I imagine that the experience I had today was the same as a lot of people, Mariners fans and non-Mariners fans alike. Every now and then across sports there are players who are just impossible to imagine in another uniform.
John Stockton will forever be the guard of the Utah Jazz. Mario Lemieux is bronzed outside of the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburg. Ichiro Suzuki, up until today, was always and would always be a Mariner. And when those players suddenly aren't members of the Jazz, or the Penguins, or the Mariners, confusion sets in. Perhaps sadness and a bit of anger. Whatever it is, it is an emotion of sorts, and it is what drives us as sports fans.
When Ichiro came to the Mariners in 2001, there was an immense amount of hype circling the zenmaster from Japan. And somehow, Ichiro shattered that hype. He won the AL MVP and the Rookie of the Year awards, becoming only the second player in history to do so.
He hit .350, stole 56 bases, and showcased his laser like arm that prompted Dave Niehaus to announce on a play where someone tried to go from first to third rather unsuccessfully that, Ichiro looked like he just threw something straight out of Star Wars.
In 2004, Ichiro broke George Sisler's record for most hits in a season. Ichiro hit .372 over the course of the year. He had over 50 hits in four months that season, becoming the first player ever to accomplish that feat. His speed was down a bit but his defense was still beyond dazzling.
Really, I could go on and on about Ichiro's offensive and defensive contributions. But what truly made him such a great player was how fun he made the game, and the time he entered the game. The late 90s and early 2000s were marred by roided up meathead after roided up meathead stepping up to the plate and mashing the stitches off the ball. Ichiro took that approach, said one of his little zen comments, and shattered the belief in baseball that the only way to have fun is to watch a ball go sailing over the fences.
He would dazzle with those absurd infield singles he got with ease. The ones where he would be slapping the ball and already be halfway down the first base line before contact seemed to even be made. He would do his little plate warm-up routine, and effortlessly slap the ball into every conceivable gap that existed in the outfield.
Ichiro owned a contact rate of close to 90%. If he swung, he was going to be hitting that ball - that was borderline inevitable. Only 5% of his swings were pure air. For comparison, Josh Hamilton swings and misses on 14% of his pitches. Miguel Cabrera on 10%. Carlos Peguero on 20% of his pitches.
And yet, through all of this, despite being the face of the franchise, Ichiro found himself with the Mariners for the wrong period of times. For the Mariners, the wrong period of time is almost the entire period of time. But Ichiro would be criticized for not taking a more leadership role in the clubhouse. Ichiro would be criticized for playing the same way even as the Mariners were consistently losing. Ichiro would be criticized for chasing after hits rather than chasing after wins.
The thing is, Ichiro was never these things we always wanted him to be. He was never a vocal leader. He was the zenmaster saying his funny quotes like, "I hope he arouses the fire that's dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul. I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger," and, "To tell the truth, I'm not excited to go to Cleveland, but we have to. If I ever saw myself saying I'm excited going to Cleveland, I'd punch myself in the face, because I'm lying." Ichiro was Ichiro, day in and day out. And day in and day out, for 12 years, he went out and did his business like the consummate professional that he is, with very little complaining.
We'd all be lying to ourselves if we didn't say there wasn't a lot to complain about. Excluding the 2001 campaign, Ichiro has spent his MLB career watching the post-season from the television. So as much as it may be terrible that he got traded to the New York Yankees, at least when he dons the pinstripes Ichiro has a very good shot of getting a taste of October again, a taste he very well might have forgotten since being in Seattle.
The Mariners are an organization that has appeared to make misstep after misstep for the past decade or so. This might be the one thing they have done most right in a long time. They tried with Ken Griffey Jr. when they brought him back, and everyone at Safeco Field cheered for a little bit. Then they started to groan, then wince, then just flat out cover their eyes whenever the Kid who could do no wrong in Seattle was suddenly doing wrong. Ichiro was approaching that mindset. A fantastic player who started to decline, and to a certain degree exemplified the Mariners ills - a hitter who can't hit and costs a lot of money.
It is no lie, the past many years as a Seattle Mariner fan have been rough, and just downright brutal at times. But for the most part, as bad as it got, we had one of the more electrifying and exciting players in baseball heading to the plate for four to five times a night. Other teams can only be so lucky, and in Seattle we were for the past decade.
Congratulations Ichiro Suzuki on your move to a better team, even if it is the Yankees. I would never in a million years root for the Yankees to win a World Series, but I would also never in a million years expect to see you in any thing other than a Mariner's uniform.