Jul 25, 2012

Ichiro's last game as a Mariner


This is the tweet I sent out following Ichiro's final at-bat in Sunday's Mariners-Rays game at Tropicana Field. On a 1-1 count with two outs in the top of the eighth, he sent a soft liner toward short that was snagged by a backtracking Elliot Johnson. He ended the day 0-for-4 at the plate, with a run scored and two stolen bases, both of which came during the first inning.

The Mariners fans inside the Trop figured we were witnessing his last game with the club in St Pete. None of us could have imagined that this would be his last game as a Mariner, period.

* * * *
Ever since he made his MLB debut in 2001, Ichiro had come to represent the Seattle Mariners franchise. He shattered expectations by winning both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Players during that same year. He shattered a long-standing Major League record in 2004, by amassing 262 base hits in a single season. Oftentimes, he was the only player who kept made all those inept Mariners teams worth watching at all.

In his 11+ years with the Mariners, he had become a cultural icon in the Pacific Northwest, and something of a demigod in Japan. On a more personal note, he was responsible for reinvigorating my interest in the game of baseball, and more importantly, helping me rediscover my pride in being Japanese. There was no other athlete, in any sport, that I got more joy out of watching than the man wearing number 51 that patrolled the right field at Safeco Field (and other AL ballparks) for all these years.

What I loved most about watching Ichiro in during his prime was his distinctive style of play. The contrarian in me got so much fun out of watching this diminutive ballplayer dictate the course of the game on his own terms, during an era when juiced-up batters and hurlers ruled the day. At a time when the home run was the only thing that mattered in the Major Leagues (anyone remember this commercial?), he began a one-man mission to reintroduce old-school baseball: spraying base hits to every conceivable part of every playing field; routinely turning singles into extra bases; stealing bases whenever he pleased; making difficult plays in the outfield look easy; and a laser arm that still commands respect to this day.

I only had faint memories of him playing and appearing on commercials when I still lived in Japan; I had moved to the States as a nine-year old, and aside from the odd highlights featuring Hideo Nomo, had not paid much mind to baseball since. That all changed with Ichiro. At first, I began sticking around to see his highlights on SportsCenter. Then I began looking out for his stats; how many steals he had, how long his latest hitting streak was. Then I began watching nationally-televised games featuring the Mariners; I was (and still am) on the East Coast, so late night games were a little problematic, but I tuned into as many day games as I can.

That 2001 season made my love for the game stronger than it ever was. I was eager to jump on the Mariners bandwagon that year -- winning 116 games in the regular season with a player who had become my all-time sports idol made it easy for me. To this day, I'm gutted about that team not being able to reach the World Series. There's hardly anybody left on that bandwagon now, but here I am, over a decade removed from that historic season.

* * * *
I would be remiss if I did not mentioning my favorite on-field Ichiro moment. Ironically, it came while he was wearing a uniform other than the one he wore every game for the Mariners.

There were only two teams that took the World Baseball Classic in 2009 very seriously: Japan and South Korea. These two nations, already great rivals in soccer, were in the throes of a budding competition in baseball, as well. While the Koreans had a more successful history in soccer, the Japanese had a more extensive baseball lore. By 2009, however, Korea was catching up fast. They were producing big leaguers of their own, and their domestic league was improving by the day.

Their progress was evident during the early stages of the WBC, when they defeated Japan twice -- once in Tokyo, and once in San Diego. Japan, of course, returned the favor with two victories over Korea; neither country lost to any other opponent leading up to the tournament final.

The championship game itself will go down in the folklore of both countries. It was a very tense matchup, a low-scoring duel between two loaded pitching staffs where runs, and even baserunners, came at a premium. Japan held a 3-1 lead going into the bottom of the eighth, but the Koreans pegged back with a run, then made it a tie game with another in the ninth. It would take extra innings to decide the outcome between these evenly matched units.

Japan put two men on scoring position in the top of the 10th, with two outs. Each team had escaped a number of jams without allowing a run; but then, the best player on the field had not been up to bat in any of those occasions. My senses were heightened as Ichiro went through his routine at the plate prior to this huge opportunity. If anybody can win the game for us, I thought, it would be the man currently at the plate.

Sure enough, on a 2-2 count, he came through for us with a two-run single:


Japan won the game, and their second straight World Baseball Classic, by a 5-3 score. That they managed it over their greatest rivals made the victory all the more sweeter; that it came primarily as a result of a clutch hit by Ichiro, the sports hero for so many Japanese people, gave me even greater satisfaction.

* * * *
A decade is quite a long time in the realm of professional sports. Short of using PEDs to keep themselves strong and fresh at all times, athletes cannot escape the inevitable erosion of their skill sets. There's a reason why late-bloomers have their own category, not only in sports, but in every profession; there's a prime age for productivity, and once we get past that timeframe, everything typically goes downhill.

Ichiro, of course, is no exception. For an entire decade, he could be counted on crank out over 200 hits and bat over .300 during a season. He could be relied upon to display Gold Glove-caliber defense in right field (and sometimes in center, too). He could be expected to turn groundouts into infield hits, and singles into extra bases. He could even conjure up the odd 400-ft home run when he wanted to turn on the power. On any given day, he could singlehandedly win the game for the Mariners. In short, he could do it all on the playing field.

Alas, the corollary to the last sentence is that he could have never kept doing those things forever. He is now 38 years old. If you add his time in Japan, he's been playing professionally for half of his life. Season upon season of playing top-flight baseball in both Japan and America has clearly taken its toll. What used to be consistent production has been reduced to occasional reminders of what he had been capable of doing. Even his hair appears to be turning silver at certain spots.

As this season wore on, it looked increasingly more likely that this would be his last year with the Mariners, perhaps even his last year playing baseball. His contract was set to expire after the season, and his diminishing return on the field was there for everybody to see. I personally felt he would play out the string in Seattle, then announced his retirement following the season. At least that's how I thought it would transpire.

Could I possibly have been more wrong there?

* * * *
During the Mariners' previous visit to St Pete, Ichiro had been in the middle of a decent start to the season, batting over .300 and showing signs that he had shrugged off the subpar performance from thre previous year. Perhaps he was living off of some early-season momentum, but he had a good time at the plate during the series, going 8-for-17 with an RBI. Unfortunately, having an anemic offense around him meant that he only crossed the plate once in four games, all of which ended in losses for the visitors; but he had his way with the Rays pitching staff, considered to be one of the strongest in the Majors.

Almost three months later, however, both Ichiro and the Mariners had reverted back to last year's form. Actually, that's not totally accurate: they were both worse than they were at this point in 2011. He came into the Rays series batting .265, lower than his average the previous year, and the team was all but locked into the AL West cellar, 14 games under .500 going into Friday.

No matter; I still wanted to see Ichiro perform some magic on the baseball field for the last time.


As luck would have it, Sunday's game started in a rather inauspicious fashion for Ichi; a failed sacrifice bunt that ended with Casper Wells being tagged out at third. Perhaps wanting to makeup for the miscue, he immediately stole second base, then stole third base just moments later. On the next pitch, Jesus Montero drove him in with a double to left-center. That was vintage Ichiro on the basepaths -- wreaking havoc with his foot speed, then trotting home without breaking a sweat.

He also showed us a glimpse of his defensive prowess with a remarkable catch on Carlos Pena's flyball. Leaping high into the air against the right-field fence, he robbed the slugger of an extra base hit. Making simple plays as well as the difficult ones; that was what made him a Gold Glove outfielder for ten years running. Those plays had become few and far between due to his diminishing range in the outfield, but on that occasion, he showed he still had the ability to change the game with one snag of the ball.

He could cross paths with Pena again in the third inning. He stroked a soft grounder down the first base line, and the Rays' first baseman, somewhat returning the favor for the defensive gem in the first inning, got the slighest amount of contact on Ichiro with a tag, denying him of an infield hit. Ichi, for his part, tried to contort his body in a way that resembled one of his stretching poses in the on-deck circle before each at bat; for an athlete with his tear and wear on the body, he appeared remarkably nimble.

* * * *
It's worth noting that during every Mariners game I've attended at the Trop, Ichiro was the only player on the visiting team who commanded undivided attention from the overwhelmingly pro-Rays crowd when he came up to bat. Even during the twilight of his career, he still possessed enough of an aura that he got the entire crowd to watch him in action. Not surprisingly, the few brave M's fans who made the trek down to St Pete reserved their loudest cheers for number 51.

In the end, however, it was the Rays fans who had reasons to cheer after each plate appearance by Ichiro on Sunday. He did not a hit off of Matt Moore, never reaching base after the first inning. In fact, he couldn't get the ball out of the infield during his first three plate appearances. The grizzled veteran who had seen it all during his career was the one being taken to school by the dazzling young lefty on the Rays staff. It was obvious whose career was in ascendancy, and who was on the downward arc.

He stepped up to the batters' box for the last time with two outs in the top of the eighth. Perhaps sensing the occasion, the M's fans in the stands -- there were maybe a hundred of us at the game -- gave him a standing ovation as he walked up to the plate. Watching the highlights afterwards, it sounded like the on-field mic picked up the applause. Was it simply Root Sports placing the mic near the third base dugout, where most of the visiting fans congregated? Perhaps. But it was definitely audible. We were all hoping for one final display of what made us so smitten with the guy.

Alas, Ichiro's final at-bat would also end in an out. After working Moore to a 1-1 count, he produced a slicing liner that floated just long enough to allow Elliot Johnson to get under it, and make the inning-end grab. That lowered his season average to .261, a far cry from what we had become accustomed to seeing from him in years past.

The Mariners still went onto beat the Rays by the score of 2-1, just as they had the previous night. Ichiro, as always after a win, was in the center of the postgame festivities on the mound. That was the last I saw of him in a Seattle uni: high-fiving his teammates on the infield, smiles all around, savoring the victory in a place where they had not won very often during the last five years. When he trotted off the field and disappeared into the dugout, I was sure that this would be his last visit to St Pete, and that he would go on play out the remainder of the season with the Mariners.

I was off on both counts.

* * * *
Perhaps it was fitting that I would find out about the trade with the Yankees through Twitter. Coach Pink was the one who broke the news, sending me a DM asking how I felt about Ichiro in the pinstripes. I was tempted to retort that April Fools was nearly four months ago, but then I looked at the timeline, which had multiple confirmations that yes, he had indeed been dealt to New York.

I'll freely admit to being absolutely floored by the news. It never occurred to me that there was a chance he could finish his career, or even this season, with another team. It seemed inconceivable that the Mariners would trade away the player who had been the face of the franchise for the better part of his career, a player who was an iconic figure on both sides of the Pacific. I never once prepared myself for the possibility that he could wear the uniform of another Major League franchise.

I really did believe that. Until 6:30 pm Eastern time, on July 23, 2012. The trade was made official. The press conference would soon follow. By 9 pm, Ichiro was already in a Yankees uniform, sporting an unfamiliar number 31, getting ready to face his old team, on his old home turf. I was left completely blindsided, and I suspect the majority of Mariners fans were, as well.

Then again, maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised. His impact had clearly diminished on the field, and not coincidentally, he was no longer the same box office draw that he was in his prime. And given the bevy of potential replacements in the farm system, he very well could have seen the writing on the wall himself. Plus, the Mariners are still years away from being a playoff contender; his best chance to win an elusive World Series ring would have had to come via a trade.

So this is where we are. Ichiro Suzuki is a Yankee now, and I, and other M's fans, have no option but to accept that reality. I could never root for the the Evil Empire, but I would be delighted if he could win a championship that he never got a chance to play for in Seattle.

* * * *
At the press conference announcing the trade, he took the time to thank his teammates and managers, and the ownership that brought him to America and made him a global star. However, he saved his most heartfelt appreciation for the fans: 
I would like to express my gratitude to the fans. Thank you for the last 11 1/2 years. Starting in 2001, whether the team played well or bad, whether I did good or bad, I am overcome with emotion when I think about my times and feelings during time that was spent together with the fans.

During all those times, the fans were a big foundation for me... and when I imagine taking off a Mariner uniform, I was overcome with sadness. It has made this a very difficult decision to make."
Perhaps this was the inevitable conclusion. A similar announcement could have easily been made two months from now, after the end of the season. It could have even occurred in another year or two, had both parties decided they wanted to prolong the relationship, unlikely though that scenario may have been. That said, regardless of how the departure took place, it was always going to take some time to get used to seeing the Seattle Mariners without Ichiro, and vice versa.

The biggest takeaway from this whirlwind weekend is this: Ichiro will always be loved and revered by Mariners fans. And although he will no longer put on the Seattle uniform before every game, all of us who consider ourselves Ichiro fans would wish him nothing but the best of luck, wherever life takes him from this point on. And when he has his day in Cooperstown -- he would be the first Japanese-born player to be enshrined -- the joy will not be just on him. It will also be on all of us.

Years from now, I will pass down my Mariners fandom -- and the many stories of the Ichiro folklore -- to my kids and grandkids. And yes, I will be sure to tell them that I was in attendance for old number 51's last game in a Mariners uniform.

Thank you for all the memories.

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