Ichiro Goes from Worst to First, with a Few Pangs Between

Nobody saw it coming until it came, as Yogi Berra might say: Ichiro Suzuki dealt to the New York Yankees for a pair of minor league question marks. And all the iconic Seattle Mariners outfielder had to do was pack his bags, say goodbye politely, then walk from clubhouse to clubhouse, since the Yankees had just arrived to start a series with the Mariners. Then, all he had to do to seal the deal was exactly what he did when, batting eighth in the Yankee lineup, he faced his former team as a hitter for the first time.

Bowing to Mariners fans in appreciation, before opening his Yankee life with a hit and a theft . . .

First, he acknowledged the appreciative cheers of the Safeco Field crowd—cheers which must have been six parts saying goodbye to a long-loved player, half a dozen parts gratitude that he chose to move rather than logjam the Mariners’ has-to-happen rebuilding—with a few gracious but unexaggerated bows.

Then, he lined a base hit right back up the pipe and wasted no time stealing second base without much of a fight. He even came thisclose to throwing out a Mariner trying to score, his hard throw missing by a foot.

If only he could have factored directly in the Yankees’ 4-1 win, that would have been cherries and cream atop the sundae. The Yankees were in the hole 1-0 until the fourth, thanks to a pair of Seattle double plays quashing potential rallies, but they pushed through with Alex Rodriguez’s double (he missed an opposite-field homer by inches), a walk, an RBI double (Mark Teixiera), and a pair of RBI singles (Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones). While the Mariners couldn’t push a run across the plate with a bulldozer, the Yankees added their fourth run in the top of the eight when A-Rod opened by hitting one over the center field fence.

According to just about every report that flooded cyberspace and the printed press in the hours to follow, Ichiro approached the Mariners somewhere around the All-Star break asking to be traded. Ichiro himself hinted he spent much of the break thinking seriously about whatever future he has left in the Show. He did so knowing the Mariners were in desperate need of rebuilding. Knowing they probably couldn’t afford to offer him his final major league contract. Knowing, too, that if there was one underlying reason why he’d been less than content in the Mariners’ clubhouse, for the past few years, it was that winning seemed very alien to the team for whom he once featured in a stupefying 116-win 2001.

When he stood before a bank of microphones to say his official goodbye, Ichiro left little doubt. “I am going,” he said as the trade was announced, “from a team with the most losses to a team with the most wins. It’s hard to contain my excitement for that reason.”

That was a very rare offering to the public of his emotions away from the field. For twelve seasons, Ichiro has played the game as passionately as anyone who ever took the field or checked in at the plate, but otherwise he’s rarely if ever allowed anyone to see through or into him. Like Sandy Koufax four decades earlier, Ichiro (very few ever find it in them to refer to him by his family name) has made a public living while keeping his integrity and his life off the field tucked into a discreet wrap.

Saying goodbye to the Mariners as the trade was announced was probably typical of the closest he could come in letting his feelings flow through his voice. He even had to fight tears once or twice.

When I think about this long period, it is hard for me to concisely express my feelings. When I think about the last 11 and a half years, about the times and feelings of the last 11 and a half years, and when I imagined taking off the Mariner uniform, I was overcome with sadness. It has made this a very difficult decision to make.

When I spent time during the All-Star break to think, I realized that this team has many players in the early 20s. And I began to think, I should not be on this team next year, when I thought about the future of the team. And I also started to think about the desire to be an an atmosphere that I could have a different kind of stimulation than I have now. If that were the case, it would be the best decision for both parties involved, that I would leave the team as soon as possible. I have made this decision.

Fighting tears as he said goodbye to the Mariners and their fans . . .

He hadn’t been the hitting machine of old for over a season and a half.  But he still had some life in his legs and his throwing arm, and he still knew how to cover outfield ground. It turns out that he made a few concessions before the Yankees agreed to make the deal: he agreed to hit toward the bottom of the lineup (he batted eighth Monday night); he’ll move to left field when Nick Swisher, the Yankees’ regular right fielder, returns from the disabled list; he’ll even sit now and then against lefthanded pitching, something once unthinkable.

“He was asked to make a lot of sacrifices,” Yankee general manager Brian Cashman disclosed. “And he agreed to every one of them.”

He’d never have said it in public himself until he agreed to the trade, but Ichiro gave Yankee scouts the impression that, as much as he loved playing in Seattle, he’d been bored long enough with the team’s ineptitude otherwise. Words like “playing down to his surroundings” made those scouts’ rounds. So did the thoughts that Ichiro’s athleticism and defence weren’t quite so diminished.

“He’s a fit under the circumstances we’re in,” Cashman told reporters, in light of Brett Gardner going down for the season and Ibanez and Jones more aged than Ichiro happens to be. “Worst-case scenario, I’ve improved my outfield situation. Best-case scenario is a tremendous upside. We might be getting a superstar.”

Interesting phrasing, that. Yankee-haters might take it to mean one thing. Objective observers might take it to mean something else. Something that might mean the Yankees pulling off the theft of the year. A superstar who gets himself back to or near enough to that level for one more period. Watching age catch up to Ichiro (it’s sometimes easy to forget he had a full, sterling career in Japan before he came to Seattle and opened the gates for other Japanese position players in the Show) wasn’t pretty. Watching him find a way to transcend his age—even if not quite at the level that’s already assured his Hall of Fame plaque—could be fun.

The cheers for Ichiro, as he checked in at the plate for the first time as a Yankee, might have had more than one meaning, after all. A lot of Mariner fans thought he should have been dealt sooner considering his fade; a few (“ICHI-ROD Don’t Sell Out!” went one placard in the stands) hoped he’d remain a Mariner for life. Sell out to what? His contract expires at season’s end. There’s no guarantee the Yankees will offer him one last contract at comparable money. And the terms of the contract include the Mariners paying him about $25 million after he retires, through 2032, money deferred at a 5.5 percent interest rate, while he collected about $18 million a year in salary including for 2012.

The Yankees are no strangers to bringing in stars, superstars, and even Hall of Famers in waiting when they’re near the end of the line. They’ve gotten results ranging from the unexpected (Darryl Strawberry, 24 home runs in 1998, though he missed the postseason thanks to cancer surgery) and the impressive (Lee Smith, who got into eight games and converted all three of his save opportunities in 1993) to the mundane (Goose Gossage, whom they brought back for stretch help in 1989 but picked up one save in eleven appearances before moving further on; Kevin Brown, whom they picked up in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2003 season—he had a respectable season’s record but was injured at one point punching a wall in frustration, then got murdered to open Game Seven of the 2004 American League Championship Series) and mediocre. (Ivan Rodriguez, a certain Hall of Famer whom they picked up at the 2008 non-waiver trade deadline, but who hit a mere .219 the rest of the way and looked almost finished as the Yankees missed the postseason.)

They could get unexpected shining results at the plate from Ichiro to match his still-expected prowess in the outfield and, when he reaches base, on the bases. Or, they could be watching him finish his fade in earnest. The one thing they probably won’t lack for seeing is the fun he still brings to the game when he plays, no matter what.

And it was always fun to watch Ichiro Suzuki play baseball. Hell, it was fun watching him stretch every inning as he took his position in right field, never mind poking a base hit or three and stealing an average of forty bases a year at his best. Even on his occasional worst days before time and the Yankees caught up to him.

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