From superstar to obstacle to curiosity to irrelevance, the arc of Ichiro Suzuki’s Seattle story is done.
The curiosity part ended on a perfect Seattle afternoon, when his abrupt, weird three-game stint as a Yankee in Safeco Field concluded in triumph, but was not triumphal. He batted leadoff, hit a fifth-inning single, did his right field duty and watched as the Yankees won, 5-2.
Much as it was in the last couple of seasons as a Mariner, he was part of it, yet apart from it.
Popular as he was, prodigious as were his feats, Ichiro barely connected with whatever sporting passions run through Seattle. Far as any of us with clubhouse access could tell, Ichiro’s best times were at All-Star Game workouts, where he could be the class clown, profane in three languages among peers. He often held Seattle at bay through the wall of a translator he didn’t need, and personal connections he didn’t seem to truly want.
Still, as a man of the world, he will fit well in a world city, for as long as his baseball time in New York lasts. He should have departed before now, but it was never as plain to him as it was to many baseball people, because his priorities have always been about individual consistency and honoring of commitments, not necessarily of being part of team deeds over which he had little influence.
“I was here 11 and a half years,” he said in the visiting clubhouse Wednesday. ” I didn’t show it, but I was really going through some emotions. These last few days were special.”
But those unidentified emotions may have been more about regret than joy. For every year after his spectacular debut in 2001, the Mariners have been on a downward cycle. He was circling the same drain as Ken Griffey Jr., unable to be with at least some teammates nearly as good as him.
Now he’s joining players more like him, mature veterans who embrace stature and who understand their roles as as outside contractors invited to be part of industry history, as opposed to the often false camaraderie of team ideology.
The eighth inning Wednesday was a small slice of the Yankee action: Thwarted for awhile, trailing 2-1, until ignition: A hit batter, two singles, then a three-run double by an obscure pinch-hitter, Jayson Nix. How many times has a similar script played out?
“I’ve been the opposite side (of the Yankees) late in the game many times,” he said. “I’ve seen the pressure they put on. I was able to see it this time (from New York’s side).”
Whether at 38 he can contribute to it remains to be seen. He had three hits and a stolen base as a Yankee, but as it happened so often in Seattle, the contributions didn’t connect.
As for the Mariners, none of them will say it, because there’s no need for them to say it, but they’re mostly glad he’s moved on. Simply put, he was in their way. Manager Eric Wedge even hinted at it post-game.
“They’re gone,” he said, referring to the Yankees, Ichiro and the tumult of the trade that consumed the last three days of watching the icon in new duds. “Our focus is on the young guys getting better to win games like this. You can’t expect to hold down a team like this. It’s tough to keep a game like this to 2-1. You have to separate.”
Apart from the game outcome, separation is what the Yankees have always done. A look at Sunday’s lineups tells the tale in one stark way: the Yankees had only two starters under 30, catcher Russell Martin and second basemen Robinson Cano. Both are 29. The Mariners had one starter over 30, Munenori Kawasaki, who is 31 going on 18.
Here’s the lineup, in order: Derek Jeter, 38, Ichiro, 38, Robinson Cano, 29, Mark Teixeira, 32, Curtis Granderson, 31, Raul Ibanez, 40, Eric Chavez, 34, Andruw Jones, 35 Russell Martin 29. All players in their prime, or close enough to it that they can also win on experience and cool.
The Mariners are the polar opposite, youngsters groping for a way to stay in the show. One year ago Thursday, many of them were part of genuine sports anguish: A 4-1 loss to the Yankees that was the club’s 17th defeat in a row, a franchise club record that transcended even the expansion years in sustained pathos. That left them 15.5 games back of the Rangers at 43-60.
By record, they are about the same place, 43-58, and two touchdowns behind the Rangers. But this team has won six of 10 and has the pitching (presuming it is retained) to preclude a similar swoon. And they are better off without Ichiro taking up space as well as resources if the club followed through on its addled notion that he was worthy of a contract extension.
He was part of the club’s history, not its future. He no longer matters.
The Mariners’ future is hardly wrapped in rainbows, but the awkwardness of Ichiro’s continued presence is gone. They lost a series to the Yanks, but the Yanks gave the Mariners more than they got.