We want things to end a certain way because that's how it happens in movies and stories and the other vehicles that love the saccharine. Ichiro Suzuki should've spent his career a Seattle Mariner, like Albert Pujols should've a St. Louis Cardinal, like Kevin Youkilis should've a Boston Red Sox, like dozens of other guys should've in certain uniforms. Ichiro in New York Yankees pinstripes, hitting eighth, is the sort of thing that happens in a dream from which you awaken and laugh at the implausibility.
And yet there he was Monday night, ready to trade one coast for another after he asked for a divorce from the Mariners because he's on the cusp of 40 and wants his games to matter. It wasn't exactly amicable; these things rarely are. Ichiro and the Mariners both saw what was coming: the impending free agency; the declining player believing he's still the player of old and expecting the franchise to pay for that; the team wanting to put its money toward production over legacy; and the ugly mess of a split that results. At least this way they kept it in-house and allowed Ichiro to leave with dignity intact.
"I was overcome with sadness taking off the Mariners uniform," he said. "I will be moving on with pride."
Ichiro moving on at all is the oddity, even if it was a possibility, or probability, this offseason. Last year, Baseball-Reference ran a list of the position players who had played the most games for a single team. At the top are future Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones. A borderline Hall of Famer, Todd Helton, is third. Ichiro was fourth among the 25. He is one of nine players who has since found a new team. Two others, Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada, retired. Almost half the list, gone in just over a season.
The Mariners' dead-end season, and the growing din of fear over the potential offseason conflagration, pushed Ichiro to request a trade from Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln. Seattle didn't get much back – a soft-tossing right-hander, D.J. Mitchell, and a reliever, Danny Farquhar, who twice in the last two months has been designated for assignment. The Yankees are paying only $2.25 million of the little more than $7 million owed to Ichiro.
He wanted out. Their return let him know how little he was worth.
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Which doesn't make a damn bit of difference if indeed Ichiro can pull a Youk and reinvigorate himself and his career in the new togs. He is batting .261, lower than ever. Only one player has made more outs than his 309 this season. He has 13 infield hits this year after legging out 53 two years ago. Scouts say he is cheating on fastballs and still missing. He is, remember, 38 years old. Career turnarounds don't often happen at that age.
But this is Ichiro, who has waved his magical wand for two decades to feather more than 4,000 hits in Japan and the U.S., and the idea of his resurrection in the Bronx is the sort of fairy tale that isn't altogether far-fetched. For his last 11 years, Ichiro has headed home without so much as a postseason at-bat. The Mariners' perpetual ineptitude practically forced him to focus on individual goals, a criticism of teammates that lacked fairness when his accomplishments did a lot more to help Seattle win than theirs.
Now he's in a different world, one for which he's well-suited. Ichiro can focus on himself as he is wont to do and blend in just fine with the Yankees. He is not someone on whom the leadership mantel will be thrust on account of his salary; he is just another Yankees star. This is the perfect place for Ichiro: the searing spotlight, the stage of October, the reminder that baseball doesn't have to be doldrums and high draft picks.
Maybe, just maybe, he can unleash some of that batting-practice power and attack the short porch in right field.
Whatever he does, New York will love Ichiro because it's tough not to. Even as his hair grays and his game slows a step, he plays with such style and panache, from his flamingo swing to his .357 Magnum arm. He is 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, lean as a chicken cutlet, all of these skills emanating from this tiny package.
And that's all we know of Ichiro: his game. He doesn't let anyone in. He speaks only when he must. He'd rather play this game he loves so much, and as he recognizes that time soon will steal it from him, he'd rather play it where it matters. The rest of this season with the Mariners is nothing more than a fight against futility. Ichiro has seen enough of those.
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So he waived his 10-and-5 rights, lugged the humidity-regulated suitcase in which he carries his bats to the opposing clubhouse at Safeco Field and played his first game as a Yankee against the Mariners. He wore No. 31 because 51 was Bernie Williams', and even if they're headed to the Hall of Fame, new Yankees know not to ask for Bernie's number.
He stepped up in the top of the third, the newly divorced man did, wearing the road gray in front of the people he had enthralled for a dozen years. He acknowledged the cheers with two deep bows. And he did what he had done 2,060 times for the team with whom he should've spent his career: He singled. Then he stole second. It was implausible and weird and all of those things. Oddest of all, it was kind of sweet.
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