July 25, 2012 in Sports

Commentary: Ichiro helped himself, Mariners with trade

Larry Stone Seattle Times
Associated Press photo

Ichiro Suzuki’s departure allows the Mariners to continue rebuilding.
(Full-size photo)

SEATTLE - The Mariners without Ichiro Suzuki didn’t look much different, on the surface, than they did with him. They struggled to hit at Safeco Field and fell to the Yankees, 4-1 on Monday. If this was the dawning of a new era, it began with an anticlimactic thud.

But Ichiro’s departure is not only a watershed day in the organization’s history, the latest in a long line of superstars who have departed, it also opens the path for them to hasten their rebuilding without having to pay heed to a franchise icon who was no longer a viable part of their future.

To his credit, Ichiro got it, and did the noble thing by asking the Mariners to trade him. While there might have been some self-interest involved – he goes from the basement to the penthouse, as far as the standings are concerned – Ichiro had such a hallowed place in the organization that if he had wanted to stay, the Mariners would not have stood in his way.

Indeed, Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said Monday that they planned to pursue a contract extension after the season, and team president Chuck Armstrong added that they had approached the Ichiro camp as recently as June to see if they were interested in beginning those talks.

It would have been a mistake to bring back Ichiro in 2013 (and certainly beyond). The Mariners needed to open up right field to a rising young player like Casper Wells. Now they can do that, unencumbered by the looming presence of a legend like Ichiro.

“Obviously, it will be considerably different, but it gives us an opportunity to play another young player on a consistent basis,” manager Eric Wedge said.

This wasn’t about player acquisition. It wasn’t even about the $2.5 million in salary relief the Mariners will receive from the Yankees this season. But it should be about using the $17 million removed from next year’s payroll to pour into one or two star-level players to fast forward the rebuilding program.

Monday definitely had the feeling of the end of an era – one that should rightly be remembered for the brilliance of most of Ichiro’s tenure, rather than for his lackluster last year and a half.

For a decade, Ichiro was a joy to watch, a thoroughly unique bat artist who sometimes confounded us but always enthralled on the field. I firmly believe he was a winning player who had the misfortune to be stuck on a team not equipped to win.

It wasn’t always that way; the Mariners won 116, 93 and 93 games in Ichiro’s first three seasons. But since 2004 – the year he set the major league record with 262 hits – it has been mostly about futility. Now, while the Mariners go about their ongoing task of trying to build their way back to respectability, Ichiro can rejuvenate himself in a pennant race.

When Ichiro came to the plate in the third inning Monday, he was saluted by the fans at Safeco Field with a huge ovation. Catcher John Jaso said he gave Ichiro some gentle guidance.

“I knew what the crowd wanted,” Jaso said. “I think Ichiro was just going to go in there and take an at-bat. I said, ‘Hey, take a wave,’ and started walking out to the pitcher’s mound. It was a good, classy move by the fans.”

Ichiro’s agent, Tony Attanasio, said the outfielder will keep his roots in Seattle.

“He loves Seattle,” Attanasio said. “This is his home. He’s not going to move. He’s going to stay in Seattle.”

A part of Ichiro will always be at Safeco Field. But his departure is the best move for him, and for the organization.

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