Senior Baseball Columnist

Ichiro fills hole for Yankees, and Mariners can start planning to rebuild

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Ichiro merely has to walk to the other clubhouse, as the Yanks are in Seattle playing the Mariners. (AP)  
Ichiro merely has to walk to the other clubhouse, as the Yanks are in Seattle playing the Mariners. (AP)  

The Yankees lose four straight to the A's, and look what happens.

Holy Ichiro, what if they had lost five straight? They resurrect Babe Ruth?

In a deal that sent shock waves across the industry and jolted the trade market with enough electricity to light Seattle's Space Needle for the next several decades, the Yankees filled the hole in their spotty outfield by nabbing Ichiro Suzuki from the Mariners.

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The tremors are currently roiling from sea to shining sea, from the Bronx to the Pacific Northwest ... and beyond.

In Japan, they might need to declare a national holiday to digest this news.

"It's really been a privilege for all of us here in the Pacific Northwest to have this special and unique talent," Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said. "There will never be another one."

That the Yankees were in Seattle, and that Ichiro simply walked into the other clubhouse and was batting eighth in Joe Girardi's lineup immediately, only added several degrees of bizarreness to the whole thing.

Get past that, though, and this is one whale of a deal for both clubs.

The Yankees need a light-on-his-feet outfielder who can get on base because the very underrated Brett Gardner is expected to miss the rest of the season with a bad elbow.

The rebuilding Mariners need to move past the elephant in the room so they can see their future, and Ichiro's impending free-agent status was bearing down on them this winter like an iceberg.

One move, two clubs solve their problems.

The Yankees get a fading star who fits perfectly into their lineup and -- don't overlook this -- their stadium. At 38, Ichiro is hitting only .261 with a .288 on-base percentage. That's well below his career averages of .322 and .366. But in New York, he won't be needed to hit leadoff, or even third. He's just a cog in the machine, not the whole machine.

And ...

"His swing ... Ichiro is going to hit some home runs in that ballpark," Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said, eyes twinkling, imagining another lefty swing taking aim at the friendly right-field fence. "He's going to have some fun."

It had reached the point of no return in the Fun Dept. of the Pacific Northwest. Ichiro's first season, 2001, was when Lou Piniella's Mariners shredded everything in front of them en route to a club-record 116-46 mark. It also was one of only five seasons of Ichiro's 11 1/2 there that the Mariners finished above .500. They finished higher than third in only three of those seasons.

Given that the AL West contains only four clubs, that's a problem.

Ichiro said he requested a trade, and watching his sober emotions and what appeared to be genuine sadness at this stunning turn, it's hard to believe he isn't telling the truth. He spent time during the All-Star break thinking about the whole situation, he said, and what he saw was a club with a whole bunch of players in their early 20s.

"I began to think I should not be on the team next year," he said, noting that the best decision for both himself and the Mariners, once he reached that conclusion, was to get him out of dodge as quickly as possible.

He thanked the fans and he thanked the Mariners organization. And they owe him a generous thank you as well, because his exit is playing out as gracefully as anyone could have scripted.

Remember how Ken Griffey Jr.'s heartwarming homecoming in 2009 turned toxic in 2010? Uh-huh. After 11 1/2 years, that's the last thing the Mariners needed with Ichiro.

He wasn't always the most popular player in their clubhouse. Many Mariners over the years viewed him as selfish, concerned first with getting his 200 annual hits and then, somewhere after that, with winning games.

There always seemed a wall between Ichiro and the managers he played for after Piniella left -- Bob Melvin, Mike Hargrove, Jim Riggleman, John McLaren, Don Wakamatsu and, most recently, Eric Wedge. There are those who still believe Hargrove's sudden departure in 2007 was provoked by a showdown with Ichiro. Sometimes it did seem as if a diplomat to shuttle between the manager's office and Ichiro would have been beneficial.

Regardless, this has been one special player, and he should be ushered out of Seattle with clasped hands, respectful bows and, then, with a standing ovation.

"I think it's pretty exciting, man," said Angels ace Jered Weaver, who has made 22 starts against Ichiro's Mariners and battled Suzuki in 70 plate appearances [during which Ichiro is hitting .268 with a .286 on-base percentage]. "The guy has been a great player for a team that hasn't been contending. To go to a team with a chance to win a world championship, I'm sure he's pretty excited. In New York, he'll be a player they're excited to see.

"I'm sure it will be tough for him to leave Seattle; he's done so many good things on the field and in the community. I'm sure they'll be happy for him as well. At least, I hope they are."

They should be. It was a grand and glorious era, but it has been a long time since their Mariners have won. Whenever they do again, it clearly wasn't going to include Ichiro.

Now, he has a chance to win and the Mariners have a chance to make proper baseball decisions this winter without genuflecting before an icon. Everybody wins ... or has a chance to.

But if I'm the Mariners, just in case, I'm frisking the Yankees before this series is finished. There's no telling what else they'll try and stuff into their pinstriped pockets this week before they leave Safeco Field.

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