July 10th: Word begins to spread that Ichiro and the Mariners agreed on a five-year extension.
(It's late and I'm not going to do this moment justice, but I can't sleep, so here I am.)
For months, the Seattle Mariners were regarded as little but a temporary placeholder. They were the team whose only question, whose only storyline for 2007 was whether it would trade Ichiro at the deadline or risk "losing him for nothing" in free agency after the season. The possibility of an extension was always mentioned, but never realistically - by and large, it was assumed that the M's would be out of the picture by 2008. And this made us uneasy, because with Ichiro's people not talking, the only voices we had to listen to were the voices telling us that Ichiro was going away.
The Mariners refused to discuss ongoing negotiations, and so with each passing day we grew more and more nervous. Even while the team was winning for the first time in years, we found ourselves keeping an eye towards the future. Was this really going to be our last stand with the most popular player in franchise history? What on earth would the team look like without him? We entered the break both enthralled and uncertain.
Then, on the afternoon of the All Star Game, the always awesome Larry Stone broke the news.
An agreement is said to be imminent. Though it is not yet signed, all sides appear to be in agreement in principle on the parameters of the deal, which would run through the 2012 season.
Maybe it was Hargrove's resignation. Maybe it was the winning. Maybe it was Jason Ellison. Maybe it was all of those things, or none of them. But somehow, some way, Bill Bavasi and the Mariners had convinced Ichiro to stick around. And for us - while we kind of got an inkling that the team's success might help make up his mind, it still came as a total surprise and a magnificent relief. The drama was over. This guy was all ours.
It's funny. Ordinarily, whenever the M's make a move, the first thing we all do is look at what they paid. But Ichiro transcended all that. There was hardly any discussion about the size of his contract, because the fact that he just had a contract was enough, and the rest was secondary. You can argue the dollars and years for someone like Carlos Silva or Jarrod Washburn, because if you fall short of landing either guy, you can just go find a capable substitute somewhere else. But there is no replacement for Ichiro. Maybe you could approximate what he contributes on the field, but in terms of the overall package, no one comes close to providing the same experience. This is a guy that no Mariners fan was prepared to live without, and that was made abundantly clear once we got word of the extension.
I don't mean to suggest, however, that the extension was a little too rich. That's probably the funniest thing about the whole deal. We rip on the Mariners all the time for badly overpaying the players they want, but then when they go and give the biggest contract in the history of the organization, they're right on the money. You don't even have to listen to the people who justify the price by talking about all the extra revenue Ichiro brings the team; the price is justifiable based solely on Ichiro's production. He's a top-5 center fielder who plays good defense and carries an unblemished track record of health. He's worth the contract. No matter what Dave Samson says. (And I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me why we should ever care about what Dave Samson has to say ever.)
An afternoon that was initially one of rest from a wild summer almost instantly became an afternoon of celebration. At last a substantial weight had been lifted from our backs, and we were able to focus on what was turning into a promising season. And what better way to cap the day off than by watching Ichiro go 3-3 in the All Star Game with an inside-the-parker and an MVP award? Jeanne Zelasko asked him in the postgame ceremony how he felt, and hinted to the crowd that he could sign with San Francisco as a free agent. Ichiro laughed. And we laughed along with him, because for the first time in as long as he'd been a Mariner, we knew exactly what Ichiro was thinking.