Ichiro’s future production might be questioned but what you can’t debate is the genuine respect Ichiro has earned within the game for both his perseverance and production.
PEORIA, Ariz. – Ichiro was nowhere to be seen in Mariners camp on Tuesday, but his aura preceded his expected arrival Wednesday.
A large contingent of Japanese media spent most of the day staking out the parking lot, just in case Ichiro showed up. Boxes of equipment sat in front of the locker that will soon be his, as identified by the familiar No. 51 jersey hanging in it. Ichiro’s long-time interpreter, Allen Turner, showed up at the complex in the afternoon, and top-level Mariners brass were on hand.
The only thing missing was the official announcement that Ichiro had been signed, and the man himself, as the team ironed out the final details of the anticipated one-year major-league contract. But the most tangible representation of Ichiro’s pending arrival was readily evident – the buzz that rippled through the Mariners players.
“Just look at the clubhouse – I think everyone is excited about him,’’ said Felix Hernandez. “It’s good.”
You can debate the wisdom of bringing in a 44-year-old player to fill an outfield need. What you can’t debate is the genuine respect Ichiro has earned within the game for both his perseverance and production, and the reverence he has garnered from many of those who played with him.
That includes Dee Gordon, his teammate the past three years in Miami, who began playfully chanting, “I-chi-ro! I-chi-ro!” as he approached his own locker in the morning.
“I’m pretty excited,’’ Gordon said later. “It was awesome playing with him. Ichi was awesome. He’s always been great to me. He was great to those guys over there as well. Just to be with him again is pretty cool.”
No one has had a longer relationship with Ichiro since he left the Mariners in 2012 than reliever David Phelps, who has been uniquely aligned with him his entire career. Phelps was on the Yankees when Ichiro played there from 2012 through 2014; both left for the Marlins in 2015 and played there together three more years. And now once more Phelps and Ichiro are reunited — and it feels so good.
“I actually texted Allen Turner yesterday when I saw the rumors coming out, and I couldn’t be more excited,’’ Phelps said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play with him since 2012. What he brings to a clubhouse and team is just incredible. I’ve grown to become incredibly fond of him, not only as a player, but as a person. So it’s a very welcome addition.”
The fact that Ichiro and Phelps keep following each other around the major leagues has not gone unnoticed, nor unappreciated.
“It’s something I’ve talked about with family quite a bit,’’ Phelps said. “I’ve been blessed to play with a lot of incredible players throughout my career, whether it was my time in New York, Miami or here. And there has been one constant on all three teams now. Being able to watch him day in and day out, he’s the kind of teammate you tell your kids about.”
Indeed, talking to various Mariners players, there is a level of awe mixed in with the natural curiosity over what Ichiro still has to offer. It’s not often that a player with more than 3,000 career hits – and more than 4,000 when you add in the 1,278 he had in Japan – joins your team. And it’s especially not common to have someone who is playing his 27th season of professional baseball.
Those who were there when Ichiro was with the Mariners before – and that’s a small group that includes Hernandez, Kyle Seager, Hisashi Iwakuma, Erasmo Ramirez and hitting coach Edgar Martinez – all marvel at his routine and work ethic. They believe it will be a positive example to both veterans and youngsters alike.
“From what I remember of Ichiro, there wasn’t anybody that worked harder,’’ said Seager. “There wasn’t anybody that took better care of himself. You bring a guy like that, a professional that works that hard and takes good care of himself, that’s got to have a good effect on everybody.”
Seager joked about being kicked out of the batting cage by Ichiro early in his career, but said that it was just another example of his work ethic.
“Just the way he goes about his job on a daily basis, there’s just so much beauty to it because it’s to a T,’’ Phelps said. “Every single thing he does has a purpose, and it just goes to show you how much he respects this game and the people that are in it.”
Ben Gamel and Mitch Haniger both said they were eager to soak up Ichiro’s outfield knowledge. So was Gordon, a recent convert to center field after playing infield his entire career.
“For me, it will be a lot of learning in the outfield,’’ Gordon said. “I’m definitely going to be looking to him to be lending a helping hand at all times for myself.”
Gordon, with a twinkle in his eye, intimated that he might have had advance knowledge of Ichiro’s signing, which was precipitated by an injury to Gamel that left the Mariners short of healthy outfielders. Asked if he was surprised to hear that Ichiro was coming back to Seattle, he answered quickly.
“Nope. He played here and he was one of the best to ever play here. With him not having a job, it kind of seemed like, why haven’t they done it? I’m glad they did it.”
Added Phelps, “I didn’t want that to be the end for him. I didn’t want his last time wearing a major-league uniform to be his last game in Miami this past year. I’ve been fortunate enough now to be around multiple guys who have announced their retirement early in the season and have gotten warm welcomes everywhere. He deserves that the last time he steps on a major-league field to get a standing ovation.”
The biggest question, of course, is whether Ichiro’s presence will be largely ceremonial, a living legend offering counsel and example but not much production. If that’s the case, the decision to sign him will ultimately be viewed cynically by many. But Hernandez said, “I tell you one thing, he’s not going to come over here and not produce. He’s going to produce. I’m happy to have him back here. It’s going to be good for us.”
And Phelps came down emphatically on the side of Ichiro as a player still with much to offer, even at age 44.
“Absolutely,’’ he said. “I’ve seen it first-hand, as a teammate the last couple of years in Miami. He’s done an incredible job embracing the role he has. He’s embraced where he’s at in the game now. That’s one of the more beautiful things. But you also see his passion day in and day out. That’s the most evident thing. There’s no doubt in my mind he still has something left.”
The wait for Ichiro’s arrival will resume today, presumably with the payoff of an actual sighting. But it’s clear that the prospect of Ichiro as a Mariner has sent a jolt through this camp.