My thoughts on Ichiro’s trade and a crazy day
I was flying back to Seattle from Tampa when the trade of Ichiro to the Yankees went down. First I heard of it was when I turned on my cell phone after touching down at Sea-Tac. So instead of a travel day and night off, I had my wife drive me straight to the ballpark so I could help with our MLB.com and Mariners.com coverage package and to witness one of the stranger nights in team history.
Hectic as my day turned out, it paled in comparison to what many of my friends in the Japanese media face. The group of Japanese journalists who’ve been following Ichiro in Seattle for years — men and women who have made their homes in Seattle for a decade — suddenly are looking at picking up and moving to New York to continue the pursuit.
This is the magnitude of Ichiro in Japan, which I saw even more so in our week-long visit to Tokyo at the start of this season. Think about it. For a dozen years now, there have been as many or more Japanese journalists covering Ichiro in Seattle and on road trips than American journalists covering the entire Mariners team.
And now that he has been traded, they have essentially been traded as well. Crazy.
As for the deal itself? I’ve had lots of people ask why the Mariners would trade their iconic player and Future Hall of Famer for a pair of Minor League pitchers. And the answer is simple. Probably not as simple as the one the Mariners are giving, which is that Ichiro asked to be traded, so they accomodated.
That is part of the answer, but not all of it. Because the move helps the Mariners as well. They didn’t just do Ichiro a favor. They helped themselves by removing the overhanging issue of what to do with a declining star whose ties to Japanese ownership created an awkward situation for manager Eric Wedge and GM Jack Zduriencik.
If the club had felt compelled to re-sign Ichiro to a large contract and continue playing him in right field every day, they would have been continuing down the same path of making decisions that are based on things besides baseball.
The Yankees don’t have that issue. Manager Joe Girardi doesn’t have to worry what anyone thinks if he bats Ichiro lower in the lineup, as he already did last night by putting him eighth in the order. GM Brian Cashman doesn’t have to worry about being forced to re-sign Ichiro at the end of this year. He just got him as a rental player to see if there is any spark left.
My assumption is this two-month trial window will determine if Ichiro returns to the Majors next year. He’s opened himself up to other markets now, no longer tied to a young Mariners franchise where he didn’t fit with the rebuilding process or a lineup that desperately needs more power production from the right field spot, more oomph from its highest-paid player and more leadership from its most-tenured veteran.
And for the Mariners, they now have the freedom to rebuild their roster and set their lineup without the Ichiro factor forcing their hand.
Wedge hinted at that “Ichiro factor” the other day when asked if he considered using Ichiro as a relief pitcher in the 14-inning game when Miguel Olivo was warming up in the bullpen after the Mariners were down to their last available pitcher.
“Yeah, that would go over real good if I did that,” he said with a chuckle. “Just put my neck in the guillotine right now. I can’t fix it if I’m not here, you know what I mean?”
Wedge faced the same issue in making out the daily lineup, where penciling Ichiro in every game was expected. And as this season played out and it made more sense to give younger players time in the final months, that was going to be an increasing problem.
Many Mariners managers have dealt with the Ichiro conundrum, but Wedge is the first who has had to deal with it during Ichiro’s declining production. That wasn’t going to get easier in the coming months — or years if Ichiro had signed an extension.
So that’s why this move makes sense for the Mariners. And it makes sense for Ichiro, who I thought had grown stale in his Seattle situation and didn’t seem very happy the past two years. Every player gets old. No athlete yet has beaten Father Time. And few handle it perfectly.
I’ve been told by Japanese writers that even talking about age as an issue with Ichiro was taboo. But there is reality here and he’s not the same player he once was. Maybe there’ll be a spark in New York. He does seem able to rise to the occasion at times, but those times have been fewer recently.
In his last game with the Mariners on Sunday in Tampa, he dropped down a horrible bunt — right back to the pitcher — that got Casper Wells easily thrown out at third after Wells had led off with a double. On the heels of two bad throws the previous two games — one when he missed the cutoff man on the game-winning run in the 14th inning for the Rays on Friday and another when he received his first error of the season after forcing a throw that went wide of third and let Tampa score its lone run in Saturday’s 2-1 win — it was another bad moment for Ichiro.
But then we saw something different. Clearly irked at himself for blowing the bunt, Ichiro stole second. Then he stole third. In essence, he put himself on third after wiping Wells out of that spot … and then he scored the initial run on a double by Jesus Montero.
It was the impactful Ichiro we haven’t seen much of for awhile, the guy who could change a game with his speed and smarts. That’s the guy the Yankees hope they landed for the next two months.
And it’s the guy Mariners fans should remember when they look back at Ichiro’s career in Seattle.