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Thursday, July 26, 2012 - Page updated at 10:30 p.m.
Now, Mariners' life without Ichiro really begins
By Jerry Brewer
Seattle Times staff columnist
Ichiro tipped his helmet one final time and bowed in every direction at Safeco Field. Several seconds later, the heavy applause of 36,071 ended. Three-and-a-half hours later, the game ended. And two days after the shocking trade announcement, the touching yet awkward part of this transition ended, too.
Now, life without Ichiro really begins.
He won't be in right field, not even for the opposing team. The next time you see him, it'll be on television in some seemingly distant place. The Mariners' three-game series with the New York Yankees, the team that traded for the aging star, amounted to a long and strange goodbye, but it was appropriate considering what Ichiro meant to this area for nearly 12 seasons. This was a cathartic time, including having to watch him get three hits as a foe and help the Yankees exploit the inferior home team.
Though he showed his classic composure through it all, Ichiro admitted Wednesday that his heart was doing jumping jacks, too.
"I didn't really show it, but inside I was going through some emotional times," he said through a translator after going 1 for 5 in the Yankees' 5-2 comeback victory. "It was very special the last few days."
He had transitioned to a new team, but not a new city. The Mariners were embracing a fresh start, too, but they couldn't help looking over and seeing No. 51 wearing No. 31 and looking like a useful role player instead of a worn-down face of the franchise.
This was one of those breakups in which the couple was determined to remain friends and even went separately to the same party. But as the night went on, everyone realized that distance will make things so much easier.
At last, the public display is over.
The Mariners can return to developing their young players, with the added goal of figuring out whether they have a right fielder to replace Ichiro.
"We're moving forward," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "I think it's another step now that these guys are leaving town. The focus is on these young kids playing baseball — and getting better."
And Ichiro can commence trying to produce for a winner. He sought this opportunity in requesting a trade. This is the best chance he has had to win a World Series since his rookie season in 2001. Depending on how he plays down the stretch, this also might be his last chance.
"Obviously, I need to get more comfortable," said Ichiro, who was 3 for 12 in his first series as a Yankee. "Every day, it's going to get there."
This new version of normalcy will be a weird thing for the rest of the season. But it's not any odder than watching a team amid a youth movement hanging onto a 38-year-old star who won't be around when (if?) the Mariners build a contending team.
The best thing you can say about the Mariners right now is that the purging is almost over. There are two painful aspects of any rebuilding job like this: going young and waiting for results; and clearing the roster of veterans who don't fit the movement.
The Ichiro trade, though difficult for many to take, is a huge step toward finishing the latter. The Mariners still have 34-year-old, .181-hitting Chone Figgins, who has another year left on his four-year, $36 million contract. And 34-year-old catcher Miguel Olivo is hitting .198, but with Jesus Montero and John Jaso producing, he has no clear role, either. Shortstop Brendan Ryan is hitting .188, and though he won't be a starter on a good Mariners team, he's a little younger (30) and plays Gold Glove-caliber defense. Those three are the only veterans left who need replacements. Soon, the Mariners will truly be all-in with the kids.
It's a good thing because the goodbyes have gotten tiring, and even more so, the veteran scapegoats have taken too much abuse. It has taken general manager Jack Zduriencik since 2009 to clean up past mistakes and fix some of his own, but a clean slate is now within sight.
Meanwhile, Ichiro is free to win. Too bad he couldn't do it here, while he was still in his prime. But Ichiro remains proud and physically fit, and he performs well on a big stage. Like it or not, you'll be hearing plenty about him from afar. He's not done yet. He made that point clear as he exited his longtime baseball home.
Asked if it dawned on him that this could be his final game at Safeco Field, Ichiro gave a quick response.
"This year," he shot back.
He's not retiring at season's end. And as long as the Mariners don't re-sign him this offseason, there's nothing wrong with that.
This breakup may be cordial, but it has to be permanent.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer
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