Ichiro said he thinks the Mariners' uniform is the last he'll ever wear, but wouldn't specify anything beyond the moment.
PEORIA, Ariz. — At a distance, he looked just like anyone else in a Mariners uniform in the Saturday afternoon sunshine.
In fact, he moved better than the average player, running a little bit harder and faster than most. The arm produced throws that maybe aren’t quite “something out of Star Wars” but are just as crisp and often more accurate than those around him.
And the swing? Well the technique has remained the same through all these years — the upright stance, the head perfectly still while the body is moving, the bat head staying impossibly long through the strike zone.
He seemed able to compete in a young man’s game, even though he stopped being one about 20 years ago.
It isn’t until you see him up close that you are really reminded he’s a 45-year-old man who has been running around with a bunch of guys in their mid-20s without somehow looking out of place. His brush cut and stubble that were once jet black now have almost too much gray to be considered “salt and pepper.”
This isn’t revelatory, but Ichiro isn’t just anyone else.
A player of similar skill set and age wouldn’t be in any team’s MLB spring training unless he was serving as a coach. But the circumstances around this particular organization and this legendary player, whose best years came in Seattle, have allowed it to happen.
It’s fair to be critical of the situation, of the reasons and of the Mariners for bringing back Ichiro once again after last year’s dalliance resulted in a forgettable 15 games of baseball where he hit .205 with a .460 on-base plus slugging percentage. It was followed by an odd conversion to a “front office” role that allowed him to wear a uniform, travel with the team and participate in a pregame workout every day. Most front-office jobs aren’t quite like that.
And now he returns for another season, not as the special assistant to the chairman, but as an outfielder, who signed a split minor-league/major-league contract with an invite to spring training.
“Ichi is in and ready to go,” manager Scott Servais said. “He takes it as serious as anybody in that room. That’s what has allowed him to keep playing all these years. He’ll be out there running around and have as much energy, if not more, than the rest of the guys. It’s just how he’s wired. We’ll get him ready to go. He’s always ready. He’s working out almost every day of the year. It’s just what makes Ichiro, Ichiro.”
After his first workout, Ichiro was philosophical about the situation and how long he wants to continue to play.
“I think a 45-year-old baseball player really shouldn’t be thinking about the future,” Ichiro said through interpreter Allen Turner. “It’s about today. I’m very satisfied with today and how it went. I’m just going to take it day by day. Having each day just to continue to do what I do and be able to get to that point when it does come. But right now, I’m only focused on today and taking it day by day.”
In any other year, the odds of making the opening-day roster, even with Ichiro’s past glory, would seem unlikely. But the Mariners are in the midst of a step-back plan where the focus is to build a roster for 2020 and 2021. The 2019 season isn’t a throwaway, but it also isn’t a go-for-it situation.
They also open the 2019 season in Japan in mid-March with two exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants followed by two regular-season games against the Oakland A’s. Because of the early start and the travel, the Mariners can carry 28 players on the active roster for those two regular-season games. General manager Jerry Dipoto said on multiple occasions that Ichiro will travel with the team to Japan and could likely be on the active roster against the A’s.
In the twilight of his career, returning to his home country and playing one last time for the team that helped him reached superstardom in Major League Baseball would be a fitting tribute to his career. But he wouldn’t speculate on such a narrative.
“Of course, that is one of the goals, to be there,” he said. “But right now, it’s not that time to think about. I’m just focused on today and what I can do to get better.”
Last season when Ichiro was asked to transition to his front-office role, Dipoto dangled a return as a player and the trip to Japan as a strong possibility.
“At that point there was talk of the possibility of an opportunity being there,” Ichiro said. “Nothing finalized or set in stone. Just that there was a possibility that would happen. That was a big thing for me, to be able to continue to work. That was a huge part of why I was able to continue to work and do what I did, because I had that opportunity.”
While people wondered why Ichiro would work out so intensely on the field before every game and continue to hit, lift and condition during games, it was so he could try to play one more time this season.
There were still things he missed about not being able to compete in games. Though it’s different than the average player.
“When you play, you always try and play hard and do the best you can,” he said. “Last year I wasn’t playing and I wasn’t able to feel that disappointment from failures that you would go through in a season. That’s something that I missed is not being able to feel that failure and going through the struggles. I wasn’t able to feel that.”
Ichiro remained in Seattle for two months after the season, working out daily at Safeco Field before returning to Japan where he continued to work out.
“I probably took two or three days off,” he said.
During the Mariners’ physicals, he was measured to have 7 percent body fat, which was the lowest of any player in camp.
Servais just shakes his head at the idea of a 45-year-old doing these things.
“I’m not that much older than Ichiro,” he said. “I can’t imagine. I know I get down just doing some of the catching drills or throw BP for 15 minutes a day and I’ll feel it in the morning. It’s amazing. He’s always been very, very, very disciplined and structured in his workouts and that’s why he’s able to keep his body going.”
The Mariners hope the discipline that Ichiro shows in his daily preparation and practice habits will provide some level of inspiration and imitation for the slew of young players in this spring training as part of the offseason shift in the organization’s direction.
“He’ll be a great example for our young players,” Servais said. “Our young guys are going to be blown away, like this guy is how old? How long has he been doing this? That’s why he’s the greatest. He’s awesome.”
Ichiro will be amenable, but not antagonistic about that responsibility.
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“I’m the type that I’m not going to go up to somebody and give them advice or anything, but if they come to me wanting to know something, I’m always there to help anybody, any of the players that want to come,” he said. “That’s how I’ve been. But today, I was talking to Jay Bruce and found out that he was 31. He’s 14 years younger than me. I was pretty shocked about that.”
Yusei Kikuchi is 18 years younger than Ichiro. And as a boy in Japan, he grew up idolizing Ichiro, watching him play for the Mariners on games televised on NHK. When Kikuchi signed, he admitted he was excited to meet his hero for the first time. It happened this offseason a few weeks after Kikuchi’s introductory news conference.
“I’ve only spoken just briefly to him to say hello,” Ichiro said. “I’m sure we’ll have a lot of opportunity to be able to talk and we’ll be able to help him with whatever he needs help with.”
It’s more satisfying than surreal to have someone like Kikuchi, who idolized him as a kid, for a teammate.
“One of my goals when I turned pro is that one day I would play with players that were kids when I was playing,” he said. “Right now I’m at the point where I’m playing with guys that were in grade school while I was playing here. That was one of the goals that I had. Through those years of working hard to be able to be where I’m at today definitely gives me some satisfaction that one of the things that I really wanted to do is right now happening.”
The real question will be what happens when the Mariners return from Japan on March 22 and restart the regular season on March 28 at T-Mobile Park against the World Series champion Red Sox. The Mariners must trim the roster back down to 25 players. And given the structure of the roster and the team’s seasonlong desire to play young players, he doesn’t really fit.
There will have to be some sort of amicable ending or departure.
Ichiro loathes questions about retirement. But he was asked if he thinks the Mariners uniform will be the last he wears as a baseball player?
“Yes, I do,” he said.
But he wouldn’t articulate why it was so important that it is a Mariners uniform.
“If I start talking about those reasons, I think it’s not going to sound good,” he said. “It’s something that people can think about and come up with their reasons why. If I said the reasons, I don’t want it to come off as a small or light reason — something that is not serious. That’s how much I think it’s better off not to say. I want it to mean a lot. I don’t think words can say how I feel.”