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Originally published July 23, 2012 at 11:49 PM | Page modified July 24, 2012 at 1:50 PM

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Ichiro trade is the right move, watershed moment for Mariners

Ichiro's trade to Yankees clears salary, way for younger players.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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The Mariners without Ichiro didn't look much different, on the surface, than they did with him. They struggled to hit at Safeco Field and fell to the Yankees, 4-1. If this was the dawning of a new era, it began with an anticlimactic thud.

But Ichiro's departure is not only a watershed day in the organization's history, the latest in a long line of superstars who have departed. It also opens the path for them to hasten their rebuilding without having to pay heed to a franchise icon who was no longer a viable part of their future.

To his credit, Ichiro got it, and did the noble thing by asking the Mariners to trade him. While there might have been some self-interest involved — he goes from the basement to the penthouse, as far as the standings are concerned — Ichiro had such a hallowed place in the organization that if he had wanted to stay, the Mariners would not have stood in his way.

Indeed, Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said Monday that they planned to pursue a contract extension after the season, and team president Chuck Armstrong added that they had approached the Ichiro camp as recently as June to see if they were interested in beginning those talks.

I've already gone on record with my opinion that it would have been a mistake to bring back Ichiro in 2013 (and certainly beyond), that the Mariners needed to open up right field to a rising young player like Casper Wells. Now they can do that, unencumbered by the looming presence of a legend like Ichiro.

"Obviously, it will be considerably different, but it gives us an opportunity to play another young player on a consistent basis," manager Eric Wedge said.

The players the Mariners got from the Yankees — two 25-year-old, right-handed pitchers — are almost an afterthought. One, Danny Farquhar, is with his fourth organization this season, while the other, D.J. Mitchell, profiles as a No. 5 starter if he continues to progress.

This wasn't about player acquisition. It wasn't even about the $2.5 million in salary relief the Mariners will receive from the Yankees this season. But it should be about using the $17 million removed from next year's payroll to pour into one or two star-level players to fast forward the rebuilding program.

Theoretically, Ichiro could still return to the Mariners as a free agent, but that's a far-fetched notion in light of the circumstances of his departure. Monday definitely had the feeling of the end of an era — one that should rightly be remembered for the brilliance of most of Ichiro's tenure, rather than for his lackluster last year and a half.

For a decade, Ichiro was a joy to watch, a thoroughly unique bat artist who sometimes confounded us but always enthralled on the field. You could quibble with some of his idiosyncrasies (and believe me, he irritated some teammates over the years), but I firmly believe he was a winning player who had the misfortune to be stuck on a team not equipped to win.

It wasn't always that way; the Mariners won 116, 93 and 93 games in Ichiro's first three seasons. But since 2004 — the year he set the major-league record with 262 hits — it has been mostly about futility. Now, while the Mariners go about their ongoing task of trying to build their way back to respectability, Ichiro can rejuvenate himself in a pennant race.

"Clearly he has a good shot at a world championship," Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders said. "That's the only thing missing on his résumé. The last handful of years have been disappointing for us, as well as the city of Seattle and this organization. But he's a winner. Hopefully, he does win a ring with them someday. That will complete his legacy. I'll always remember playing alongside him, and being a teammate and a friend."

It was a surreal scene Monday as Ichiro moved down the hall at Safeco Field to play with the Yankees, against the Mariners. As happens in baseball, sentiment quickly gets shoved aside, and players move forward. After Seattle's 4-1 defeat, the angst in the Mariner clubhouse was about another struggling offensive effort at home — just three hits — and the demotion of popular first baseman Justin Smoak. Ichiro's departure, a total shock before the game, had already been processed.

"Whatever. We were trying to win a game," Brendan Ryan said when asked about playing against his former teammate. "I think the shock of it was more before the game and leading up to it. It didn't weigh on me at all. No disrespect at all. I was just trying to focus on getting the job done."

Said Saunders before the game, after lauding Ichiro: "We're going to keep going. We're coming off a great road trip. Just because Ichiro got traded to the other side, we're not hanging our heads. We're going to miss the guy, obviously, not only personally but as a teammate and a baseball player. We're going to step up. We're not going to let this put a bump in the road for us."

When Ichiro came to the plate in the third inning, he was saluted by the fans at Safeco Field with a huge ovation. Catcher John Jaso said he gave Ichiro some gentle guidance.

"I knew what the crowd wanted," Jaso said. "I think Ichiro was just going to go in there and take an at-bat. I said, 'Hey, take a wave,' and started walking out to the pitcher's mound. It was a good, classy move by the fans."

Ichiro's agent, Tony Attanasio, said that the outfielder will keep his roots in Seattle.

"He loves Seattle," Attanasio said. "This is his home. He's not going to move. He's going to stay in Seattle."

A part of Ichiro will always be at Safeco Field. But his departure is the best move for him, and for the organization.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry


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