The Mariners were fully intent on extending the contract of Ichiro until he requested a trade. His final act was one of his most important: Saving face for the club.
Hard to say where it will end up in the litany of his baseball accomplishments, but Ichiro did the Mariners a big, fat, final, tuna-roll-flavored favor Monday: He asked out.
He asked out, before the Mariners surely would have asked him back.
Despite the fact that Ichiro, in his contract year, is on a fade nearly as fast as newspapers, the Mariners were trying to get him to sign an extension. Club president Chuck Armstrong reported Monday the most recent effort was in June.
As late as mid-July, according to Japanese baseball sources, Mariners owner Hiroshi Yamauchi inquired about the status of the extension for his star player. Yamauchi, who has never seen the Mariners or Ichiro play in person, apparently had no idea or no concern that Ichiro was in the way of franchise progress.
His return as a 39-year-old would have sent up public howls from the dwindling knot of Mariners fans, not to mention private growls from general manager Jack Zduriencik, manager Eric Wedge and every knowledgeable baseball person in the organization.
Ichiro knew. As comfortable as was his situation was in Seattle for more than 11 seasons, he decided finally it was no longer comfortable. After the All-Star Game break, he took the initiative. Through his agent, Tony Attanasio, Ichiro asked to be traded before the off-season, when he and the franchise would have embarrassed themselves again in front of God, country and all the ships at sea by stepping on another upturned rake.
With stealth worthy of an airborne drone, the Mariners searched the baseball landscape and found, of all places, New York and the Yankees. Once the Mariners answered Yankees GM Brian Cashman’s question, “What’s he got left in the tank?” the clubs pulled off a shocker.
Doesn’t matter that you’ve never heard of the two middling pitching prospects the Mariners received in return. Doesn’t matter if they ever make it. All that matters is Ichiro, with his pending free agency that would have been epically awkward for Seattle, has moved on, and in a way that offers a little bit of dignity.
Surprising as was the deal, it was even more remarkable that Ichiro decided to break away from a club that accommodated his every wish, in exchange for being just a guy in New York. When asked, even Zduriencik seemed caught off-guard.
“Ahh . . . you know, that’s a good question. I’m not . . maybe not. Maybe a little bit,” Zduriencik said. “Maybe in one sense. If you’re a player at his age and you want to compete at the highest level, you reflect over the four days of the All-Star break, when he cemented his thoughts. The chance to play in a World Series is a dream of every player. This is the quickest way.”
True enough. But the Mariners have been swimming in mediocrity for years, incapable of building a team around him that would allow Ichiro to be a complementary contributor, as he was in his rookie year of 2001, instead of a veteran leader and primary run producer. Based on American habits, Ichiro should have asked for a trade multiple times before now.
But Ichiro’s Japanese value system makes a priority of loyalty, just as Japan’s baseball culture says leadership comes from management, not players. Ichiro always has been a loner, not a leader, and a loyalist above a pragmatist. But even his Japanese sensibilities have limits.
Or, as he put it in the press conference Monday, “Going from the team that has the most losses to the team that has the most wins, it’s hard to contain my excitement.” And you thought he was driven only by a relentless pursuit of milestone hit numbers.
For his first night in Yankee grays, wearing No. 31, Dave Winfield’s old number (51 belonged to the more sacred Bernie Williams), Ichiro had a taste of what he wanted. The Yankees won, 4-1, he singled in his first at-bat, and looked the stereotypical part of the highly paid older vet who starred elsewhere and was rejuvenated by pinstripes.
For the long term, Ichiro’s statistical legacy is undeniable. But as the team grew worse around him, the empty calories of his game began to show through. And as he played into his physical decline, it was hard to hide the fact that he became a $17 million drag on a team whose management last off-season finally gave up on the foolish belief that it was one or two players away from contention.
The currency of Ichiro, as opposed to the legacy of Ichiro, was brought home before the game when a New York reporter asked Wedge what Ichiro could still bring to the game.
“He’s a very dedicated worker, with the most consistent routine I’ve ever seen,” he said. “He gives himself the chance to be the best he can be. The Last couple years have been tough on him. Physically he’s in great shape. Anythings possible.”
That’s what’s known in the journalism dodge as a non-answer answer. Like the one Zduriencik gave when he was asked about the virtues of the pitchers the Mariners acquired.
“One’s a starter, one’s a reliever, they’re both 25 years of age,” he said, “and we’ll see what happens when they get here.”
The truth was in the trade. The Mariners gave away Ichiro for virtually nothing. And it was a good deal for both teams.
It would be fun to see Ichiro tear up Gotham. It also will be fun to see the Mariners finally get on with the future.