Return of Ichiro stirs memories

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SEATTLE — It has been 10 months since that quiet Monday in late July was torn asunder by the stunning news no one saw coming: Ichiro, the Mariners’ franchise icon, had been traded to the Yankees.

Once the shock wore off, and the weirdness of watching Ichiro play in pinstripes that night at Safeco — the Yankees happened to be in town, adding a surreal tinge to the proceedings — had faded, the wisdom of the deal began to emerge.

The Mariners needed to proceed with their rebuilding without the looming presence of Ichiro, who surely would have been re-signed during the offseason. And Ichiro got a chance to return to the postseason last year (hitting .353 in the Yankees’ ALCS loss to the Tigers) with a chance for more playoff action this year (after the Yankees were lured into giving him a two-year, $13 million deal in the offseason).

On Thursday night, when the Yankees open a four-game series, Ichiro returns to Seattle for the first time since the trade. Bet you hadn’t even thought of that. For a guy who was the face of the franchise for a decade, it will likely be a low-key return, eliciting nothing like the pent-up hostility that spewed forth when Alex Rodriguez came back for the first time with the Rangers, or the jubilant lovefest that greeted Ken Griffey Jr.’s return with the Reds.

Mariano Rivera’s final appearance in Seattle is likely to create more buzz. Part of that is because fans already had a chance to express their appreciation for Ichiro the night of the trade, and the next two as well — and partly because as much as Ichiro was admired during his 11-plus seasons in Seattle, he never truly gave anyone outside the clubhouse (and not always even within) a window into his personality.

He was (mostly) appreciated, but never quite beloved. And by the end, when his skills had begun to decline, the grousing over Ichiro’s style of play was increasing. Unlike Griffey, however, he got out at the right time, before the fallout from the ravages of time had completely overshadowed the greatness of his prime.

And let’s allow ourselves this week a moment to savor some of those prime-time moments.

The electricity of his breakout 2001 season, when his unique slap-and-run style was all so refreshingly new, every day a revelation.

The laser throw to nail Oakland’s Terrence Long at third — “like something out of ‘Star Wars,’” in Dave Niehaus’ indelible words — that discouraged runners from testing his arm for years.

The walkoff homer off Rivera in 2009, and the unbridled joy it brought from teammates, just one year removed from a season in which Ichiro’s style of play had brought much internal grumbling. And after the victorious last game that ’09 season, Ichiro and Griffey being carried off the field together. If only Griffey had retired after that, how much different would his legacy have been?

The inside-the-park homer in the All-Star Game in San Francisco.

And, of course, Ichiro’s 258th hit at Safeco Field in 2004 to break George Sisler’s season record, with the Sisler family watching from the stands.

“Oh, man, was he exciting, fun to watch,’’ said Raul Ibanez. “I mean, that 2004 season was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen.”

So the Yankees are coming to town, having assumed the uncharacteristic role of the gutty, overachieving “little team that could” — as much as those adjectives befit a team with a payroll over $200 million.

After elevating his game with the Yankees last year after the trade — putting up a .794 on-base plus slugging percentage in 67 games, more than 150 points above his Seattle performance — Ichiro has struggled this year. Heading into play Wednesday, his OPS was a subpar .643, one point higher than it was with Seattle at the time of the trade. As injured Yankees veterans begin to return to action, Ichiro might find his playing time curtailed.

In other words, the usual pitfalls of a 39-year-old player, even one with more than 3,900 hits between Japan and MLB. With all their other burdens, the Mariners didn’t need to keep dealing with that one — the uncomfortable necessity of easing away from one of their all-time greats.

As with Griffey, time will eventually wipe away the unpleasantries, and what will shine through in the memory banks is the dynamic, idiosyncratic greatness of Ichiro. We’ll see a glimmer of the last vestiges of that player this weekend. I, for one, am looking forward to it.

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