SEATTLE -- Until Kazuhiro Sasaki joined the Mariners four years ago, Seattle fans would shudder at the very sound of the bullpen phone ringing. After being subjected to the likes of Bobby Ayala, Heathcliff Slocumb and Jose Mesa, fans knew that no lead was safe in the ninth inning.
Sasaki changed all that, saving a club-record 129 games from his debut in 2000 to his final game as closer last June. He established himself as one of the league's best closers, making the All-Star team twice and helping the Mariners to the postseason in 2000 and 2001.
And yet, it was welcome news for Seattle on Monday when Sasaki informed the Mariners that he will not return to the team this season so that he can stay in Japan for family reasons. Sasaki lost his job as closer last June after he went on the disabled list with fractured ribs that he claimed were broken when he fell on a suitcase. He also lost effectiveness as a reliever when he returned to the bullpen and lost popularity among his teammates.
There also was the matter of his contract extension, which he received after leaving the team for a couple days for personal reasons midway through the 2002 season. That contract paid him $8 million and made him the team's highest-paid player last year. It also would have paid him another $8.5 million this year, plus a $1 million buyout.
Thus, the team should be off the hook for an aging (Sasaki turns 36 this spring) and very expensive closer they no longer need -- the Mariners had already re-signed Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who was exceptional as Sasaki's replacement, and also signed former Twins closer Eddie Guardado. The Sasaki money allows them to sign a free agent or make a trade for another player, though such additions may have to wait while the team sorts out the complicated process of Sasaki's departure.
For now, Sasaki is still on the club, but Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi said the team will accommodate his wishes to return to Japan. Just how that is worked out so that a player under contract here can return to pitch in his native country is still to be determined. Until they are officially assured that Sasaki and his salary are off the books, the Mariners won't invest the money in another player.
While the Mariners insist that they did not know about Sasaki's decision to return to Japan when they signed Hasegawa and Guardado, it was apparent at the time of the signings that someone would wind up leaving one way or another.
Sasaki was 7-16 with a 3.14 ERA during his four seasons with the Mariners, but 1-2 with a 4.05 ERA and 10 saves last season. He told reporters at a news conference in Japan that he wants to pitch in his native country so that he can be with his family and keep his two children in Japanese schools.
The decision to forgo $9.5 million to return to Japan may be unique but Sasaki's departure wasn't completely unexpected. In addition to Seattle's growing displeasure with Sasaki, there were rumors that the Yomiuri Giants were interested in trading for the closer a couple months ago.
And unlike teammates Ichiro and Hasegawa (who authored a book on English for Japanese businessmen), Sasaki made little attempt to assimilate in Seattle. He kept a full-time translator at his side, even insisting that he be allowed to wear a uniform and sit in the bullpen with him. No other player had such an arrangement.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.