9:58 am Jul. 24, 2012
In a move that hadn't even been rumored before it occurred on Monday afternoon, the New York Yankees traded a pair of marginal prospects for Ichiro Suzuki, the longtime Seattle Mariners outfielder and dynamic hitting star of the past two decades in Major League Baseball and Japan.
Fans expecting the Ichiro who racked up ten All-Star seasons in Seattle, hitting .372 while setting the record for most hits in a season with 262 back in 2004, are likely to be disappointed. Now 38, Ichiro has been far less productive since the start of the 2011 season, producing below-average offense with no power.
Still, trading for Ichiro is a risk-free move for the Yankees. The two prospects they gave up, D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar, weren't likely to make the team anytime soon, simply because the Yankees had many better alternatives.
And Ichiro, signed through the end of the season, could add dimensions the Yankees have lacked in left field since the moment Brett Gardner went down with an elbow injury: speed and defense.
The move comports with a New York Yankees tradition almost as old as Yankee dominance itself: The late-career acquisition of the accomplished veteran to provide the final piece to a championship team. Those players, usually added to be peripheral contributors on Yankee teams that were already winning, have given the Yankees their final bits of greatness for many decades.
Ichiro is really just the new Johnny Mize, though the two couldn't be more different as players. Known as "The Big Cat" long before Andres Galarraga was even born, Mize had been a dominant offensive player from the moment he broke into the big leagues with the Cardinals in 1936. Though he missed three full seasons from 1943-1945 due to World War II, Mize returned to hit 51 home runs in 1947, 40 in 1948, by now with the New York Giants.
But in 1949, a seemingly faltering Mize—then 36, posting easily the lowest O.P.S. of his career—was sold to the Yankees in August for $40,000. The Yankees played him as a part-timer, and he thrived. In 1950, he hit 25 home runs in just 305 at-bats; in the 1952 World Series win over Brooklyn, he hit .400 with three home runs.
The Yankees followed the same script several years later in acquiring Johnny Sain, the longtime standout pitcher for the Boston Braves, and part of the famous saying about Boston's top-heavy rotation, "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain."
Sain appeared washed up for Boston in August 1951, when the Yankees acquired him for prospect Lew Burdette and $50,000; Sain finished the season with a 7-14 record, 4.20 E.R.A. But Sain won 11 games in 1952 and 14 in 1953, making his final All-Star team. He provided depth as a swingman for Yankee teams that won the World Series in 1951, 1952 and 1953. In 1954, for a Yankee team that won 103 games but missed the postseason, Sain was a closer, notching 22 saves to lead the league.
In 1956, the Yankees followed this script again. This time, longtime Cardinals outfielder Enos Slaughter was the target. The Yankees had acquired him once before, sent him to the Kansas City Athletics, but brought him back in 1956 as a 40-year-old spare outfielder. Like Ichiro, Slaughter had been a fast, skilled hitter with gap power. Like Mize, he'd go on to be a Hall of Famer. And pressed into regular duty in the 1956 World Series, Slaughter gave the Yankees his last bit of greatness, hitting .350 with a home run in 25 at-bats, without striking out once.
A more recent example is the longtime Met Darryl Strawberry, who'd been released by the San Francisco Giants at age 33 in 1995 after hitting .239 with four home runs in a half-season. The Yankees signed him, and by October 1996, Strawberry was carrying the Yankees to the World Series, hitting three home runs in the ALCS victory over the Baltimore Orioles. For the Yankees, Strawberry hit 41 home runs with an .864 O.P.S. over essentially a full season of at-bats collected in five seasons from 1995-1999. Despite having hundreds fewer at-bats than the regulars on the 1998 Yankees, a team that won 114 games, Strawberry's 24 home runs were near the team lead.
Ultimately, we remember these veterans, along with other standouts like pitcher Sal Maglie and outfielder Ruben Sierra, not just because they had late-career resurgences with the Yankees. Their primary career paths were trod elsewhere. But the last bit of heroics, wrung out of them by the Yankees, serve as codas to careers that allow us to see them shine once more in October, where the Yankees seem to live.
The smart money is on Ichiro Suzuki, even with his struggles over the past two seasons, channeling Country Slaughter.
Elsewhere in New York sports:
Another day, another bullpen implosion, this time in an 8-2 to the Nationals in extra innings. Manny Acosta is back to try and help the bullpen. Frank Francisco had a setback in his attempt to do the same. And Lucas Duda could be going back to Triple-A, ending the right field experiment, or sending it out of town for more tryouts.
In an effort to shore up their offensive line, the Jets traded for Jeff Otah to battle Wayne Hunter for the starting right tackle job.
Everton announced that they transferred attacking midfielder Tim Cahill to New York, though the Red Bulls have yet to confirm it.