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When Ichiro Suzuki crashed the major leagues in 2001, what struck many, beyond his wizardry with the bat, was this inimitable presence, a style and savoir-faire that ran in deep contrast to the tobacco-stained American ballplayer. It wasn't that Ichiro was Japanese; he was new, magnetic, mysterious.
He valued the same thing in others, too. He appreciated Rod Carew's austerity with words, Paul Molitor's quiet strength, Buck O'Neil's aura. Ichiro loved everything about Buck. They were two men from different eras with different skin colors, different bank accounts, different perspectives. And yet their love of baseball and desire to make the game better bridged the language gap and forged a relationship likelier than one might think.
Buck's joy was osmotic, and Ichiro will think about him in moments like today, in which his struggles are undeniable. Whether it's age or something else, Ichiro, 38, is struggling like never before: an on-base percentage below .300, a batting average almost 60 points shy of his career norm and questions about his future following this season, when he's due to hit free agency.
Before he died in 2006, Buck often spoke of players he enjoyed watching. He had an affinity for those who stayed in one place their whole career. Ichiro's marriage to the Seattle Mariners seemed a fait accompli until recently, and in a rare interview, he told Yahoo! Sports this week that his return is no certainty.
"It's going to go both ways," Ichiro said through his translator, Antony Suzuki. "It can't just come from the player. It's got to come from the team, too. If the team is saying they need you, you're necessary, then it becomes a piece. But if it's just coming from the player, it's not going to happen."
Asked whether he's concerned about the Mariners not sharing his feelings, he demurred – "We can't talk about that," he said – and shifted the conversation back to O'Neil, the Negro League icon whose lessons Ichiro draws from today.
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They shared the struggles of pioneers, though Ichiro doesn't dare try to compare his to a man judged and discriminated against because he was black. During his rookie MVP season, Ichiro met Buck, listened to his improbable story, accompanied him to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to learn more and made sure to seek him out every time the Mariners came to Kansas City. Buck would hang behind the batting cage and watch Ichiro pepper balls to all fields, then launch home runs to right with power belying his size. Ichiro showed off for him. He saw something great in a man from whom so much had been taken but who never stopped giving.
"With Buck, I felt something big," Ichiro said. "The way he carried himself, you can see and tell and feel he loved this game. And when you see that presence, it makes you want to know more about him. That's what I looked to. We're all trying to play better baseball. Make it a better sport. That's what I see, and that's what I look forward to doing."
Those are not the words of a man who seems poised to retire, as columnists in Seattle are suggesting he do. A cloud teeming with fear and negativity hovers over Ichiro right now, ready to weep on him at any moment and potentially damage a 12-year relationship with the Mariners.
Former teammate Jay Buhner telling Seattle radio station 710 AM "I'd vomit" if Seattle signed Ichiro to a multi-year, big-money deal did little to dissipate the sentiment. Ichiro: yay or nay has replaced Clay Bennett: electric chair or firing squad as the great Seattle debate. It is almost the same as Derek Jeter's free agency two years ago. Coming off the worst season of his career, Jeter re-signed with the New York Yankees for three years and $51 million.
[Big League Stew: Former teammate's blunt assessment of Ichiro situation]
Balancing a legendary career with personal feelings and fears of intractable regression make for an incendiary concoction the Mariners must handle with great care. There is no easy answer.
And for Ichiro, someone who shared with Buck the idea of appreciating players staying with one team for their whole career, the coming months afford him time to prepare for a number of possibilities. Seattle could reward him as much for his past as his future. The Mariners could offer him a respectable deal with a large pay cut from his current $18 million knowing he won't accept. They could threaten to dissolve the relationship by lowballing him. He could leave via free agency and chase the 471 hits separating him from 3,000 elsewhere. He could head back to Japan. There are a million in-between scenarios, all of which lead back to this offseason providing more insight into Ichiro's fascinating mind.
"I can say this: I believe I've learned a lot the last 12 years," Ichiro said. "If I stayed in Japan for the last 12 years and never came here, I would not feel this way, like I do now, and I wouldn't feel the pain."
He wouldn't expound on what sort of pain, Ichiro evermore dangling threads of allure only to yank them back. He looks at the autographed Buck O'Neil ball at his home sometimes and remembers: This game is more about the joy than the pain.
Ichiro may not be new anymore. The magnetism has lost some of its pull. The mystery, however, won't go away anytime soon. For one of the greatest pure hitters ever, it grows bigger by the day.
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