- This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us -- stood and applauded. Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause -- no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult.
--John Updike, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu"
Cheering at sporting events isn't always born in nature, like the pushing of the surf. There are the somewhat contrived "M-V-P" chants that spilled over from NBA arenas to major league ballparks, or the blaring of the public address system demanding more noise. There are the songs you hear at soccer games, which require organization and prescient knowledge. There are the now prerequisite standing ovations whenever a player hits a big home run.
There are, of course, the spontaneous celebrations and hugs following a game-winning hit, that anxious release of joy. Then there is the cheering that John Updike wrote about during Ted Williams' final game at Fenway Park: An applause of memories, for the road a player and his fans have traveled together.
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Die-hard Seattle Mariners fans will remember that first spring training in 2001. The initial reports were not good. Manager Lou Piniella was skeptical to say the least, not exactly buying in that this little skinny guy with the unusual batting style was going to be his right fielder, let alone as good as the Mariners' front office had billed him.
Maybe Piniella wasn't quite sure what he had in March, but once the regular season started, the evidence was rapidly clear: Ichiro could play this game. Man, could he could play. He was better than advertised, a hitter unlike any we'd ever seen, seemingly two steps out of the batter's box as he swung, beating out slow infield grounders, dunking the ball over the shortstop's head, lining doubles and triples into the gap. In an era of muscled-up sluggers, he was the refreshing antidote to all the home runs.
As good as he was at the plate, he was even better in the field, a right fielder with a center fielder's range and an arm that conjured up comparisons to Roberto Clemente. That first season was pure magic; people who aren't Mariners fans will fail to grasp when I say that no team ever played more perfect baseball than the 2001 Mariners. But Seattle fans will understand what I mean about a team that had speed, defense, power, pitching and depth combined with the more subtle skills of baserunning, patience, aggressiveness, selfless play and clutch hitting.
It all began with Ichiro, that year's American League Rookie of the Year and MVP. OK, maybe Jason Giambi or teammate Bret Boone had better statistics. But Ichiro was the symbol of that perfect blend of 116 wins.
We all know the accolades since then: The all-time single-season hits record, the 10 consecutive seasons with 200 hits, the Gold Gloves and All-Star appearances. At some point, Ichiro became simultaneously overrated and underrated. His batting averages fluctuated and, since he was never a guy who drew a lot of walks, his offensive value wasn't always terrific. It didn't help that the Mariners were rarely winners after 2003 and Ichiro's annual pursuit of 200 hits was at times viewed in more selfish descriptions. Still, he was a great player, amazingly durable (other than one short stint on the disabled list in 2009 he missed just 19 games in 11 seasons) and amazingly unique. Since 2001, he ranks fourth among all position players in Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement, behind only Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran.
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It was time to move on. I'm pretty sure most Mariners fans will admit that. As his legs slowed and his bat faded, the past two seasons haven't been fun to watch, a singles hitter who no longer hits for a high average. Trading him relieves the Mariners of several pressures: How do you sit him the final two months when you need to give playing time to Casper Wells, Michael Saunders, Franklin Gutierrez and Mike Carp? How do you handle a franchise icon when's in the twilight of his career? How much do you pay him if he wants to return to Seattle?
Now they've cut bait. Those decisions have been made. The disaster of Ken Griffey Jr.'s final season in 2010 won't be repeated.
What do the Yankees get? I'm not exactly sure. This may indicate that Nick Swisher's strained hip flexor is more serious than the Yankees are letting on. With the news from a few days ago that Brett Gardner is likely to miss the entire season, the Yankees realized they can't continue having Raul Ibanez lumbering around in left field. So Ichiro definitely improves the defense and brings some speed to the lineup. The question mark is what he'll provide at the plate. He's hitting an empty .261 with a .288 on-base percentage, although his road numbers are better at .297/.314/.402. Still, Yankees manager Joe Girardi would be wise to put him at the bottom of the lineup rather than in the No. 2 hole behind Derek Jeter.
And what do Mariners fans get? A flood of memories. As strange as it will seem to see Ichiro in a Yankees uniform and wearing No. 31 instead of No. 51 -- no different, I'm sure, than Babe Ruth in a Boston Braves uniform or Willie Mays playing for the New York Mets -- we have those memories.
Cheer with your hearts, Mariners fans. Bid Ichiro adieu on Monday night with a burst of emotion.