<  Shannon Drayer

The Ichiro I wish we could have gotten to know better

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.

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.

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Photos: Ichiro's first game in a NY uniform


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