Baptism by fire: Ichiro thrust into Yanks-Sox rivalry
After farewell tour in Seattle, outfielder ready for new beginning with New York
At the moment the final out was recorded in what perhaps was the final game Ichiro Suzuki will ever play within Seattle's city limits, and certainly the last this season, the local icon briefly turned to acknowledge his old right-field cheering section with a wave.
Then Ichiro dashed to center field, where he slapped hands with Curtis Granderson and Andruw Jones before embracing the rest of his new Yankees teammates. The Safeco Field farewell tour is over, and a new beginning -- featuring the playoff excitement Ichiro so desperately craved -- awaits at Yankee Stadium on Friday evening.
"Obviously I've only been there on the visitor's side, but as a visiting player, you get a lot of the fans heckling you a little bit," Ichiro said through an interpreter. "And I actually kind of enjoyed that -- I enjoyed that with the fans. Now that I'm on the home side, I'm not sure what to expect, what the reaction will be like."
The smart money is on cheers, and plenty of them. Monday's trade, in which Ichiro was dealt with cash to New York for Minor League pitchers D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar, has been viewed as a slam dunk for the Yankees. The 38-year-old's arrival will only serve to heighten a series with the Red Sox.
For example, the Modell's Sporting Goods store in Times Square announced that it did brisk business as its first shipment of Ichiro apparel arrived, marked with his new No. 31. T-shirt sales are wonderful, but Ichiro's motivation for switching coasts is a chance at winning a World Series.
During the All-Star break, it became clear to him that he did not belong on a younger, rebuilding Mariners team, and Seattle brass vowed that it would not stand in Ichiro's way. The first hurdle, and a good initial test, is baseball's classic blood rivalry.
"I've only obviously watched it on TV," Ichiro said. "I know that there's a lot of tradition involved in that game. Just a few days ago, I wouldn't even think about being in that situation, that I would be wearing this uniform, playing against the Red Sox."
As the lights power on Friday night in the Bronx, Ichiro may even feel a surge of adrenaline, overpowering the melancholy he experienced during his three-day farewell tour of Seattle. The New York-Boston bout could force it.
"When I watch it, sometimes I thought it's like a fight -- not in the real sense of them actually fighting, but really, a physical, fighting atmosphere," Ichiro said.
Those battles could be a refreshing change of pace. One prevailing opinion among scouts is that Ichiro will raise his game to his surroundings; that his paltry .288 on-base percentage with Seattle was a reflection of the club around him.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi subscribes to the idea that changes of scenery can boost performance.
"I think it can help a lot of guys a lot of times," Girardi said. "A couple of years ago we acquired Lance Berkman, and he was huge for us down the stretch at the end of the year. He got on a roll, and I think Ichiro could do the same thing."
What the Yankees are certain of is that, after 11 1/2 years of being treated like, what Alex Rodriguez perfectly described, "a rock star" in Seattle, Ichiro should have no difficulty settling into the glow of Gotham.
"I think he's going to love New York and New Yorkers are going to love him," A-Rod said. "It's a shot in the arm for him and a huge shot in the arm for us. Overall it's just an awesome move by our front office. That's one of the great perks of playing for this organization."
It was impossible to look at the lineup card that third-base coach Rob Thomson slapped on a Safeco Field bulletin board on Wednesday morning -- Ichiro batting leadoff, Derek Jeter hitting second -- and not wonder what ripples that might have made in the American League just a few years ago.
It's an alignment that seems more suited for an All-Star Game, but the Yankees aren't expecting to boast 200-hit vintage Ichiro in their order. With a .261 batting average in 98 games this season and coming off a similar year in 2011, the Yankees are not exactly asking Ichiro to lead their offense.
"I think every year everyone expects him to get 200 hits, score 100 runs, and I think he's used to that," Girardi said. "Maybe slipping into our lineup, he won't feel all those expectations as much."
In fact, their hope is simply that he will be able to approximate what was lost when speedy Brett Gardner suffered a season-ending right elbow injury in April. They see him blending in with the band, contributing speed on the bases and solid outfield defense.
"No disrespect to where he's coming from, but coming to an environment and a culture where you're in first place and you expect to win, his responsibility changes dramatically here," A-Rod said. "We just want him to be Ichiro, have fun and do what he does. There's no need for him to come out and try to do anything more."
That may be the case, but don't be surprised if Ichiro still harnesses a few great moments along the way. When he turns to the chanting Bleacher Creatures for his first "Roll Call" on Friday, Ichiro can anticipate a very warm welcome from his new home crowd.
"I just got traded to the Yankees. It's not like I've been here all year," Ichiro said. "So when I go to Yankee Stadium, obviously if the fans feel that way toward me, I'm grateful. But I need to prove myself and I need to play to the level that the fans can really enjoy and really think highly of my play. I really feel like when I get there, I want to show the fans what I can do."