TOKYO — The two players and their manager walked through the underground tunnel that took them from the basement of the Tokyo Dome to the banquet room floor of the Tokyo Dome Hotel. The threesome chatted a little as a series of Major League Baseball and Mariners staff members served as chaperones for the short trip.
The two Japanese stars knew what was going to happen once they walked through the doors and what/who was awaiting them.
The manager? Yeah, not so much.
This wasn’t your ordinary news conference. Mariners manager Scott Servais found that out quickly as he followed Ichiro and Yusei Kikuchi into a room where a mass of photographers, television cameras and reporters — more than 100 people — waited for them.
The staccato sound of cameras snapping photos became overwhelming and the flashes made Servais’ eyes squint. The Mariners and Athletics might be playing two exhibition games against teams from Nippon Professional Baseball and then squaring off for two regular-season games to open the 2019 season, but for the people of Japan, MLB’s latest foray into Tokyo is all about Ichiro and Kikuchi — the decorated, declining star and the talented newcomer.
“I heard that from a media standpoint it was going to be a kind of like a World Series,” Servais said. “I can’t imagine a World Series news conference having more people in the room. You sort of expect it, but until you get into it and realize the impact (Ichiro) has had on Japanese baseball and how excited people are to see him and Kikuchi as well, it’s just going to be fun. It will get loud here as the week goes on. It should be exciting baseball.”
The news conference offered an interesting juxtaposition of the two Japanese stars. The difference in their age and their MLB experience as well as their immediate future was the impetus for the varied responses.
Ichiro made a few random jokes and sarcastic comments about dealing with jet lag, his teammates and himself and then became introspective in other answers.
“I didn’t do well during spring training,” Ichiro said without mentioning his .080 average in Cactus League play. “Based on that, I shouldn’t be here. But fortunately, I am Japanese. So I am at advantage in that sense, right?”
Conversely, Kikuchi was honest and direct, if not verbose, about everything in his answers.
“I am very excited,” Kikuchi said. “When I signed with the Mariners, I was told that our opening series will be in Japan. I was very excited and prepare myself for this series. I hope I can play well.”
That innocence is something Ichiro pointed out.
“You are very earnest, Kikuchi,” Ichiro said unprompted after a Kikuchi answer.
Kikuchi jokingly responded: “Please give me advice to respond to this kind of question.”
Kikuchi mentioned taking advice and suggestions from Ichiro, among others, about playing in MLB. Ichiro pointed out: “I advised him only because he asked me for my advice, so I never volunteered it for him, OK?”
Later, Ichiro reminded the media to actually ask questions to “his manager” too.
Ichiro is the most accomplished baseball player in Japanese history — and a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer. And yet, there is no real certainty as to when you can start planning for his election and induction because he won’t officially retire. At his news conference at spring training, he had no interest in discussing when he might retire.
“I am not used to questions like this,” he answered to the second query of his future.
And yet he did say this of the opportunity to play in Japan with the Mariners:
“This is great for me. So I will treasure every moment here on the field. And one week after this event, I will be reflecting back on these days so I will make sure I remember every moment here in Japan.”
Was that a hint to something more?
In the Mariners’ last trip to Japan, in 2012, when Ichiro was still an everyday player and a star based on more than just past accomplishments, he did not participate in news conferences open to all media.
Given his reluctance to discuss a future that will be imposed on him against his will, it was surprising he did relent and participate in the news conference. Perhaps in his mind, he knows and accepts what he is unwilling to say in public: that an end is near.
Multiple Mariners sources have said he will be removed from the Mariners’ active and 40-man roster some time after the Japan trip and before the home opener at T-Mobile Park. But Ichiro wasn’t about to discuss such an ending.
Servais tried to respond to a question about Ichiro’s future on the 25-man roster without giving a real, definitive answer.
“From our standpoint, certainly it’s a privilege to have Ichiro back with us,” Servais said. “Being around him the entire year, last year, it was really impactful what he brought to our team. Now, looking ahead to 2019 and where we are at, we are really taking it a day at a time.
“Looking at our two games here against Oakland, Ichiro will be on our 25-man roster. He’ll be available in those games and we’ll see how it goes. It really is a day-at-a-time situation. He’s had an unbelievable career. He’s had an unbelievable career. I’m so fortunate at this point in my career to manage him and learn from him and his insights into baseball. We are looking forward to the first two games against Oakland, and we’ll take it from there.”
The A’s found out just who is the focus of this trip in their own news conference Saturday morning, which kicked off MLB’s six-day baseball showcase in Japan. Instead of being asked about replicating their magical 97-victory season from a year ago, they were mostly asked questions about Ichiro’s place in baseball and their expectations for facing Kikuchi in the second game of the series.
The two teams held workouts with media availability at the Tokyo Dome in preparation for two exhibition games. The Mariners will play the Yomiuri Giants twice, while the A’s will play the Nippon Ham Fighters twice. From a baseball standpoint, it was a useful day to shake off the fatigue of a 12-hour flight and also to test out the dome’s new artificial turf, which Seattle second baseman Dee Gordon called the “slowest turf I’ve ever seen.”
From a media standpoint, the Mariners garnered the attention because of Ichiro and Kikuchi. Their teammates have seen the media throng that has followed Ichiro and Kikuchi all spring, but it was nothing like the greeting at Haneda Airport where fans and media lined the concourse.
“We got off that plane and there were cameras everywhere,” said Mariners reliever Hunter Strickland. “It’s surprising, but at the same time they are legends over here, which they fully deserve.”
It continued at the Tokyo Dome. Two youth teams from Tokyo had the chance to be on the field for batting practice. In their full uniforms, they waited for Ichiro and Kikuchi to appear on the field after the news conference. When Ichiro finally walked out of the dugout and onto the field, pandemonium ensued. The kids and photographers converged on him — the kids wanted autographs, while photographers tried to chronicle it all.
Meanwhile Kikuchi appeared from the dugout as the chaos reigned in front of him. Not that he was trying for one, but he had a clear, camera-free path to the field. Only one of the youth players noticed him and sprinted over to shake his hand, which Kikuchi happily obliged. The kid then ran to his teammates and boasted of his solo experience.
Wherever Ichiro or Kikuchi went, the media followed, chronicling their every move.
“They are gods over here,” said Seattle’s Wade LeBlanc, who spent the 2015 season in Japan with the Seibu Lions. “I can’t imagine what’s that like to walk around the city and try to go out to dinner. They are bigger than rock stars are in America and it’s crazy to think about and it’s hard to wrap your mind around it.”
And it will only continue for the rest of their time in Japan.