By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Somewhere in Bremerton, a subdued retirement ceremony was tentatively scheduled for late Monday night.
Jeff Corona, a soon-to-be-married Seattle Mariners fan and season-ticket holder since 2010, walked into Safeco Field earlier that evening while wearing his No. 51 Ichiro Suzuki jersey — just like always. And he didn’t plan on ever wearing it again.
“I’ll go home and frame it after the game,” the longtime Bremerton resident said while walking alongside his fiancee toward Safeco Field two hours before Monday’s game against the New York Yankees and their new outfielder, Ichiro Suzuki. “After (hearing the news Monday afternoon that Suzuki had been traded), I will never have an Ichiro jersey on again.”
It was a surprisingly common reaction among Mariners fans Monday night, when the aging superstar who had become a target of criticism finally found a new home. If there was any fan bitterness after the 38-year-old icon was traded to the Yankees, it appeared to be directed more at the Mariners than at Suzuki himself.
“I was sad,” Corona said before Monday’s game. “Very sad. Ichiro should have stayed here. Why give up on the (season)? He’s given us 11 good years. Now they’re getting rid of another star, just like Randy Johnson and (Ken Griffey) Junior and all the others.
“You look at the front office, and you’re like: ‘What’s going on?’ I think they need some help with their upper management.”
Lorin Sandretzky, a 46-year-old, lifelong Seattle sports fan who is known in the local sports community as “Big Lo,” had a similar reaction.
“You’re looking at taking away the Japanese fans, and that’s, like, 20 percent of the fan base,” Sandretzky said while moping through the Safeco Field concourse 90 minutes before Monday’s game. “In my opinion, that’s a huge marketing mistake. Instead of getting 16,000 a game, they’re looking at getting 12,000 or 10,000 now.”
The news was generally met with disappointment and surprise, even though Suzuki’s tenure in Seattle was undeniably driving down a one-way street that had no outlet. The speedy outfielder had fallen out of favor with some fans because of his .261 batting average and his ever-dwindling speed, yet many people attending Monday’s game were heartbroken to see him wearing the visiting Yankee grey.
“I’m thinking of switching to the Yankees as my favorite team,” said Matt Hagkull, a 12-year-old fan from British Columbia who wore his No. 51 jersey while waiting behind the visiting dugout 90 minutes before Monday’s game for the ex-Mariner to emerge. “… It’s going to be kind of weird.”
When Suzuki did finally come running out of the third-base dugout at 5:28 p.m., a good 15 minutes after all his new teammates had taken the field, about 300 fans of both teams united in applause.
As Suzuki took his place behind second base and warmed up with a teammate, fan Phil Williams said he was honored to be a part of the moment.
“It was awesome,” said Williams, who came down from Victoria, B.C., for Monday’s game. “I got goose bumps. I just thought it was really cool.”
Williams, a Yankees and Mariners fan who was wearing a Derek Jeter jersey when he heard about the trade late Monday afternoon, made a quick wardrobe change before heading to Safeco Field.
“I immediately took off the Jeter jersey as a sign of respect for Ichiro,” he said while wearing a brand-new No. 51 Mariners jersey with the name ICHIRO across the back.
Shortly thereafter, Suzuki ventured into his old stomping grounds in right field to shag fly balls at batting practice. The fans there gave him an ovation, then he tossed a few balls to them before heading back toward the batters box for his own BP session.
Suzuki then rewarded his longtime backers with no fewer than six batting-practice home runs — all of them to right field.
Afterward, 28-year-old Mariners fan Chris Tarabochia of Napavine was still trying to come to terms with the transaction.
“I’m happy for him,” Tarabochia said while standing three rows up in right field and wearing a No. 51 Mariners jersey. “He has a chance to play in the World Series now. He went from last place to first place. I think he deserves that chance. As painful as it was to see him go, I think it’s good for both parties. We need to get younger, and he has a chance to go out as a winner.”
A few minutes before the start of Monday’s game, when lineups were announced over the public-address system, Suzuki got a modest-but-spirited cheer from a divided crowd of 29,911. He ran out into right field in the bottom of the first inning, wearing No. 31, and received a standing ovation from the fans in the lower deck behind him.
Two innings later, Suzuki stepped into the batters box as New York’s No. 8 hitter and got a one-minute, park-wide standing ovation that brought a smile to his face. Suzuki tipped his helmet, removed it and took two ceremonial bows, then stepped back in the batters box and drilled the second pitch up the middle for an all-too-familiar single. He followed that with a stolen base and eventually got stranded at third base.
In the bottom of that third inning, Suzuki had a chance to gun down Mariners baserunner Dustin Ackley at home plate but came up short and wide on his throw from right. Further proof of Suzuki’s age came in the seventh, when he hit a sharp grounder to the right of first baseman Justin Smoak but couldn’t beat Kevin Millwood, the M’s 240-pound, 37-year-old starter, to the bag.
By the time the 4-1 Mariners loss was complete, Suzuki had gone 1-for-4 in the park where he’s made so many memories over the years.
And on this night, the hometown fans found a Yankee they couldn’t bear to hate.
“I normally hate the Yankees,” said Tarabochia, “but when the playoffs come around, if he’s healthy and playing, I’ll be cheering for them — just for that reason.”
Sandretzky, the lifelong fan of all Seattle sports teams, said it take some time to get over a trade that left him “devastated” as he walked into Safeco Field.
“These guys become out friends as well as our favorite players,” he said before Monday’s game. “It’s like your sister moving to California, or your sister moving to New York. It’s going to be hard.”