Number 31, Ichiro Suzuki, Number 31

It’s rare that I really like non-Yankees. I always had a soft spot for some Tampa Bay players (before they became the Rays and actual competition) like Carl Crawford (before he became a Red Sox) and Scott Kazmir (before he became an Angel because the Mets — I found out on Tuesday morning that he is now pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League). For some strange reason I liked Rey Ordonez because of his fielding even if he was a .246 career hitter, and I also liked Carlos Baerga (again I don’t know why). But my favorite non-Yankee of all time is now playing right field for them.

Maybe I never would have liked Ichiro if the Yankees hadn’t steamrolled his 116-win Mariners in the 2001 ALCS, and he had burned them the way that Juan Pierre would two years later in the World Series. But the Yankees did destroy them, and Ichiro and the Mariners haven’t played October baseball since their 12-3 loss to the Yankees in Game 5 of that ALCS on Oct. 22, 2001.

That game, which happened almost 11 years ago, is the reason Ichiro changed clubhouses, numbers, positions (when Nick Swisher gets back) and roles on Monday. That game is why Ichiro went to Mariners ownership and asked to be traded in the final months of his $90-million deal for a chance to play in the postseason for the first time since his rookie season.

I grew to love Ichiro because he was and is cool. Everything about him from putting his first name on the back of his jersey (which I didn’t like at first) to his jersey pull to the way he swings (in the summer of 2002 I mirrored my left-handed Wiffle ball swing after his); the way he leaves the box; the way he fields; the way he throws; the way he runs; the way he talks to the media like this gem with Bob Costas, and even the way he could hit a walk-off home run off of Mariano Rivera.

I was eating dinner on Monday night and trying to make sense of the surreal feeling that Rick Nash is actually a Ranger (after months of campaigning on Twitter with WFAN’s Brian Monzo) when my friend texted me to say that he saw “Ichiro was switching clubhouses.” I had texted him earlier in the day about the Nash trade and then the Tigers-Marlins trade, so I thought he was just mocking my excessive trade texts. I went on Twitter and there was Jack Curry’s tweet followed by dozens of responses to the deal, which took longer to scroll through than the Pearl Jam section of my iTunes.

How awkward must Monday have been for Ichiro? You’re the face of the only franchise you have known in the majors and you’re traded to a team you’re supposed to be playing against in just a few hours. So before you walk to the other clubhouse and put on a new uniform for the first time in your 12 years in the league, you have to sit beside your owner and GM, who you asked for a trade, and watch your owner read a prepared speech about your career straight from paper like a nervous third grader giving a student council election speech. Then you give your own statement in Japanese. Then you have to sit through your translator give the same exact statement in English. Then your new manager comes out to tell the media how you will be used on your new team. Then you take questions from the media about leaving the only team you have ever known only to play against them that night in their stadium. Whether it was when he was getting ready in the Yankees clubhouse or putting on his No. 31 jersey or when he took the field at Safeco in the bottom of the first instead of the top, at some point Ichiro had to have asked himself: Is this real life?

(What happens with Ichiro’s translator? Does he get traded too? Does he join the Yankees’ payroll and uproot his Seattle life, or is he unemployed?)

And talking about awkward, how about the Mariners fans who aren’t Internet savvy or aren’t Twitter users or just weren’t aware of the trade when they showed up to Safeco on Monday night? “Honey, why is Ichiro playing right field with a Yankees uniform on?”

A lot of critics have been quick to joke that this trade is about seven or more years late, but no one is mentioning that Jayson Nix and DeWayne Wise were getting regular playing time with Brett Gardner out, or that Raul Ibanez was playing a little too much left field. Was anyone really going to feel comfortable with Wise facing Justin Verlander or Jered Weaver in October? I know I wasn’t. Did anyone want Andruw Jones going into left field as a “defensive replacement” with a one-run lead in the ninth inning of a playoff game?

Two-plus months and October of Ichiro for D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar? If Glen Sather hadn’t fixed the Rangers’ scoring problem by getting one of the only true pure scorers in the game for just Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round pick earlier on Monday, Brian Cashman might be on a float up the Canyon of Heroes this morning. I guess he could still take a cab up it if he really wants to.

This isn’t the Lance Berkman deal of 2010 (at least I hope it’s not) even if has a few similarities like going from a last-place team to a playoff team or the pending free agency. So, if Ichiro becomes overweight and looks a slob for the final two months and then signs with the Cardinals, gets into shape and rededicates himself to the game and saves his team’s season in Game 6 of the World Series in an eventual championship then I will really move to Europe and become a soccer fan.

This deal isn’t the Ivan Rodriguez deal of 2008 either. This isn’t the Lance or Pudge deal because I don’t think Ichiro lost it overnight between 2010 and 2011, and I don’t think he’s mailed it in for the last year and a half the way Berkman did with the Astros and Yankees. I think Ichiro is a superstar who has deserved a better supporting cast in Seattle since Oct. 22, 2001, and hasn’t gotten it. He’s been stuck in a lineup with Brendan Ryan and Chone Figgins. Casper Wells leads the Mariners in average, on-base and slugging with a .261/.331.447 line, and Justin Smoak, the team’s home run leader with 13 was sent down to Triple-A after Monday’s game. If Kevin Youkilis’ situation in Boston screamed “Trade Me!” then Ichiro’s situation was in need of a 20-story billboard in Times Square, a Super Bowl commercial and maybe even the rights to a stadium name reading “Trade Me Right Effing Now!” the way Denis Lemieux asked to be in Slap Shot. Over the last few years, Ichiro became the poster boy for “change of scenery” and he went about getting it the right way.

Today’s Ichiro might boast a poor .261/.288/.353 line, which is far from where he was just two years ago (.315/.359/.394), but at this time yesterday Ichiro was probably counting down the days to the offseason. He was going to go to Safeco to likely hit second behind Casper Wells and his 123 career hits with the 100 hits and 13 career home runs of the 22-year-old Jesus Montero as his protection. At this time yesterday Ichiro and his Hall of Fame resume was going to play the first game of the Yankees series in the same lineup with possibly four players hitting under .200 in Miguel Olivo, Justin Smoak, Chone Figgins and Brendan Ryan. (The Mariners only ended up playing two guys hitting under .200 with Smoak and Ryan.) Instead Ichiro hit eighth for the Yankees, lost in a lineup where he isn’t being asked to be the offense, but rather just part of the offense.

The Yankees don’t need Ichiro to be the 28-year-old Ichiro for 162 games, which is what the Mariners needed. The Yankees just need Ichiro to be a piece to the puzzle for the second season. And this piece fits perfectly.


My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!