At the dicey baseball age of 38, Ichiro, one of the nation’s one-name athletes, has become a Yankee. The pinstripes picked up the future hall-of-famer from the Seattle Wombats because Brett Gardner’s injury created the need for outfield help in New Yawk. Ichiro is going from the city famous for strong coffee to the city that stays up all night (and looks it).
The aging (as these things are measured in baseball) Ichiro was hitting .261 when traded Monday for two prospects and a subscription to the Sporting News. He’s not the same player who collected more than 200 hits per season for 10 straight years and holds the single season record for base hits at 262. But he’s still spry enough to add some speed to a Yankees lineup that averages 35 years old. He’s still a solid defensive outfielder. And he may well be rejuvenated by moving to a team with more than an outside chance of being in the World Series this year from a team with a shot at finishing the year in the Pacific Coast League.
The Yankees, who’ve always been baseball’s financial overdogs, have a venerable tradition of picking up whomever, at whatever cost, the team needs before the trading deadline. I first became aware of this tradition in 1954, when I was 12 and hot to acquire a complete set of Topps baseball cards. That year the Yankees picked up outfielder Enos “Country” Slaughter from the Cardinals. (It didn’t help — the Cleveland Indians won the AL pennant in 54.) Slaughter, like Ichiro, was 38 and a talented and aggressive ballplayer. Slaughter has a spot in Cooperstown now, as Ichiro will have one day.
Slaughter was a role player with the Yankees and contributed to their successes through 1958. When the Yankees didn’t need Slaughter during the ’55 and ’56 seasons, they stashed him on their American League farm team, the Kansas City Athletics, from which they could recall him at a moment’s notice.
Whether or not Ichiro will last so long in Gotham is not clear. He becomes a free agent at the end of this year, when young Gardner doubtless will be sound again. With baseball’s bizarre salaries, endless union rules, and assertive, high-priced agents who fancy themselves GMs, it won’t be as easy to plug Ichiro into and out of the Yankees’ needs as it was with Slaughter.
And Ichiro may not wish to be a phone call away when the suits in the Yankees front office snap their fingers. At the relatively modest Major League salaries of the forties and fifties, Slaughter could only look forward to returning to farming tobacco in North Carolina after his playing days were over (in 1959, at age 43, when the Milwaukee Braves released him). So he put up with a lot.
With the gaudy amount of money Ichiro has raked in, even from a team that has spent most of Ichiro’s career rebuilding, he has, let us say, more options. One indignity Ichiro will not have to endure is playing for the sad-sack Kansas City Athletics (in 13 years in KC, the A’s never played .500 ball), which must have been durance vile for the competitive Slaughter.
Ichiro was gracious toward the Mariners and Mariner fans in his farewell press conference in Seattle. As he always was as a player. I guess it’s fitting that a player with as distinguished a career and as pleasing a temperament as Ichiro’s spends some time on a winner, even if it has to be the Yankees. It’s nice to see World Series rings go to excellent athletes who play the game with humility and respect.
Ichiro’s humility is shown in photos from the 2009 All-Star game where Ichiro bows to a visiting Barack Obama during a pre-game presidential visit to the club house. Must have been an interesting change from Obama’s visit to Japan, where he did the bowing. While in St. Louis for that All-Star game, Ichiro and his wife Yumiko laid flowers on the grave of George Sisler, whose single season record of 257 base hits Ichiro surpassed in 2004. Classy.
The farewell remarks in Seattle were delivered in Japanese, and then repeated in English by his interpreter. Ichiro, who has enjoyed American fame and boodle since 2001, apparently hasn’t found the time to learn English. Or at least well enough to use it when dealing with the scorpions of the press.
With his incomplete grasp of the American idiom, he may be puzzled at why old-timers in Yankee Stadium, wearing beat-up Yankee hats, insist on referring to him as “Country” Suzuki. But Ichiro surely knows that if he doesn’t deliver as expected when he gets to his new baseball home in the Bronx, the unforgiving land of fuggedaboutit!, the references from the stands will be much less gracious than his farewell remarks in Seattle, in whatever language.