SEATTLE — Ichiro Suzuki went through his usual pre-at-bat routine Monday night. He stretched, squatted, then twirled his bat, just as he had done thousands of times before at Safeco Field.
Only he did it wearing a No. 31 New York Yankees uniform.
It was, well, weird.
Stars change teams all the time in sports, even icons who define a franchise for a decade. Rarely, however, do they move from the home clubhouse to the visitor’s and put on a different uniform only hours after the trade is announced.
But because the Mariners happened to trade Suzuki to the Yankees, who were in town for a three-games series, he was able to face his former team and receive a heartfelt ovation from the Mariners fans who fondly remember those long ago days when Suzuki wore a Mariners uniform. Days like two days ago.
Did I mention this was weird?
But as odd as the circumstances were surrounding this trade, the timing was right. It was time, both for the Mariners and their superstar turned aging veteran, to move on. In a city that has seen way too many ugly breakups between star athletes and local teams, this was a seemingly amicable move, one that is a win-win for team and player. (Whether it becomes a winning situation for New York depends on how Suzuki performs, but really, who around these parts cares if the deal was good for the Yankees?)
For Suzuki, who is 38 and surrounded by youth as the Mariners take their lumps in a rebuilding year, this trade provides a good chance to return to the postseason for the first time since his MVP season in 2001 when, as a rookie, he helped lead the Mariners to 116 wins. Suzuki recognized that he and the Mariners would be better off with him in a new city, so two weeks ago he asked for a trade, and the Mariners obliged.
And for the Mariners, the trade saves them from a very messy situation at the end of the year. Had the Mariners not made this surprising trade now, they would have gone into the offseason facing a dilemma. Their options would have been to re-sign Suzuki, likely to a fairly lucrative multi-year deal despite his declining skills — basically a move that would make almost no baseball sense — or to allow a franchise icon to walk away, a move that would have alienated a healthy percentage of the franchise’s fan base.
Had Suzuki remained in a Mariners uniform through the season, and had he expressed a desire to continue his career here, or simply remained quiet on the topic, the Mariners would have been in quite the bind. Keeping Suzuki made little sense, not just because of the money, but because a team rebuilding needs to give opportunities to young players.
“It gives us an opportunity to play another young player on a consistent basis,” said Mariners manager Eric Wedge. “Obviously, we’ve been given a lot of young players a lot of opportunities and consistent exposure at this level, and we want to continue to do that.”
But simply saying, “Thanks for your time, Ichiro” while not offering a contract would have been a harsh sendoff for one of the best players the franchise has ever known. Instead, the Mariners avoid that mess, and in the process got a couple of pitching prospects in 25-year-olds D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar.
Now none of this means the decision came lightly for anyone involved. Suzuki, despite his struggles over the past two seasons, is a beloved player in Seattle after 10 All-Star seasons, 10 Gold Glove awards, an MVP award and 10 straight 200-hit seasons. And despite his usually reserved nature, the love went both ways. That was clear as he fought back tears during a pregame press conference. He is ready to move on and attempt to revive his career in a new setting, but the usually stoic Suzuki showed some rare emotion Monday.
“When I imagined taking off a Mariner uniform, I was overcome with sadness,” he said. “It has made this a very difficult decision to make.”
At that point, an emotional day was just getting started for Suzuki, who went 1-for-4 in the Yankees’ 4-1 victory. Prior to his first at-bat, Suzuki receiving a long and loud standing ovation from the 29,931 in attendance. When it became clear that the ovation wasn’t going to stop, Suzuki stepped out of the batters box, doffed his helmet and bowed in appreciation.
“It became a special day for me because of the fans standing ovation,” he said. “Definitely a special day.”
From the Mariners end, this is a good baseball move, one that hopefully will open the door for a young player to succeed, but it is also a tough goodbye. The team is saying farewell to its longest tenured player, a man who made the Mariners immensely popular on two continents, and a player who helped open doors to other Japanese players by breaking down the stereotype, one hit at a time, that only pitchers from Japan could play at the major league level.
“There are more opportunities for young players, sure, but today I just kind of like to reflect and celebrate all that he’s done for this franchise,” said Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln. “He really has had a tremendous career, and I hope that all of our fans will respect his decision.”
Fans should respect both the Mariners and Suzuki’s decision, and most will. Some are certainly sad and perhaps angry to see Suzuki go, but Monday was a good day for him and for the Mariners. On an odd day at Safeco Field, Mariners fans said goodbye to an icon who had just been traded — to a team down the hall — a player near the end of his career got a fresh start, and the Mariners avoided an offseason headache that would have had no good solution.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.