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Seattle Mariners

The Ichiro I wish we could have gotten to know better

tx.ichiro5
Ichiro’s 12-year run with
the Mariners ended suddenly when he was traded to the
Yankees on Monday.
(AP)

By Shannon Drayer

I am not sure there are words to express the shock at
the news that Ichiro had been traded. I didn’t
see it coming. Not in trade rumblings, not in elevator or
lunchroom gossip and not by watching Ichiro every day in
the clubhouse on the recent road trip.

The popular belief was that Ichiro had dug in and
wanted to stay a Mariner for the rest of his career. The
belief was ownership would never let Ichiro go. The belief
by many was that Ichiro was content to stay in Seattle
where he was comfortable and pursue the quest for 3,000
hits. Those assumptions were wrong.

“Ichiro knows that the club is building for the future,
and he felt that what was best for the team was to be
traded to another club and give our younger players an
opportunity to develop,” Mariners chairman and CEO Howard
Lincoln said in a statement.

Ichiro is a Yankee. You can read
about how it happened
and his legacy as a Mariner elsewhere
. Here I want to
look
back and share what I can from 10 years of covering Ichiro
both home and away. I want to give you what little picture
of who Ichiro is that I can.

My earliest experience with Ichiro that I can remember
was terrifying. I was only a couple of years into
reporting and if you said “boo” to me back then there is a
good chance I would have run away. I was very concerned
about always doing things the right way and every step in
or around a clubhouse was painstakingly considered before
action was taken.

One day I was sitting down on the bench in the dugout
waiting for the manager to come out for his pregame media
session. I was talking to another reporter and the
conversation turned animated. Too animated. As I was
talking, I felt my hand brush something and then looked
down in horror to see Ichiro’s black bats go tumbling
across the dugout floor.

The sacred bats! They had been neatly leaned against
the bench (this was before manager John McLaren would tape
down tongue depressors to hold them, or before a hole was
drilled in the bench to contain them) and somehow I had
knocked them over. There was a gasp from some of the
reporters and I swear I got some disapproving looks from
some of the Japanese media. I was absolutely horrified.

I was terrified to touch the bats, even to put them
back, but I did so and as I did I looked around furtively
to see if Ichiro had seen what I had done. I was pretty
sure he hadn’t but just in case I warned the media who saw
my misadventure to not say anything to him.

Ichiro came over to get his bats for his turn in
batting practice a few minutes later and didn’t look over
at me. Whew, I thought. I dodged that one.

Or so I thought. The next day while I was sitting on
the bench Ichiro came out of the tunnel and walked over to
where I was sitting. Without saying a word he leaned the
bats against the bench just inches from where I was
sitting. I was petrified to move. I didn’t want to be
anywhere near those bats.

The next day I sat in a completely different spot in
the dugout and Ichiro came over and did the same thing.
There were those darn bats! This went on for a few more
days and eventually I had to laugh. Ichiro was messing
with me.

The next year at spring training there was more
awkwardness — on my part, of course. I was the only
reporter in the clubhouse when Ichiro arrived for his
first day. I walked over to greet him as I thought was
only polite and as I walked over I couldn’t think of
anything to say. What do you say to Ichiro?

“Hi Ichiro,” I stammered. “You look good!”

You look good. Really? That was the best I could come
up with? That’s what the guys sometimes say when they see
each other for the first time in awhile, but me? I am
telling Ichiro he looks good? Smooth, Shannon. Real
smooth.

“Thanks,” he replied. “So do you.”

Over the years I would get more comfortable in my role
and more comfortable with Ichiro. Despite this, it was
still odd to see him away from the park. I was never a
huge Ichiro fan per se, but when I saw him out in public I
couldn’t help but have a fan reaction. Wow. That’s Ichiro!
This guy is Elvis in Japan and pretty darn popular here,
too.

Once in San Diego I walked into a coffee shop to get a
latte and there he was, just two people in front of me.
This was years before he got into some of the wilder
fashions we have more recently been accustomed to seeing
him wear. Back in those days you might see him in jeans
and a T-shirt and sometimes with a backpack, looking more
like a college kid than an international superstar.

In this latte line I was faced with a dilemma. I should
say hello, right? It would be rude not to. The problem
was, if I said, “Hi Ichiro!” his anonymity would be blown.
Everyone in the place would know who he was.

I smiled at him and muttered something as he passed by.
Later in the clubhouse I approached him and told him of
the problem. I told him I didn’t know how to address him
in public as not to draw attention to him.

37e2c488-3a49-4f07-8023-6cc756b4e0be
Covering Ichiro came with
plenty of lighter moments.
(AP)

“Call me Brad,” he answered, straight faced. “Brad
Pitt.”

Laughter followed.

It wasn’t always light, however. One time I found
myself inexplicably on the wrong side of Ichiro. I had no
idea how it happened. I always tried to be fair and
respectful but for some reason he was turning his back on
me during interview sessions and giving me short, curt
answers when normally he would give more. I sensed he was
not happy with me but could not think for the life of me
why.

I asked around if I had done anything to offend him and
some thought I was crazy to be picking up the signs that I
thought I was picking up. Eventually I was approached by
his interpreter and told that Ichiro had thought I had not
shown the proper manners in a recent media session. To be
more specific, Ichiro had seen me roll my eyes at him as
he was answering a question.

I knew I hadn’t done that. Or had I? If I had I
certainly hadn’t meant to. I mulled over this for awhile
and eventually realized what happened. When I first
started doing TV interviews I found there was a habit of
mine that I had to work to overcome. When I am thinking,
really thinking about something, I have a tendency to look
up. There was no question this is what I was doing with
Ichiro as his answers to certain questions, even when
translated, still required some deciphering. He saw this
and took it to believe that I was rolling my eyes at
something he was trying to express.

I assured the interpreter that this was not my intent
and asked that he please explain to Ichiro. We didn’t have
a problem after that.

I am thankful to Ichiro for giving me an offseason
interview three years ago that got more blog hits than
anything I have ever posted. I enjoyed the experience of
seeing him completely away from the game and relaxed.

I am glad I got to travel to Japan with the team this
spring and see him in his country. It helped not to
complete the picture — as I doubt that ever will be done
— but to fill in some of the blanks. From seeing the bat
stands in the dugouts to the reaction of the fans, to his
face everywhere in advertisements, to the reception where
he calmly engaged two former Prime Ministers in
conversation for over an hour, it gave me a little more
understanding than I would have otherwise had.

Covering Ichiro for 10 years has been interesting, to
say the least. I have always said that you will see things
in the Mariners clubhouse that wouldn’t be seen in any
other clubhouse in baseball and that was due in large part
to Ichiro.

He could be maddening with his unconventional play at
times but above all he stayed true to himself and for that
I have the utmost respect. When he came here to play
baseball as the first Japanese position player, he had
plenty of doubters. Many thought he would be nothing more
than a fourth outfielder. He proved them wrong and he did
it his way. He came here as himself and stayed himself. He
didn’t try to turn himself into an American baseball
player. He remained a Japanese baseball player playing the
game in the United States. Not an easy thing to do.

Despite the appreciation I have for Ichiro, for some
time I have felt that it was time to move on. Weeks ago I
said on one of the shows on 710 ESPN Seattle that perhaps
it would be best if he move on to a team that would give
him an opportunity to win in the near future. It was
uncomfortable to say and write. It felt like a betrayal of
sorts to someone who had done so many great things in a
Mariners uniform and someone I firmly believed did not
want to go anywhere. Someone I barely knew but still
looked forward to seeing every day for the past 10 years.
I don’t know if he knew what was said and I don’t know
what he would think or if he would even care if he did,
but it was somewhat unsettling. It shouldn’t have been but
it was.

In this job you are never supposed to get close to the
players. Sometimes this is impossible, especially if you
travel with the team. You see the ups and downs, you see
them away from the field, you meet family members, you see
them as something other than baseball players. At that
point I suppose you are not getting too close to the
player, but instead you are getting to know the person. I
didn’t know Ichiro terribly well but I did see him in
different situations than most did. Seeing him relaxed was
a completely different experience than seeing him in his
baseball uniform. Getting a smile or having him greet me
by name was strangely rewarding, most likely because of
the barriers he purposely put up. A glimpse at warm Ichiro
was not much different than a Griffey smile, and we never
saw that more than we did in 2009 when Junior was with the
club.

I had one of those moments today. In the press
conference I asked Ichiro what challenges he was looking
forward to in this new chapter of his baseball life. He
gave a smartass answer as he was inclined to do, saying
that he could learn something about dealing with the media
from Joe Girardi, who sat to his right. There was brief
laughter, and before the next question was asked Ichiro
gave a sidelong glance and said, “Sorry, Shannon.”

That’s OK, Ichiro. Thanks for keeping it interesting
and enjoy this chapter of your baseball life.

You might also like:

Photos: Ichiro’s 12-year career with
the Mariners

Mike Salk: Searching for a
Seattle
sports hero

Brock Huard: Yankees seem like a good fit for
Ichiro

Ichiro song: Death Cab’s Gibbard pitches Ichiro a
musical sendoff

Photos: Ichiro’s
first game in a NY uniform

Brought to you by

Mariners Pitching Matchup

Tue, Jul 26 @ 4:00 pm
Mariners
Felix Hernandez, RHP
Pirates
Francisco Liriano, LHP

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