I’m not sure we ever really understood Ichiro.
That’s not a comment about a language barrier, but the elegant virtuosity of his game.
And if that’s the case, did we in the media and the typical fans in the stands and on the couches around Puget Sound ever fully appreciate his accomplishments?
His return to Seattle with the Miami Marlins had me wondering where he fits in the fans’ mental pantheon of Mariners over time.
Ken Griffey Jr. has his statue. Edgar Martinez has a street named after him.
Ichiro is still playing at age 43, and these kind of honors generally sprinkle in after retirement, so it’s not yet time for such things.
But in the minds of fans? Does Ichiro hold a position worthy of his performance over 11-plus seasons in Seattle?
For whatever reason, I don’t think he ever connected quite to that degree.
Griffey stands alone, his return at the end of his career smoothing the temporary ruffles made by his departure to Cincinnati. His reputation is solid as brass sunk in marble. Absolute and iconic.
Edgar Martinez? Jay Buhner? Randy Johnson? Jamie Moyer? Dan Wilson? There always will be a special attachment to those from that seminal Refuse to Lose bunch.
Felix Hernandez? The King.
Did Ichiro ever get a nickname? It didn’t seem to stick if he did, or maybe the mononymous don’t need nicknames.
The numbers attached to that single name, however, ranking up there with Griffey.
Ichiro’s 10 All-Star honors and 10 Gold Gloves with Seattle match Griffey’s. Each have a league MVP and Rookie of the Year honor.
With 2,533 hits in Seattle, Ichiro had almost 300 more hits than Edgar and almost 700 more than Griffey.
Griffey, of course, had a 300-plus advantage in home runs.
Some of Ichiro’s critics didn’t see the appeal of the infield hit, as if he were driven by batting average alone. And he didn’t often dive for sinking line drives as the lovably reckless Texan Buhner had.
His game was more subtle, lower-key, with power in nuance. A haiku.
But if different, it still was certifiable athletic exceptionalism.
He put the ball in play; he found holes in defenses. His arm was as lethal as a cobra spitting from right field.
But he was different, with those yogic contortions before batting; and he had a bit of a swagger to him in the field.
He was warmly welcomed Monday night by a skimpy crowd. There were a few handmade signs in the stands, but, again, it was a Monday night. His bobblehead promo will draw more attention Wednesday.
The Mariners laid out the ceremonial red carpet and gave him a couple plaques in the presence of some front-office types as well as Edgar and a few key players.
Ichiro was appreciative of that afterward, having been unsure of the kind of welcome he’d get from the crowd.
“It’s been three years since I’ve been back, and to get that warm reception that I did get, and with the ceremony … I’m just grateful to them and to the fans,” Ichiro said through his interpreter. “It’s been so long I could have been forgotten. But for them to do that for me, I’m very thankful. It reaffirms that this is a special place.”
In town for his statue unveiling last week, Griffey said that Safeco felt like home to him. Ichiro echoed that.
“This is home, it always will be; this is my home,” he said. And for Ichiro, it literally is, as he maintains a residence here.
And when he goes into the Hall of Fame, he surely will do so as a Mariner.
Would he ever expect a statue of his own here? No, that might seem like disrespect to Griffey. He didn’t deserve that, he said.
See, Ichiro has always been about respect. Earning it and giving it.
Whenever he finally retires, his time in Seattle can be better viewed in historical perspective.
As it is, the greatest and most important thing is getting the respect that his extraordinary performance in Seattle deserves.