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Originally published July 23, 2012 at 9:56 PM | Page modified July 24, 2012 at 1:49 PM

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Ichiro's exit saves Mariners pain, disappointment

Ichiro left before the Mariners could extend his expiring contract and commit more millions to a 38-year-old who doesn't fit on a team of yuppies.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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who are these prospects? All we have are prospects, prospects, prospects and all... MORE
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For once, Ichiro was a creature out of habit. The emotionless icon, a star built on routine and repetition, had finally encountered a pregame situation he couldn't control. Suddenly an ex-Mariner, he had to say goodbye to the only major-league team he has known.

Ichiro tried hard not to weep, and his red-rimmed eyes showed how challenging this would be. After 11 ½ seasons, 10 All-Star Game appearances, 10 Gold Gloves and 2,533 hits, his Mariners career was over, just like that. A trade he had privately requested in recent weeks materialized. But during the announcement, "Get me out of here!" felt more like "Is it really time to go?"

"When I imagined taking off a Mariner uniform, I was overcome with sadness," Ichiro said through a translator. "It has made this a very difficult decision to make."

It was difficult, even teary, but it was the right decision. And it was a merciful one. Ichiro's quiet trade demand rescued the Mariners from an ugly ending to his sterling career in Seattle. He avoided, frankly, the Griffey ending. No team clings to nostalgia quite like the Mariners, and the franchise's inability to move on in a prompt manner has left it hamstrung many times. With Ichiro, the Mariners were determined to repeat history again. But Ichiro, who craves familiarity, said something many never thought he would to the Mariners.

Enough.

He left before the Mariners could extend his expiring contract and commit more millions to a 38-year-old who doesn't fit on a team of yuppies. He left before his skills had deteriorated to the painful level of Ken Griffey Jr. at age 40. He left before more fans, who want the Mariners to build a winner and not a museum, turned against him.

The fact that the New York Yankees, who have won with many ex-Mariners, acquired him isn't as important as the realization that this ending allows for a graceful exit. It wasn't perfect timing — a trade in 2010, just before Ichiro's dramatic decline would have made better baseball sense — but this saves everyone a lot of pain and disappointment.

"I think now is the right time, and I think Ichiro is leaving the Mariners on a positive note," Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said. "I'm aware that he was getting heat from the media and others. This decision was best for him and best for the Mariners."

That's quite an admission from Lincoln, one of the greatest Ichiro believers on this planet. He's an extension of Japanese majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, and the thought has always been that Ichiro would be welcome on the roster for as long as Yamauchi owned the team.

Ichiro's future with the Mariners had become a polarizing topic at best and, at worst, a ding against the franchise's commitment to winning. The situation was only going to get nastier as Ichiro's skills continued to erode and the Mariners continued to struggle. It's an unfair notion, but even during some of Ichiro's best years, he was beginning to bear the burden of a franchise amid an 11-year playoff drought.

As the star of a bad team, it was becoming Ichiro's fault. His singular focus on preparation was being labeled as selfishness. His lack of leadership was now a bigger story than his professionalism.

The criticism was only going to get worse, especially since Ichiro, a .322 career hitter, is now a .260 hitter. So trading Ichiro to the Yankees for two warm bodies (D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar) who can pitch was a fair deal for a 38-year-old with a .288 on-base percentage. Maybe the Yankees could've thrown in a bag of potato chips, but it would be hard to ask for much more. The Mariners will have to pay $4.75 million of $7 million remaining on Ichiro's contract this season, but moving on and helping Ichiro play for a contender is worth it.

"We just had to do the right thing," general manager Jack Zduriencik said.

Perhaps the opportunity to win a championship will rejuvenate Ichiro. Even if he only can rise to last year's numbers (.272 average, .310 on-base percentage), that would suffice as a bottom-of-the-order role player on a Yankees team that needs his speed.

"I'm going from having the most losses to a team having the most wins," said Ichiro, who faced the odd predicament of playing his first game as a Yankee in Safeco Field. "So it's been hard to contain my excitement in that regard."

Five minutes later, he was near tears again, struggling with a question about his favorite memories.

His longtime admirers can answer that for him. Ichiro leaves a legacy of consistency, machine-like performance in Seattle. From his record-breaking 262-hit season to his rocket arm and stellar outfield defense, he left his mark and redefined the expectations for Japanese-born position players in Major League Baseball. As a rookie, he was the league MVP on the Mariners' record-tying 116-win team. And while the franchise had only five winning seasons during his time, he often stood as an unflappable source of virtue, a reason to come to Safeco Field expecting to see greatness.

"There will never be another one like him," Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said. "There has never been one before him."

And now, Ichiro, the fading star, exits to applause and fond memories. He's not polarizing anymore. Legends only garner respect.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.

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