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The Sadness of Ichiro

Legends never die easy. They hardly ever die well. Ichiro Suzuki is a legend in the game of baseball. Even more so in the city of Seattle, where he captured the imagination of a generation of fans with his hitting, incredible defense, and blinding speed on the base-paths. But  now, the Mariners find themselves at a crossroads.

Ichiro Suzuki should not be on the Mariners roster right now. Not with better, younger players waiting for their opportunity to make a mark in the major leagues. Guillermo Heredia is a good player. It remains to be seen how good he can be, but with a slash line of .310/.417/.552, and a WRC+ of 169, he is deserving of at least a spot on the 25-man roster. Sending Heredia to Tacoma, in order to keep Ichiro on the roster, is indefensible. The explanation that the Mariners will be facing mostly right handed pitchers in the immediate future doesn’t explain it either. In 2017, Ichiro hit .340 vs. lefties, and .228 vs. righties, and he has hit better against left handers each of the past eight seasons.

Great players don’t last forever, and even the best of them have had to face the end. Babe Ruth, perhaps the greatest baseball player of all-time, wanted to manage the New York Yankees toward the end of his career. But the Yankees cut Ruth at the end of the 1934 season, and the Babe ended his career in 1935, playing 28 games for the second-rate Boston Braves, though he did hit 3 home runs in his final game. Willie Mays was traded away from the San Francisco Giants in 1972, ending his career as a New York Met, a shell of his former self. And if you are reading this, you probably saw first-hand the swan song of The Kid. Ken Griffey Jr. hit 19 home runs and provided a summer of memories, and fun in 2009. He was carried off the field at the end of the season, but unfortunately decided to return in 2010, and retired in June, hitting .184/.250/.204, with zero home runs.

In a poem called “The Hollow Men”, T.S. Eliot wrote, “This is how the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.” And so end the careers of our heroes of summer. Griffey got old, and faded away. Edgar Martinez got to go out on his own terms, but he even he faded as Mother Nature collected her due. Not every player gets to end their career triumphantly like Ted Williams, hitting a homerun in their final at-bat. More often, players see their skills decline, slowly, and then suddenly. Ichiro is 44 years old. It is incredible that he has played baseball for this long. At his peak, he was one of the greatest players in the world. He holds the record for hits in a single season, with 262. He has the most hits in professional baseball history, between Japan and the United States, with 4,367. But that is not the same Ichiro that is now a Mariner.

 

The Ichiro the Mariners have now is old, he is slowed, and most likely will never play in Major League Baseball again, after he leaves the Mariners. He will one day be enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and probably have a statue outside of Safeco Field. But he does not deserve a spot on this roster, based only on performance. His OPS is lower than Heredia’s slugging percentage. Heredia has an OPS+ of 172 in 2018, while Ichiro stands at 55. It is simply time.

Much of the furor over this move in the past couple of days has been directed at Ichiro, and this is misplaced. What player wouldn’t take the opportunity that the Mariners offered Ichiro? And as for Jerry Dipoto, I’m not convinced that this was entirely his call. Owner John Stanton has been an owner in the Mariners organization since 2000, partners with Hiroshi Yamauchi, and part of the group that originally brought Ichiro over from Japan. It is possible that ownership has set the mandate that a franchise icon will not be cut in such ignominious fashion. If that is so, it is a damn shame.

Ichiro deserves better than this. He deserves better than to have fans see him play at such a low level, and deserves better than to have vitriol directed at him and his employment status. It was a fun idea to bring him back for awhile, until Ben Gamel returned. We all gave him a standing ovation on Opening Day, and got to wipe a tear away when he stepped to the plate. He robbed a home run, and it was a blast to see that happen. But Ichiro is simply not a viable option anymore. Nobody who actually loves the Mariners is coming to a game simply to see Ichiro. They are coming in order to see the good, young players that the Mariners are putting out there, in order to  try to make the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. A seldom used, backup outfielder with a -0.2 WAR is not driving ticket sales, no matter who he is. Ichiro is doing nothing to further the interests of this team. Heredia provides solid defense at multiple outfield spots, and an explosive bat. He deserves a opportunity for semi-regular playing time. And Ichiro deserves better than this. It has become apparent that the Ichiro situation is not going to end in movie script fashion. But it still could end well. Jerry could inform Ichiro that the franchise doesn’t have a spot for him anymore. That they want to go younger. And then put him in the starting lineup for one final game, before Heredia is called up for good. Let him tip his cap to the crowd, and let the fans tears flow as Ichiro walks off the field one final time.

Ichiro is a legend. It’s time to do the right thing, and let him go with his dignity intact. In six years, when he is on the stage at Cooperstown, Mariners fans and Ichiro can soak up the love. To quote Terence Mann in Field of Dreams,  “The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.” It’s time to let the past be the past, and embrace the future. It is time to let Ichiro go.

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