the right field concourse, nothing looks different from the previous decade.
Fans still show up with signs and symbols of adulation for Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki: his name in traditional Japanese symbols, Japanese flags, even the omnipresent “Ichi-meter” keeping track of his total hits for the season.
But that hit meter hasn’t clicked over at the same rate in 2011 and, combined with Suzuki’s advancing age and another 90-loss season from his team, it has led to questions about what exactly Suzuki’s future is with the only major league franchise he’s ever played for.
Barring a startling and highly unlikely decision to return to Japan, Suzuki, who will turn 38 in late October, will undoubtedly be back with the Mariners in 2012 and be given every opportunity to remain Seattle’s starting right fielder and leadoff hitter. It’ll come in the final year of a contract that will pay him $17 million but provides no guarantees beyond next season.
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 th e 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.
Suzuki will fall short of the 200 hits. With two games remaining, Suzuki has 183 hits, is hitting a career worst .273, with an on-base percentage of .310 that’s 40 points below his worst OBP entering this season.
His outfield play has been spotty at times and Suzuki has shown that maybe the pressure of trying to live up to what he’s done over the first 10 years in the majors has gotten to him. He wasn’t an All-Star for the first time and probably will miss out on an 11th straight Gold Glove as well.
Perhaps no single moment was more telling than a mid-August game against Toronto when, with the Mariners down by three runs with two runners on and two outs, Suzuki attempted to bunt for a base hit rather than swinging away and trying to drive in runs.
In a rare instance at Safeco Field, Suzuki was booed by his home fans. He was admonished by Wedge and seemed humbled by the situation.
But that one at bat spoke to the bigger picture of the pressure Suzuki still believes he feels being the biggest Japanese star playing in America.
“I can’t speak for Ichiro, but I think any player who doesn’t perform up to his own standards feels pressure,” Cleveland Indians outfielder Kosuke Fukudome said. “It doesn’t come from the media, but from within. I never felt that way with the Japanese media, but that is me.”
That feeling of pressure is an unyielding force that travels across the Pacific Ocean and has weighed on Suzuki in the past. Before the start of the 2009 season, Suzuki went on the disabled list for the only time in his career while he dealt with exhaustion and stomach ulcers brought on by the hefty weight of leading Japan to the championship of the World Baseball Classic.
“The expectation from the people of Japan was incomparable this time. So to become champions in that situation is something that has a lot of meaning for me and what kind of emotions and expectations the Japanese players played upon is something you guys here can’t imagine,” Suzuki said after winning the WBC title two years ago.
Wedge has noted many times this season the difficulty in giving Suzuki advice. His hitting style is so unique, Wedge said, that while he or hitting coach Chris Chambliss might be able to give a few pointers, Suzuki basically has to coach himself out of slumps.
But beyond a few prolonged slumps that have been rare in his career, Suzuki also appears to have lost a bit of the quick burst out of the batters box that made him so dangerous and dynamic early in his Seattle days. His 36 infield hits entering Tuesday night represent a significant drop from the 50 and 53 he had the previous two seasons.
“Ichiro … is his own best coach. He’s always going to know himself better than anybody else,” Wedge said. “Yeah, we can help him, Chris can help him, I can help him a little bit if that’s what he needs, if that’s what he wants, if that’s what he’s open to. But that’s just our opinion. Nobody knows Ichiro like Ichiro.”