Ichiro: An Ode and a Goodbye

Editor’s note: Seattle Sportsnet welcomes Peter Whitmore to the writing staff. Peter is a lifelong Seattle sports fan who adds years of passion to these pages. A journalism major in college, Peter’s talent and storytelling ability raises the bar for this website, and will provide an increase in exceptional content on a regular basis. Take a glance at Peter’s first piece and be sure to follow him on Twitter @MarinerMagic.

Ichiro is a New York Yankee. That sentence seems impossible. But here we are. As real as it undeniably is, it will always feel unreal. Ichiro, Seattle Mariners right fielder and intergalactic sports icon, is gone.

Here is a piece of his legacy, as this fan tells it:

My wife loves Ichiro. She is an academic and a romantic. She moved to Seattle in 2004 for graduate school at the UW. She loves baseball. She’s no baseball addict, but she truly appreciates the magic and nuance of baseball – enough that she can tolerate living with and loving an addict. She grew to love baseball and the Mariners by watching and admiring Ichiro. She loved the discipline of his routines. Was fascinated with the respect he had for his bat – his most revered tool of the trade. She marveled at the graceful control with which he patrolled the outfield. Ichiro was the lens through which she learned to love baseball. In many ways, he was her primary connection to the game.

So when I called her yesterday afternoon, in the middle of her day, to tell her Ichiro had been traded to the Yankees, she cried. She really did, I’m not messing around. Later, at home, she said simply, “I’m not ready for this,” and wept. This was her first baseball heartbreak. I can’t say I reacted the same way. I felt shocked and weird and kind of sick. I love Ichiro, too, but he was not even my favorite current Mariner. I felt awful because I knew how bad she felt. I knew that pain. Chambers, Griffey, Payton, Allen. And all the others in between. Every time it happens, you get a little more hardened to it. You get calluses. We live in a sporting world with very few happy endings. And this was not the happy ending my wife had envisioned for herself and Ichiro.

I had my own dream for Ichiro. When Ken Griffey Jr. returned to the Mariners in 2009, I dreamt that somehow, some way, that team would find itself in the World Series. My new favorite Mariner, King Felix, would lead the team through an improbable post-season run, and in Game 7, an ancient Griffey, in one final moment in the spotlight, would step to the plate as the winning run. You know the rest. The Mariners’ two most enduring and relevant superstars, Ichiro and Griffey, would hold up the World Championship trophy together. The photo would be immortal.

But the dream was just that. I knew it. You knew it. Even the Mariners knew it. Major League Baseball is played on a field, not in the fantasies of its fans. So Junior is gone. And so, now, quite suddenly, is Ichiro.

Ichiro, the real-life baseball player, was a fixture of Safeco Field. No player has played more games on that field. No Mariner has given fans more thrills in that ballpark. Junior, “The Kid,” left before The Safe was even a year old. The Big Unit never strode to the mound for the home team. Edgar’s brilliant career came to a close during Safeco’s honeymoon phase. It is impossible to picture the checkered green in right field without seeing Ichiro standing there, pulling at the laces of his glove, or crouched in one of his anatomy-defying stretches. There is no more indelible Safeco image.

Ichiro played with a measured flair. Each movement seemed rehearsed, calculated. Yet his talent for hitting and tracking and throwing a baseball was as rare and as raw and as electrifying as it comes. Make no mistake, Ichiro’s baseball talent was titanic.

During the ten years spanning 2001 to 2010, there were two names in cumulative and qualitative hitting prowess. There was Albert Pujols. And there was Ichiro. I don’t need to list the records and awards. No player can hold a candle to what those two accomplished during their decade of baseball mastery.

At his most masterful, Ichiro could conjure hits from thin air. He would make hits where none existed, commanding the ball with his bat into spaces only he knew about. He puzzled pitchers and confounded defenses. He would wave his bat, and before the shortstop knew it, Ichiro was past the bag, stripping off his batting gloves and elbow guard. He would lash doubles to the wall, yet somehow glide into third with a triple, standing up.

At his most lethal, Ichiro could alter the course of a game from right field. Only the rare base-runner dared test him, but when one did, he bore witness to a throw launched from a weapon of science fiction.

At his most magnificent, Ichiro could dominate a baseball game with his bat and his legs and his glove and his arm — something almost unheard of for an athlete of his diminutive stature. His baseball results defied his body. He was as superstar as superstars get, and he was ours.

As with all superstars, Ichiro was not without his imperfections. There were the bizarrely-timed bunts. The insistence on speaking through an interpreter, long after mastering English. And his disinterest in vocally leading a young roster, however unfair that seemed.

But every superstar is imperfect. Jordan left basketball at the peak of his dominance. Bonds was a jerk, and tainted his legacy with illegal substances. Even Griffey was an introvert who couldn’t figure out what to say and when. Ichiro is an enigma. Maybe the mystery will someday be remembered as part of his appeal.

There’s no denying it was time. The circumstances of the Mariners’ young, pulseless roster dictated Ichiro’s exit — even if he was the one to make the call. If not now, then after the season. Ichiro did not fit anymore. The thrills were far fewer, and the position he occupied represented a chance to improve by some yet undetermined measure. On a better Mariners team, in another time, in some alternate Mariners universe, Ichiro could play out his career at Safeco, amid all the fanfare only Seattleites can deliver. His career could end with dignity. His eroding hitting skills would be a charming sideshow on a winning team, a fallen star playing out the string. But that was another dream.

And oh, the vocal haters. Those who in one breath desecrated a Hall of Famer at his most vulnerable, and in the next lauded the baby steps of inferior talents. The young Mariners were surely in need of love and nurturing. But for some reason, as the team plunged to great, irrelevant depths, some of us forgot Ichiro had to endure the fall, too. He had a front row seat.

And perhaps that is the great tragedy of the Ichiro story. A bigger tragedy than the historically bad offenses he played on. A bigger tragedy than not reaching the World Series during those initial glorious years. Maybe the greatest tragedy is that many of the fans to whom he was so loyal became so jaded by the team surrounding him that they mistook him for part of the mess.

Ichiro was never part of the mess. The mess distorted the Ichiro story. The distortion was unfitting of his talents and his respect for the game and this city. Somehow, Ichiro Suzuki, still beloved internationally, in the twilight of a legendary career, became a scapegoat in his own town. Lost in the shadows of over-analysis, cold numbers, and hollow media sound bites, was Ichiro, the baseball wizard.

In truth, Ichiro got old. Like every other great athlete before him. It’s sad, but it’s part of the poignant life-cycle of the professional athlete.

And so we must say goodbye to Ichiro.

A generation of Seattle boys and girls must say goodbye to the only baseball hero they’ve known, like I did to my heroes years ago.

My wife must say goodbye to Ichiro. Her wizard, her beloved baseball man, is gone.

As for me? I will look back on his career with astonishment, wonder, and regret. The Mariners failed Ichiro. They should have been better.

Thanks, Ichiro. For being exactly who you were.

And for stuff like this.

You can follow Pete on Twitter, @MarinerMagic.

8 thoughts on “Ichiro: An Ode and a Goodbye”

  1. Ichiro was truly an amazing player and he deserves recognition for it. You can’t diminish his shortcomings though. He was somehow incapable of fulfilling his role as the team leader. Great team leaders do know how to bring out the best in a ball club both on and off the field. His focus was elsewhere, so in a way you can see him as hindering the team’s success, especially in the second half of his career here. Also – and I know this point has been made a ton already – I don’t respect any of his excuses for never speaking English to his Seattle fans. I get that he wanted to express himself clearly in his own language, but using an interpreter just showed that he didn’t really care if people in Seattle got to know him all that well. He was more concerned with being scrutinized by his Japanese fan base. Amazing ball player, but the fan and team reaction over the past 2 days just shows that most Seattleites weren’t as attached to Ichiro as we should have been considering his tremendous talent. The fans are more shell shocked than sad (barring some who haven’t recognized how smart this trade actually was), and the team’s attitude is one of relief and excitement to move on. Remember when players like Griffey, Edgar, and Jay left? There was a much more genuine and emotional response to those departures. It’s hard to talk about Ichiro like this, but the truth hurts sometimes. We can’t put all the blame on him of course, because it was really in combination with the Mariner’s horrible ownership that Ichiro’s own deficiencies were magnified. I know i sound bitter though, but it’s been a painful few years for Mariner fans.

  2. Jimmy- Thanks for checking in. I agree with a couple of your thoughts, but those were addressed in the commentary. I’ll respond to the last part…

    Team success breeds fan attachment and adulation. The individual careers of Griffey, Edgar, and Jay would have passed with little, or much less, fanfare and emotion without the greatness or near-greatness of those teams. That all three (and other Mariner greats) played on one team made the Mariners successful, built the fan base, and amplified each of their individual narratives.

    Imagine if the 90’s Mariners team had only Edgar. Think about that for a moment. He still would have been a great player. But ’95 never happens. Frankly, nothing happens. The narrative, the legend, of “Edgar”, locally and nationally, is built on the backs of Griffey and Jay and Randy. And vice versa. Would any one of those players have played as long in Seattle without the others, and the team success? Unlikely.

    There is little emotional response to Ichiro’s exit because there is a near-zero fan response to anything involving the Mariners, aside from disgust. The fan base barely exists. Imagine if Ichiro had played on the 90’s team. Imagine if the 2001 team’s winning had continued for the past decade. Imagine if the Mariners were good now. Imagine his greatness in those contexts, and I think you’ll see my point. Team success would have created a gigantic fan base and amplified the emotional attachment to Ichiro, exponentially.

    For weeks, there would be outrage that our precious Ichiro, now a playoff hero for years, was traded to the damn Yankees. The Yankees, our mortal enemies from five or six (fictitious) ALCS appearances.

    Instead, there is nothing. Context, dude. Team legacy informs player legacy, and vice versa.

  3. One last thought, Jimmy, before I let you off the hook. Take my late 90’s Ichiro hypothetical. The fact Ichiro spoke only Japanese wouldn’t have even been a story. It would have been a charming curiosity. Ichiro would have been one of five Hall of Fame talents, part of one of the greatest stockpiles of elite players baseball history, and no one would have given it a second thought.

  4. I’ m sorry but we are talking about a team sport! Half of the sport’s fans don’t understand the article’s vocabulary. The fans and the atmosphere at a baseball game is what the game is all about. It’ s a family affair and good entertainment that spurs a life time addiction. Jimmy, you are right on about Itchiro. It’s the Mariner’s not Japanese romantic tradegy.

  5. Amazingly well written piece. It gives this long-distance Mariners fan the oft-longed-for feeling of being back home with a couple of my best friends, sitting in the Safe, Edgar dogs in hand, watching Ichiro be Ichiro. I know the story of Ichiro’s trade is old news now, but the tribute to the player contained here will be worthy for years to come. Thanks Pete!

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