July 24, 2012 in Sports

Ichiro bows out gracefully

Asking for trade saved M’s from tough decision
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

Ichiro Suzuki races to third base during the fourth inning of the Yankees’ win over the Mariners.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Going on record here that the Seattle Mariners shouldn’t have traded Ichiro Suzuki.

They should have made him CEO.

At least he grasped that he was no longer a fit with the only Major League Baseball franchise he’d ever known at this particular stage of its patented inertia. Howard Lincoln and his right-hand barnacle, Chuck Armstrong, would never have dared come to that conclusion themselves, nor would they have allowed their general manager to take any independent action.

It was Ichiro who asked out. Huck and Chowie have been studiously avoiding any tough decision on the matter – and any matter outside of where to go for lunch – for years now.

Just one more reason for the congregation of 29,911 that assembled at Safeco Field on Monday night to murmur some proper amens.

So when Ichiro came out of the wrong dugout in the third inning wearing the wrong number (31) on the wrong uniform (the road grays of the New York Yankees) in probably the right spot in the lineup (eighth), Mariners starter Kevin Millwood backed off the mound to give his now former teammate the stage he deserved. The fans rose and began to chant his name and Ichiro lifted his batting helmet … and bowed, twice.

On both ends, it was sincere and sort of arm’s length – pretty much identical to the relationship this superstar, impenetrable beyond the cuddly TV spots that debuted each spring, carried on with the customers for 12 seasons.

They’ll remember the 2,533 hits – of which 2,532 seemed to be of the infield scratch variety – and this one well-executed no-fault divorce he gracefully and quietly engineered to take the franchise off the hook.

Now general manager Jack Zduriencik won’t have to make a begrudged contract extension to a legacy free agent whose skills and effectiveness have eroded, hamstrung by the Sawdust Twins in the front office in not broaching the subject of separation with the Japanese ownership.

Ichiro has spent the last two of his Seattle seasons in the crosshairs of those fed up with Team Feckless because his contract, in the context of his declining production, has grown to be the most visible example of how management can’t fix the Mariners.

(The second-most visible also got an adjustment Monday night: first baseman Justin Smoak, who not only can’t hit his weight but is struggling to hit his cholesterol, has been sent to Triple-A Tacoma.)

Ichiro’s assigned villainy hasn’t really been fair. But fat paychecks tend to void the very idea of fair treatment.

Still, criticism isn’t why he directed his agent to approach the Mariners seeking a trade.

“When I spent time during the All-Star break to think,” he said through an interpreter on Monday, “I realized this team has many players in the early 20s, and I began to think I should not be on this team next year. I also started to feel the desire to be in an atmosphere (where) I could have a different kind of stimulation than I have now.”

A contending atmosphere. A first-place atmosphere.

That all sounds pretty clinical, but in fact Ichiro’s eyes were moist and his speech clipped moments earlier when he spoke about imagining putting away his Mariners uniform and being “overcome with sadness.”

It might have been nice to see some of that emotion before, but as he was startling us back in 2001 with his mindful approach to the game and the remarkable gifts of his speed, arm and batting eye, he was also refusing to let anyone else define what he should be.

Mariners fans wanted him to use that power he showed off in batting practice; he would not swing for the fences. They wanted more patience and walks as befits the on-base grail of the traditional lead-off hitter; he swung away. They wanted him in center field – eventually he spent about 10 minutes there – so a power guy could be acquired to play right; the Mariners are hopeless at acquiring corner power guys.

They wanted him to be a veteran leader. Instead, Seattle had to bring back Ken Griffey Jr. to be that, until that marriage soured again.

They were never quite content with what Ichiro was – one-of-a kind – because his team was so maddening. It’s been hilarious to hear him be called the “face of the franchise,” when what the franchise needed was a heart and some muscles to flex.

And a vision. What Ichiro brought in trade Monday was two minor league pitchers who may never make an impact in Seattle, because the Mariners could never bring themselves to do baseball business when it needed to be done.

The face of the franchise? For too many years, Ichiro Suzuki kept it from being an even deeper red.


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