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July 16, 2012 at 9:23 AM

Worth remembering for Mariners fans: these could be final months of Ichiro’s career

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Plenty of angst for Mariners fans yesterday when GM Jack Zduriencik was quoted by Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports saying that he expects Ichiro to be back next year. Zduriencik later backed down from those comments, telling our Larry Stone that no decision about Ichiro has been made and that the organization won’t comment on his future here until after the season.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the Ichiro situation the past several weeks, largely because I feel uncomfortable with some of the negative fan sentiment I see brewing towards him as well as the tone of some of the on-air interviews I’ve conducted in regards to the leadoff hitter question this season.
When people ask me about the team’s leadoff situation, it’s tough not to get fired up and note that almost no baseball team will ever instill a guy hitting just about .300 or lower in terms of on-base-percentage into the leadoff position in June at the expense of a better hitter. That’s what the Mariners did back on June 1 when .305 OBP Ichiro replaced Dustin Ackley, who was posting a .358 OBP clip as a fulltime leadoff guy to that point.
The Mariners later admitted their plan had failed and moved Ichiro out of the leadoff spot again. Plenty of fiery words were said about it both by me and other analysts and commentators at the time because, frankly, any professional analyst worth giving a paycheck to will point out when a losing team is doing something that flies in the face of all logic. You can’t ignore it just because it involves a future Hall of Fame player. Can’t hide from it just because the player is still popular. Fans can, but the pros can’t.
Still, when I look at how this season is unfolding, it bothers me that the mere mention of Ichiro these days is greeted by negativity all around. Yesterday’s mention that he could possibly return to the Mariners in 2013 set off a Twitter firestorm within minutes. And it got me thinking that there is one more thing I’d like to write about Ichiro before giving the topic a rest for the remainder of the season.
And that is, to remind everyone: we are very likely witnessing the final months of Ichiro’s storied career.
Sure, it’s possible we aren’t. It’s possible that the Mariners might once again do something that flies in the face of all logic and further alienate the fanbase. But do you know what? They haven’t yet. And it’s possible they never will. It’s possible they are allowing the final months in the career of one of their best players to ever put on the Mariners uniform to wind down without daring to suggest they’d ever push him out the door. Without forgetting to show him the respect you’d hope most organizations would show their legends when it’s time for them to go.
Not by putting him in the leadoff spot everyday with an OBP south of .290. But also not by humiliating Ichiro before he has the chance to exit with some dignity. Not by having a repeat of the Ken Griffey Jr. scenario.
And until proven otherwise, perhaps it’s best for all of us to proceeed with that thought process. To avoid being angry or worried about something that might never happen. Think about it. There will always be time to excorciate the Mariners next year if they do something that flies in the face of their stated rebuilding goals and youth movement.
But as this season moves along, I’ve gotten the nagging sense that Ichiro will in all likelihood walk away and retire this winter when all is said and done. And if that happens, what a shame it will be if his final weeks and months with the only organization he’s ever played for in MLB were filled with boos, animosity and frustration.
So, why not change all that as of today?
Photo Credit: AP


Instead of sitting there every time Ichiro gets a single and viewing it cynically as one more hit on the long march to 3,000, why not look at it for what it is? One more hit by a future Hall of Famer who could very well choose to hang it up in a few months?
Why not use the moment to stand and cheer Ichiro for all he’s done for the franchise in terms of helping to put it on the map for many of the current generation of fans. I realize many of you feel that honor belongs more to Edgar Martinez and Griffey and others, but such things can be shared.
And even if only thanking Ichiro for his contributions during a record-setting 116-win season 11 years ago, that can work, too.
Understanding the feelings many in this country have towards Ichiro is a complex thing. There will always be a bit of a love-hate thing going on with him and perhaps it’s because of the things that truly do make him great on a global scale.
When I vote Ichiro into Cooperstown, it won’t be because of his multiple 200-hit seasons, or breaking George Sisler’s hits record or even his MVP season in 2001. All of those things matter, sure, since you need a body of work to make the Hall of Fame argument. But for me, the best thing about Ichiro was the trail he blazed in helping to incorporate a significant part of the world into the realm of MLB.
We rightfully celebrate Jackie Robinson for breaking baseball’s color barrier. Ichiro broke a barrier as well for Asian baseball players of all types. He showed that a Japanese position player could not only play in the major leagues full-time, but also do so at a record-shattering clip.
And Ichiro broke his records by implementing a style of play that flew in the face of the established norms at the time. He did it during the Steroids Era, when the walk, walk, three-run homer style ruled the day. Where the Moneyball book and its theories about walk-generated OBP and defense being overvalued were the accepted way to think back then.
Now, not so much. Nowadays, teams are moving away from trying to deliberately work walks as opposed to swinging at hittable pitches — which had always been the norm prior to the Steroids Era and Moneyball. Nowadays, teams are back to appreciating the beauty and value of defense while attempting to bolster it through computer-aided positioning as never before. Now, with home run totals back to more Earthly norms, teams are looking at “power” hitters as those who find the gaps for doubles and triples and use their speed to take extra bases.
In other words, the style of play Ichiro always brought to the table is now back in vogue. Unfortunately, his offensive skills have diminished and he’s no longer the threat he once was. The defense remains solid, but the overall package is still a shadow of the multi-faceted Ichiro we saw even five years ago.
Back then, he was a terror on the basepaths, capable of turning a two-hopper to shortstop into the equivalent of a triple with the infield hit and two stolen bases sure to follow. Back then, he could still drive the ball to the gaps with authority as well. Nobody wanted to challenge his cannon arm from right field.
In short, he was a throwback. A guy who stayed in shape the old-fashioned way through stretching and fitness rather than chemical-aided weightlifting. The guy who could terrorize opposing pitchers by means contrary to the popular walk, walk, three-run homer mantra of the day.
Not every player can be a pioneer and a throwback at the same time. In fact, most can’t. Most pioneers spend their careers trying to go along to get along, hoping to gain permanent acceptance in a place where others before them had never gone. Not Ichiro. His was more a take-it-or leave-it, this-is-who-I-am style. For me, that’s always been the best thing about him as a player.
And that approach is not without hardships, either. That differing style and approach to baseball has always put Ichiro at odds with some of his teammates, as has been well-documented already. Some of the criticisms had merit. Others were just silly. We can debate forever which fall into which category.
Did Ichiro being Japanese have something to do with it? It would be almost naive to think otherwise. Being Canadian, I never really understood the depth of the lingering resentment some Americans have towards Japanese people until a couple of winters ago when I read Laura Hillenbrand’s outstanding Unbroken book about World War II air force bombadier Louis Zamperini’s experiences in a Japanese POW camp.
After reading the book, it all became clear to me. It doesn’t in any way justify treating new Japanese generations in a hateful manner because of the sins of their elders but it gave me a new perspective on anti-Japanese sentiment in this country.
And yeah, I do believe that some people carry that sentiment over — even subconsciously — when looking at Ichiro.
But I also believe that, in the opposite direction, we have seen a bit more political correctness at-play when it comes to discussing Ichiro than we would have with other players. I have seen some fans equate legitimate baseball criticism of Ichiro to being anti-Japanese. It’s almost as if, in an effort to pre-empt any of the racism, xenephobia or tribalism they sense is out there, these practicioners of political correctness are out to “protect” Ichiro from any wrongdoing.
Who knows? Maybe it’s just because he’s smaller than most other players and doesn’t speak their first language as his Mother tongue. Maybe its the protective instinct some of us have to protect the vulnerable.
Whatever the reasons, there has never been anything simple about Ichiro, the discussions surrounding his merits or the legacy he will leave.
And it’s a legacy that might be thrust upon us sooner than we think.
Ichiro up to this point has not done anything contract-wise to warrant criticism. As much as some of us have thought that his ultimate goal is to reach 3,000 hits come hell or high water, all he has done to this point is fulfill the five-year contract extension the Mariners gave him in 2007. He was under no obligation to “walk away” from his deal last winter and I doubt that any of us would leave $18 million on the table after one bad season.
That is unlike the Griffey scenario, where he chose to come back in 2010 — and the Mariners allowed him to — by signing a new contract after a .214-hitting season in 2009. The Ichiro situation is not like that, as he still had one more contract year to fulfill.
The difference is what happens next. Because if the Mariners and Ichiro agree to a new deal for next season, it will come after not just one bad year like Griffey had, but two bad ones in a row at a time a losing team claims to be going younger. It will block a younger player from getting a regular look in right field.
But again, that’s all hypothetical. None of it has happened yet. It’s just as likely that it never will happen. Those fans wanting to make sure the team knows loud and clear that you find it unacceptable to bring him back, I wouldn’t worry. The team’s top brass would have had to have been buried in an undersea vault these past few months to have missed any of the negative opinions out there about a possible Ichiro extension.
But for me, it’s just as likely that Ichiro will see what the rest of us do — that a guy with a sub-.290 OBP is a long way off from collecting the remaining hits needed to reach 3,000. That playing every single day in order to reach that total in another few seasons is no longer likely, given the team’s need to find the next generation’s right fielder. That the record-setting standards with which he blazed his trail to Cooperstown have since been replaced by sub-standard performance that will likely only get worse from here.
It doesn’t matter that Ichiro is still in excellent shape and could play for several more years. It’s what he does when he’s out on that field. I don’t think he wants to be remembered for mediocrity any more than most of you want him to be.
So, it’s highly likely Ichiro does what many of you think he should this winter and exits the game on his own. And if he’s about to do just that, you won’t see any verbal pushing from Zduriencik, manager Eric Wedge or anyone else associated with the team. They will allow him to exit on his own, as it should be. With the respect and grace of letting him be the one to make the announcement.
He doesn’t owe us anything in-season. Not even a chance to say goodbye in the final weeks the way Edgar did. It just could be that Ichiro does not want to become any more of a distraction at this point for a team trying to stave off another season of 95-plus losses. After all, he’s already deflected any questions about his future beyond this year for some time now.
It just could be that your only “goodbye” chance will be these games between now and season’s end and that you won’t know it for certain until some point in November. So, why not make those games count? Why not put aside any negative feelings or animosity about what could happen down the road (you can always revisit them if your fears are realized) and focus on what is happening.
Quite possibly, the final games Ichiro will ever play in MLB.
Viewing it that way, the resentment eases quite quickly. The negativity drifts away. Instead of a reason for cynicism, every additional hit becomes one more celebratory moment tacked on to a Hall of Fame ledger, another reason to offer up a mini-ovation every time it occurs. A reason to thank Ichiro for years of elite-level baseball in Seattle for a team that wasn’t always up to that same task.
I think it’s the best approach. It will certainly help make the rest of this season easier, since, Lord knows, there are enough reasons to be negative about the team right now. And in the end, taking this new outlook on Ichiro — with 2 1/2 months left to erase some of the negativity out there — will protect those of you who, deep down, are still his fans, who remember cheering him with each at-bat for the things he did unlike any other player. It will protect you from being left stunned by a surprise retirement announcement at season’s end. And it will protect you from any future regrets you might feel from having failed to give a Hall of Famer his due the final few times he puts on a uniform.

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