Ichiro will transition into a role deemed "Special Assistant to the Chairman," where he will work with the Mariners' major-league staff and front office. But his agent insists Ichiro is not retiring.
When Ichiro jogged to left field just minutes before first pitch on Wednesday night at Safeco Field, only he and a handful of other people, including manager Scott Servais, general manager Jerry Dipoto, managing partner and chairman John Stanton, knew that it would be his final game of the 2018 season.
So when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with the Mariners trailing 3-2 and two runners on base, those who knew that it was his final at-bat of the year, hoped for one more magical moment from his black Mizuno bat. It didn’t happen. Ichiro struck out and the Mariners eventually lost 3-2.
“Knowing what I knew and what Ichiro knew, last night when he came up to bat in the ninth inning I was really hopeful this was a storybook finish to his 2018 and I was so disappointed when it wasn’t,” Dipoto said. “But he’s provided us with a lot of good feeling. I didn’t know Ichiro the first trip around, but I can’t imagine a player in that clubhouse garnering more respect than he does right now.”
Now he’s “transitioning” to a new role for the remainder of this season. On Thursday, the iconic outfielder was removed from the Mariners’ 25-man roster and assigned a new job in the organization — “Special Assistant to the Chairman.” It’s a decision that was made on Monday, but also had been discussed when Ichiro was signed as a free agent during spring training.
“When we engaged in this process with Ichiro, the understanding was that effectively we had the month of April to determine where this led us, and that we would re-assess once we got into May,” Dipoto said. “We sat down, we re-assessed, and we always had in mind an exit plan, so to speak. And the exit plan was making sure Ichiro remained a part of the Mariners. And not just a part of the Mariners in 2018, but beyond.”
So what exactly does the Special Assistant to the Chairman do?
From the Mariners’ release announcing the role change: “Ichiro will work in collaboration with the Mariners’ Major League staff, High Performance staff and Front Office personnel. He will assist, based on his experience, with outfield play, baserunning and hitting. And he will provide mentorship to both players and staff.”
That’s a pretty wide-ranging definition. In the simpler terms, Ichiro will do everything like he has done as a player, except actually being eligible to play in games. He’ll travel everywhere with the team. He’ll be in uniform pregame. He’ll participate in the normal pregame workouts, including taking batting practice and shagging fly balls. But once the game begins, by MLB rule, he’s not allowed to be in the dugout.
A non-playing, player-coach?
“My title has changed,” he said through interpreter Allen Turner. “But from the outside, I think you’re just not going to see me in the dugout during games. I want to be able to help in any way I can. I’m not going to be the one going up to guys saying this or that. I’ll be there for anybody. I’m going to be practicing and hitting on the field and doing all of that. During the game I will be doing the same preparations I’ve been doing the entire time. Nothing is going to change for me that I did as a player. But I can’t say for certain that maybe I won’t put on a beard and glasses and be like Bobby Valentine and be in the dugout.”
But let’s be clear. He’s NOT retiring.
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“When I start using a cane, that’s a time that I think I should retire,” he said.
There was no mention of retirement in the press release. His agent made that clear in a statement to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic and other national writers.
“He is not retiring. He is taking on a different role for 2018, and 2019 has yet to evolve,” Boggs told Rosenthal.
Dipoto also made sure to note that Ichiro isn’t retiring.
“This doesn’t close the door on Ichiro’s playing career, I’d like to make that clear,” he said. “We intend that whenever is the appropriate time for Ichiro to retire, that that will happen as a Mariner. But we don’t think we’re at that point yet either.”
Ichiro isn’t ready to be done. This new role allows him to continue to work out and prepare for another chance to play next season.
“If that opportunity, that chance wasn’t there, I don’t think I could be in the situation where I’m at now where I can continue to work and be in this role,” he said. “Obviously I’m in a different situation now, but I definitely see myself playing again and that’s why I’m going to continue to practice and work to do the things I need to do to continue to get better. It’s hard for me to imagine not playing.”
Officially, Ichiro hasn’t been added to the voluntary retirement list. He’s no longer on the 40-man roster. Dipoto wouldn’t give the exact details of the transaction, but did admit another team could sign him to a contract, though that is unlikely to happen. He also won’t return to the team even if they need another outfielder.
“Not this season,” Dipoto said. “This closes the book on Ichiro’s 2018 with the Mariners. But we don’t suspect this closes the book on Ichiro’s career as a player, and potentially a player with the Mariners.”
Oh really? Like perhaps a player with the Mariners when they play two exhibition games and then open the season with a two-game series in Japan?
“Could be,” Dipoto said. “We’ll address that when it comes. Obviously as a special assistant there are no promises we can make in that regard. We are leaving that door open. We are dealing with such a unique player who does things that no other player really has ever done. And we want to be respectful of his time and his comfort zone and the way he can make the greatest impact to this team is by being with this team. We’re going to make sure we create that space for him, however we have to.”
Ichiro smiled when asked about the possibility of playing with the Mariners in Japan.
“Of course,” he said. “That’s kind of far away but it’s a far goal that I think I can work toward. I can continue to work and have that goal.
Right-handed pitcher Erik Goeddel has been selected from AAA Tacoma to fill his spot on the 25-man roster.
Ichiro, 44, has 3,089 career hits, including 2,542 as a Mariner, which is 22nd most in baseball. After notching 1,278 hits during his nine years (1992—2000) with the Orix Blue Wave of Japan’s Pacific League, Ichiro has a combined 4,367 hits between MLB and Japan. He is one of seven players to collect at least 3,000 hits and 500 stolen bases in the Major Leagues, joining Lou Brock, Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor and Honus Wagner.
He joined the Mariners in 2001, the last Seattle team to reach the postseason. That storied team tied the major-league record of 116 wins, with Ichiro leading the way.
He led the American League with a .350 batting average while amassing 242 hits, the most for a rookie since 1930. He led the majors with 56 stolen bases and was named the American League Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year, while also earning a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger. The only other player to win the MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season was Boston’s Fred Lynn (1975).
In his each of first 10 seasons with the Mariners, Ichiro surpassed the 200-hit mark, including the 2004 season, where he racked up 262 hits in 161 games, surpassing the then 84-year-old record of 257 hits in a season held by George Sisler. He was named to the All-Star Game in those first 10 seasons, while earning Gold Glove awards in each of those seasons.
With the Mariners in the midst of a losing season in 2012 and the future not looking good, Ichiro asked for a trade to the Yankees. That deal happened while the Yankees were playing at Safeco Field. Ichiro simply switched clubhouses and walked onto the field in a different uniform a day later.
He played two more seasons with the Yankees before playing the last three with the Marlins as a part-time player. He reached the career milestone of 3,000 hits on Aug. 7, 2016, and most observers expect he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.