Behold, Ichiro. Then notice the puss that the wily man from Japan is sporting in this picture that signals his new deal with the Marlins. This is not the look of a man who is HAPPY about his new $2M deal. It is the look of a future Baseball Hall of Famer who is doing what he must to extend his stellar career and rack up those hits/milestones. Kudos to the Marlins for flying to Tokyo for the press conference. We just want to know right now what the Hall of Fame officials have in store for Ichi-balls' induction plaque cap. Yankees or Mariners? It better be the M's!
The guy at the top of the Mariners' dugout was relaying hand signals like he was directing jets down a busy airport tarmac. When the outfielders didn't respond exactly to his liking, the coach, Andy Van Slyke, dog-whistled a piercing blast. The center fielder, a likable, fast, skinny kid named James Jones, finally took a few steps back.
There. That's where I want you, Van Slyke indicated with his big paw, then set about re-positioning shortstop, Brad Miller, to take a step closer to second base.
The Seattle Mariners may be coached by Lloyd McClendon -- a calm, no-nonsense professional who deserves credit for ably exceeding the low expectations of the Mariners fan base -- but Van Slyke is the animated field general you see inning-by-inning helping to coax the best angle on every play on a team no one thought would be able to hang around at .500 -- or better. Watching Van Slyke orchestrate the Mariners' alignment on defense, or coach first base on offense, and throw candy into the crowd behind the dugout between innings, I found myself oddly reconnecting to a sport that had, for some years, lost its intimacy, its vibrancy, a reason to really care.
As a former sports writer, I had long grown disenchanted with the over-bearing, bloated and blaring world of professional sports. The stadium subsidies at taxpayer expense; the use and regulation of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs; the bandboxes built for home runs ... for a while, baseball seemed like an endless loop of Alex Rodriguez bloopers playing on a Jumbotron over a Diamondbacks stadium swimming pool filled with 9.75 bottles of Lite beer. I never found Albert Pujols very charming, nor had any sense why Mike Trout was worthy of my undying respect, even though I know he's got the coveted five tools, or at least four.
It had been years since I had any bandwidth to devote to watching Major League Baseball, or any pro league, for that matter. Given the dollars and lack of sense that accompanies the economics and out-sized role sports can play in a world gone mad, it was indulgent, I thought, to "waste" time quibbling over trades, batting averages or whether by spending $240 million for Robinson Cano, the Mariners were copping to paying too much for a marquee player when, in fact, they needed to build out a farm system and allocate resources for a more balanced team.
Now, though, after really realizing that "my guys" were in charge of teams like the Mariners, I figure who the hell cares?
Part of that change of heart comes from seeing Van Slyke, the Gold Glove outfielder from the Pittsburgh Pirates, installed in the Mariners coaching squad alongside the likes of former Mets third baseman Howard Johnson. These guys are my age, or thereabouts, and have caused a new rise of sports sentimentalism in me based almost entirely on the premise that since we have already gone through the 1980s and 90s together, it's like old-home week to see these familiar faces -- or names -- populating the sidelines as coaches. So we ought to go through the first part of the 21st century together, too. It's why the loss of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn to cancer today was such a blow. Who was a better ambassador? Who better to teach the players at San Diego State?
I know they're not playing the games, and I know that no matter how great Van Slyke was, there is very little he is going to be able to do to get Brad Miller's batting average to get up over .200. Still, the presence of these MLB stars and stalwarts now in charge of a new generation of players does help breed a level of comfort, of familiarity, of relationship to an organization that has failed to give a whiff of deep baseball competency since the departure of manager Lou Piniella and general manager Pat Gillick.
Likewise, it's not a bad indication of my willingness to accept my own advancing age to feel more warmly towards the team, simply because the coaches were great players that I spent so much time watching back before I fell out of step with the game.
I don't know if I would be as eager to see the Mariners play if they weren't being guided by ballplayers who I considered to be some of my personal favorites. HoJo was part of the Mets' 1986 World Series winning team. Van Slyke was one of the most consistently outstanding outfielders to ever play when he was with the Pirates. Even when he beat the Mets with a throw or a hit, there was respect for a player with that much skill, that much passion and drive.
To me, the Mariners have unwittingly given a generation of middle aged baseball fans reasons to cheer. I'm happy the team is hanging around in the American League West. I'm more happy to see some key players from my generation are out there, gesticulating and whistling, showing the kids how it's done.
Well, you will NOT be alone. Lots of people move from New York to Seattle. Look at Howard Schultz, and he didn't come equipped with a $252 million contract, just an idea about tall, grande and venti.
Speaking of that $252 million contract, or $240 million. Whatever. Jay-Z reportedly blew into town Thursday and demanded an extra year from Mariners President Howard Lincoln after he thought you all were good with 9 years at $225M. Word is that Howard allegedly blew up at this hostage-taking move, but maybe things really got bad when Jay-Z taunted the Mariners with this: "Just might let you meet Ye." I mean, maybe Kanye and Kim named their kid North West because, well, you all were looking for a deal up in this neck of the NW woods?
Whatever did happen last night in downtown Seattle between you and the M's, I would have loved to have been in the room for that exchange. The Mariners open their wallets for you, Robbie, the way they tried to do for Griffey, Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez -- who went to Texas for the exact $252 million contract all those years ago -- and they get Jay-Z making them crawl through the infield dirt for your services. Who said Scott Boras was the only greedy kingpin looking to humiliate baseball teams?
Jay-Z is a power player, no doubt. He's got Barneys, where even racial profiling by the clothing store won't stop the rap king from plowing forward with his partnership. He's got Beyonce, whose allure as an entertainer mystifies me, but Jay put a ring on it and now look at her. The two of them off shopping for mansions in Miami, going vegan. I think maybe Jay-Z wants in on Seattle since its got legal weed. He can "no papers, just vapors" himself into bliss every time he drops in on you, though I draw the line at ANY talk of Jay/Bey looking for a waterfront home in Medina or Mercer Island or Juanita. Stay in NYC, folks. Just let us have you, Robbie. We will forget the amateur-hour negotiations by Mr. Marcy Project and move forward.
See, Seattle can be a baseball town. It was, for like 6.8 years. Between 1995 and 2002, another former Yankee, Lou Piniella, was somehow persuaded to move from Florida/New York and take over this perennial pathetic franchise. And we all know what happened there. Piniella goaded the front office to surround Ken Griffey, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez with key utility and role players (Luis Sojo, Vince Coleman, Norm Charlton) and wound up in the post-season, including the American League Championship Series in 1995 and 2001. Good times, until Piniella and Pat Gillick decided they'd had enough. Piniella went back to Tampa, and he declined the M's overtures to return when asked in October 2013, but I still see Pat Gillick walking around Magnolia, on the phone, the eternal scout.
That's one thing that you will find interesting about Seattle. A lot of players like to LIVE here, but hate playing here. Or dislike it, because the air travel means that the Mariners fly about 25 percent more than any other MLB club. It's just a long freaking ride to get out of the Pacific Northwest. I mean, sometimes I understand how hallucinations can set in about being able to see Russia from Alaska. I mean, we can see North Korea from Elliott Bay, and Japan from Everett. We are THIS close to OTHER countries but, when it comes to road trips, man, it's a good thing Boeing is located here, I think it still is, because Seattle NEEDS its planes.
That was one thing that was weird about the Mariners in 2001, after the horrendous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in Shanksville PA. The planes stopped flying over Seattle and it got VERY VERY quiet here. Even more quiet than usual. But, in the aftermath of that horrific attack, it was the Mariners who kind of helped snap Seattle back into reality, into a ordinary day-to-day life. I can remember the way Mark McLemore and Mike Cameron took to the field after the 2001 season started up again. It was the franchise's 25th anniversary season. The Mariners were on their way to a 116-46 record -- an incredible feat for a team that had long been the 1962 Mets forever and ever. The Mariners were very much part of the city's vibe and identity. The players and new stadium and the daily theater was a decent antidote to the nervous despair we all felt after witnessing, experiencing such a startling act of terror.
That seems like yesterday. But then again, like a long time ago. In the wake of such a terrible event, the eventual defections of Seattle's star players seemed inevitable. Alex Rodriguez couldn't wait to leave. He talked about the Dodgers and Braves, maybe the Yankees or Mets, but he ended up taking the money from Tom Hicks at the Texas Rangers. That was an insult. The Rangers!? Griffey wanted to go back to Cincinnati, have spring training near his home in Orlando. Who could blame him? By the time he came back for a swan song, Griffey's say hey days here were over. He quit. It was kind of bummer. But Griffey is still a complicated but lovable native son here in Seattle, a place he lauds as being inclusive, not caring about color or economics or anything. Everyone here can just chill.
Outside of the huge contract extension given to ace pitcher Felix Hernandez, I can't think of any other contract or free-agent signing that comes anywhere close to the deal that the M's just gave you, or gave Jay-Z for you. This is truly BIG. This puts you at the center of a franchise that needs an anchor. I, for one, hope you do a lot better than Carlos Beltran did when the Mets signed him to that big deal. I hope that this deal is sort of like the one the Orioles did with Miguel Tejada in 2004. The Orioles were mired in the longstanding Peter Angelos quasi-muddle, and no single player was going to turn them into a World Series team. However, I think you can be the catalyst for energy, for a sense of professionalism, for optimism. The team needs you. The city will worship you if you can provide the star power and ballast, the hits and the glove to a foundering franchise that just has the hardest time keeping or attracting free agents.
Anyway, as much as I hate to admit it -- since it took an obscene amount of money to get you here -- I think this is a great move. I don't care that you will be 40 when you are at the end of this 10-year deal. I don't care that Jay-Z has become ubiquitously obnoxious. I don't care that rap and baseball are dovetailing in a power-broker melange that will surely alienate some of the diehard old fans of "The National Pastime." It's just that when you have a major league baseball team in town and there are 81 home games every season and the weather is nice and the Yankees or Red Sox are in town, it's nice to have an All-Star on the field for every out, making it feel like your team can compete. You're bringing Seattle talent, star power, credibility.
As laid back and too-cool-for-school as people are out here, we kind of got used to our Gary Paytons, our Griffeys, our Shawn Kemps and Kevin Durants and Ichiros. And as lucky as Seattle is to have Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks; as juiced as we are about Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and the Sounders, baseball is different. Baseball is every day. It is a game and a soap opera that requires a leading man to be in every frame, every play.
I'm flashing forward now, wondering what happens over the course of your tenure here; all the photos that will be snapped; all the TV commercials you'll star in; the rumors about where you'll live (Hey, Tim Lincecum is selling his condo at the Escala. You want it?)
You will like it here. I mean, Bill Russell still lives here. Lenny Wilkens. Mel Stottlemyer, Omar Vizquel, too. Today, Vizquel, the potential Hall of Fame second baseman, sounded kind of floored by your decision, and the decision by the Mariners to spend so much on you. He thinks it was kind of, well, stupid.
But, here you are. I wonder how long it will take for you ask yourself the same thing that Vizquel said: "What's he thinking?" I hope you never do, but, after the rush of the $252 million comes the long, hard slog of the season, or 10 of them.
Welcome aboard. We're here for you, Robbie. But Seattle is a long way from New York and the jet lag takes years to get over.
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.